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Sergey Brin’s Lucky Break

Sergey Brin

For years, this poster for Spike Lee’s 25th Hour has hung in our office. It asks a simple but striking question: Can you change your whole life in a day?

We start here for two reasons. First: this piece is very un-technical. Second and more importantly: it strikes us that Sergey Brin’s entire life, and therefore Google as we know it, did depend upon the choices of a single day.

Sergey was born in Moscow in 1973 to Eugenia and Michael Brin (a Ph.D. mathematician). Dr. Brin is the true center of our story here.

Let’s just say that the USSR didn’t have a glowing opinion of Jews. Even if anti-semitism wasn’t officially part of the Soviet ethos, it was certainly an administrative and cultural reality. From the very beginning of his own life as a Russian Jew, Dr. Brin was a second-class citizen; he wanted to be an astronomer, but was not allowed to study astronomy because that falls under Physics, and Soviet leaders didn’t trust Jews anywhere near nuclear research (also under Physics).

Even to be accepted for studying Math, the odds were stacked against Dr. Brin—but he did get accepted and then graduated in 1970. He wasn’t allowed to go to grad school, but he figured out that he could earn a (legitimate) Ph.D. mostly on his own as long as he completed all of the requirements. So, over the next few years, he did just that.

Sergey was born during this time. And he was too young to remember this himself, but one day in the summer of 1977, his father came home and said “We cannot stay here any more.

On that day, Dr. Brin was coming home from a mathematics conference in Warsaw—the first he’d been able to attend outside of Russia. Prior to that conference, he’d been conditioned to believe that his Western peers were brutes and monsters… and then he saw that they weren’t. He listened to them as they told him about the liberties, opportunities, and comforts in their home countries. In short: he saw life beyond the Iron Curtain, which the Kremlin had not wanted him to truly see.

Even so, this wasn’t the Fateful Day in question, because there was another pickle facing the Brins: you had to apply for an exit visa to emigrate out of Russia. To understand how uncomfortable that would be, imagine trying to leave a (Communist) party early, except the door is at the end of a long hallway, and the hallway is stuffed with all of the party’s hosts, and they’re all holding sharp weapons and asking “Where you goin’ there, buddy? You don’t wanna leave, do you?”

Because when you applied for an exit visa in 1970s Russia, it was absolutely NOT true that the worst they could say was no. They might say yes, but merely submitting the paperwork could end up costing you your job and any political privileges. Meanwhile, that bureaucratic process took time—and if the government said No at the end, you were officially SOL&JWF.* An outcast in your own country, what they called a refusenik.

At first, Eugenia didn’t want to leave Moscow. Sergey is the reason she changed her mind.

So on one Fateful Day in September 1978, they formally applied for exit visas. Both of Sergey’s parents promptly lost their jobs, but they made it work until, miraculously, they were granted exit papers in May 1979. The Brins were among the last Jews to leave Russia until the Gorbachev era (more than a decade later) and, after bouncing around Europe for a few months, the Brins finally landed on American soil on October 25th, 1979.

Sergey was six years old. His first memory of the United States is sitting in the back seat of a car, driving away from JFK, looking out the window in awe of all the giant cars on the highway.

Dr. Brin jokes that there have only been two occasions when his children were grateful to him. Sergey’s moment came in 1990, when he was almost 17 and Dr. Brin brought Sergey and a few other students on a two-week exchange to the Soviet Union. Our source article described the moment perfectly:

“It didn’t take long for Sergey, a precocious teenager about to enter college, to size up his former environs. The Soviet empire was crumbling and, in the drab, cinder-block landscape and people’s stony mien of resignation, he could see first-hand the bleak future that would have been his. On the second day of the trip, while the group toured a sanitarium in the countryside near Moscow, Sergey took his father aside, looked him in the eye and said, ‘Thank you for taking us all out of Russia.'”

25th Hour couldn’t have put it better: this life came so close to never happening. Which, apparently, includes the invention of Google too.

Happy birthday, Sergey. We’re glad you made it here. 🤓

* S#!t outta luck and jolly well f**ked. It’s fun to say.




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