Alexander Vasil’ev: Informal biography

Written by Irina Markina and Mauricio Godoy Molina



Alexander Yuriievich Vasil’ev, just Sasha for friends, was born in Saratov (Russia) on the 1st of April 1962. His destiny as a mathematician was predetermined, since the 1st of April in Russia is the day of mathematicians and both of his parents were also mathematicians: his father is a specialist in numerical analysis and his mother was a complex analyst. It was thanks to her influence that Sasha became a mathematician, specializing in complex analysis.

From his early youth, Sasha participated in mathematical olympiads and solved difficult problems that appeared in Soviet magazines for smart children. After finishing the specialized physical-mathematical school, he entered Saratov State University (СГУ), where he graduated with honors in mathematics. Sasha was not only a brilliant mathematician, but also a very bright person with a wide scope of interests and knowledge. This was clear even at the time he was a student, for example, he organized performances in СГУ every 1st of April, which were very popular among students and faculty staff.

For Sasha, his career path as a mathematician was clear after finishing his M.Sc., but unfortunately in the Soviet Union it was not allowed to enter Ph.D. studies at the same university where the parents worked. Sasha could not continue his studies СГУ, since his father worked there, and neither could he at Saratov Pedagogical University, since his mother worked there. The solution was to obtain his Ph.D. from the Saratov State Agrarian University (СГАУ), but being supervised by his former M.Sc. supervisor at СГУ, Dmitry V. Prokhorov.

He successfully finished his Ph.D. in three years, but he had to remain and work at the same university for other three years, due to the conditions of his scholarship. During that period, Sasha had to teach up to 28 hours per week. As a result, he suffered from chronic laryngitis for the rest of his life.

Evidently, Sasha wished to concentrate on research in mathematics for a while, and thus he needed to escape from this teaching load. With this in mind, he found a good opportunity by inscribing in English language courses that were taught in a similar agricultural university at Novosibirsk (Russia), where the big Sobolev Institute of Mathematics is located. There he could attend seminars and interact with some mathematicians working in that institute. That stay in Novosibirsk was also a first step towards a postdoctoral fellowship in China that started in 1991, only a couple of months before the collapse of the Soviet Union (December 26, 1991).

The new government, trying to solve its innumerable financial problems, decided to suspend all fellowships abroad for Ph.D. students and postdocs at that moment. As a result, Sasha and his Russian colleagues had to survive only with the amount of money given by the Chinese counterpart, which was 50 USD per month. This was not a lot of money, since in China at that time there were different prices for local people and for “rich foreigners”. When it became clear that a diet based on one cup of rice and one bottle of beer per day, is not enough to survive – and  having lost 15 kilograms, – Sasha  was fortunate to find an informal job as an actor for Chinese productions in English. Though most films were simple, for example English courses for Chinese people, he was chosen to perform in an art film acting as a Swiss banker, thanks to his beautiful beard. At some point, he was even offered a job as a professional actor, but luckily he refused.

After half a year, it was clear to Sasha that he could not continue in this way, so he and a friend returned illegally to Russia inside a truck carrying goods from northern China to Siberia. Once in Russian territory, they took the trans-Siberian train to Moscow, and then he returned to Saratov. Once there, Sasha realized that the salary of a professor in the transition economical system was not enough to last a week and that bribery and corruption were now normal. For example, while working again in the СГАУ, he got a couple of bunnies as a bribe for a good mark on an exam. Being unable to kill them, he decided to raise bunnies having fun and food. The love for math was more than what СГАУ could offer and five years after, in 1997, he defended his habilitation in Novosibirsk State University (НГУ).

After his habilitation, Sasha started to look for a job abroad, since the economic situation in Russia was not improving.  His contacts informed him that there was an opening for a position of associate professor at Universidad de Los Andes (Colombia). He applied – using email almost for the first time – and got the job.

That was the start of his international mathematical career and his love for Latin America. He developed as a mathematician very quickly in Colombia, thanks to a reasonable teaching load and the possibility of working with prominent international mathematicians like Christian Pommerenke, writing 9 research articles, and a book.

He loved Colombia, enjoying the dancing Fridays, the parties, the national drinks and the national food; but he missed his family that could not be brought to Colombia because of the social unrest.

Pommerenke helped Sasha contact Ruben Hidalgo at Universidad Tecnica Federico Santa Maria (Chile) where a research position was open at that moment. He moved to Chile with his family in the year 2000 and stayed there until 2005. This was the period of strengthening of his research career, his love for pisco sour and Chilean empanadas. He became an active member of the scientific and mathematical community in Chile, writing a book, being awarded many research grants, organizing workshops and conferences. Additionally, he was also a member of the club of wine lovers, organizing parties in his house, inviting numerous guests from all over the world, showing them the beautiful nature of Chile from the Atacama Desert to the Chilean Patagonia.

In 2005 he moved to Norway, where he became full professor at the University of Bergen and the main organizer of the European Network HCAA (Harmonic and Complex Analysis and Applications), uniting fifteen European countries and more than 150 participants.

He and his wife helped building the analysis group in Bergen, making it grow from only one person to the most numerous group of the mathematics department at some point. This group guided numerous B.Sc. students, and graduated nine M.Sc. and seven Ph.D. students. In addition, Sasha founded the journal Analysis and Mathematical Physics (Birkhäuser), of which he was both the Editor-in-Chief and the Managing Editor. He also wrote his third book, and was member of the editorial board of several journals and book series.

All this did not prevent Sasha from enjoying life and developing his creativity outside mathematics. He started brewing his own beer for his friends and students, making home-made yoghurt, fishing and smoking fish, creating a Japanese garden in his front yard, skiing, hiking and just enjoying life and the Norwegian nature.

He passed away in Saint Petersburg, where he was attending a conference in complex analysis and mathematical physics. He was in his hotel room preparing his talk.

Sasha will be forever remembered with love and admiration by his family, colleagues, friends and students.