Sic Transit ... or
Heroes, Villains, and Rights of Memory

Andrei Kolmogorov (1903–1987)

Annotation This is a story of a sharp polemic in Russia on the eve of the 80th anniversary of A. N. Kolmogorov (1903–1987).

April 25, 2003 is the date of the centenary of the birth of Andrei Nikolaevich Kolmogorov. The personality and creative contribution of this genius man to the world science and Russian culture are so eminent that the tiniest bits of recollections of anything related to him might be of avail to those pondering over life and its principles.

For many years I have heard requests of my friends and colleagues to present for the public my whatever partial overview of the circumstances and events invoked by Merzlyakov’s article “The Right of Memory” and in particular the polemic between A. D. Alexandrov and L. S. Pontryagin this article had stirred up. The story to tell is rather ugly and to plunge into it again, reviving the bygones, brings about much discontent and displeasure.

Unfortunately, the historical nihilism of these days intertwines rather tightly with nihilism in morality. “The past crimes are buried in the past. The past is absent at present. Therefore, the past crimes are absent now. So, let bygones be bygones.” This sophism brings about the opinion that nobody could recall and take into account the crimes of the past in view of the period of limitations. This is correct but partly. The murderer remains a murderer for ever irrespective of whether or not he committed a negligent homicide and was relieved from persecution or has served his punishment and lives with no record of conviction. The thief is still a thief although she returned back the things she had pilfered and was relieved from punishment. No fact of assassination or theft is ever destroyed by whatever decisions about it. No error disappears unless it had been repaired. Always evil is to forget the past and its lessons... These arguments drive me to the decision of narrating about this gloomy episode of the past.

Merzlyakov’s article appeared on February 17, 1983 in the newspaper Science in Siberia of the Presidium of the Siberian Division of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Yu. I. Merzlyakov (1940–1995), an established algebraist, a ScD and professor, had a bit of reputation in the theory of rational groups. He was not an ordinary personality devoid of literary and other gifts and so won quite a few admirers. His article served many years as a credo of the Novosibirsk branch of the notorious “Memory” society, an informal nationalistic group sprang to life in the early years of Gorbi’s perestroika.

To grasp the undercurrents of Merzlyakov’s article completely is practically impossible for anyone far from the Russian mathematical life of those days. Moreover, the understanding of and attitude to this text varied drastically from capitals to province. Despite this, all Russian mathematicians clearly saw the implication of the following excerpt of Merzlyakov’s article:

Academician Lev Semënovich Pontryagin is a brilliant exemplar of a scientist and patriot of these days. The International Astronautical Federation elected him an honorary member side by side with the cosmonauts Gagarin and Tereshkova for his outstanding scientific contributions. Skipping any description of all aspects of the versatile activities of L. S. Pontryagin,1 I will dwell upon a single problem of a national-wide scale, the teaching of mathematics in secondary school. It was exactly L. S. Pontryagin who vehemently pointed out, in particular on the pages of The Communist, 2 3 the evil implications of the sharp turn to the course of the extreme formalization of mathematics which was imposed on our schools in 1967 and oriented consciously or unconsciously to the accelerated intellectual development (with an equally fast achievement of the utmost limits of creativity) nontypical of the majority of the country’s population. The flood of responses to the statement by L. S. Pontryagin 4 has demonstrated that his criticism was quite timely and fair. In particular, Vice-President of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR Academician A. A. Logunov ascertained on the session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in October 1980 that there is a grieve situation about the teaching of mathematics in secondary school and to learn mathematics from the present-day textbooks “can destroy any interest in not only mathematics but also exact sciences in general.” (I remark parenthetically that the leader of the reform received the prize of 100,000 dollar in 1980 from the state with which the USSR had severed all diplomatic relations exactly in the year of the beginning of the reform.) 5
The rest of the article was mainly inspired by the outright scandalous situation in the midst of logicians and algebraists of Novosibirsk and in the whole mathematical community of Siberia either. The point was that the retirement of S. L. Sobolev was pending from the position of the director of the Institute of Mathematics of the Siberian Division of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. This evoked the battles for power and better places under the sun which were typical of the academic community of those days.

I am disinclined to dwell upon the other details of Merzlyakov’s article since I fully agree with the estimate of Sobolev who expressed his attitude to the hysterics by Merzlyakov as follows:“The role of Savonarola befits no 20th-century scientist.”

Sobolev forwarded his sagacious and valiant letter from Moscow to the management of the Institute on March 9. He rejected the slander against Kolmogorov and justly gave a negative estimation of the whole article. I had an opportunity to read this hand-written page of a copy-book which unfortunately was unwelcome by some of the addressees, concealed for a long time, and made public by S. K. Godunov only after fierce battles and conflicts at the meeting of the Scientific Council of the Institute on April 18. The principled and uncompromising position of Sobolev seemed to the many less important than the opinion of local party leadership. A few iterations under the pressure of petty communist bonzes brought about the official position of the management of the Institute which recalled the merits of Kolmogorov while observing that Merzlyakov appropriately posed the problems of patriotism.

Patriotism and slander... A notorious mixture...

Some unpleasant general thoughts are in order now about professionalism and mathematicians. Professionalism requires absolute devotion to profession and, absorbing personality, tends to impoverish the latter. Professionalism appears amidst mathematicians rather early whereas the upbringing of necessary moral qualities is often far from a fast and easy matter (mathematicians are next of kin to sportsmen in this respect). Of little secret are the elements of gossip, jealousy, and envy encountered the world over even among the first mathematicians. Hatred to the gifts of the others is often mixed or replaced with xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, and similar elements of the same sort. These phenomena are still far from rare nowadays. The oversensitive reaction to the slightest traits of the presence or absence of antisemitism was and still is a litmus test of “friend-enemy” in Russia irrespective of whether this is right or wrong. I believe that to grasp correctly the tension of the events after Merzlyakov’s article is impossible without the clear understanding of the above circumstances of the Russian life.

By the way, somebody told me that the then editor-in-chief of the newspaper Science in Siberia tried to justify himself on explaining that he had slightly deviated from the standard routine of accepting materials for publication in order to insert Merzlyakov’s article in the issue on the Day of the Soviet Army because he viewed it as exceptionally patriotic. In our midst we have called these views “slanderous patriotism” since then. Mixing love for the Fatherland with slander is always characteristic of “the last resort of a scoundrel.”

The Moscow mathematical community reacted to Merzlyakov’s article immediately and adequately in general. The understanding prevailed that the lampoon could strike the health of Kolmogorov which was already shaken seriously. Surely, nobody showed the newspaper to Andrei Nikolaevich but his 80th anniversary approached rapidly and Merzlyakov’s article could provoke some undesirable predicaments: for instance, there might have been no ceremonial decoration from the government which could be noticed by Kolmogorov, stirred up his analytical interest and investigation with possibly unfavorable aftereffects to his health.

Another circumstance helped to the spreading of a noble reaction: The article appeared on the eve of the General Assembly of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Moscow where several copies of the issue of the newspaper were delivered immediately. The exceptionally sharp reaction against slander and political snitching was revealed by the leading mathematicians: A. D. Alexandrov, S. M. Nikol’skii, S. P. Novikov, Yu. V. Prokhorov, S. L. Sobolev, L. D. Faddeev, and many others.

Already on March 14 there appeared the first written response by Alexandrov with an analysis of Merzlyakov’s article. Characterizing the article as objectively anti-Soviet and subjectively base, Alexandrov demonstrated the necessity of terminating all instances of slander and political insinuation. Closing his response, Alexandrov wrote:

Yu. Merzlyakov himself has clearly deserved the right of memory. Since at least some of his statements are so evil and monstrous that might go down in history....

We have thus seen that Merzlyakov’s article is an objectively anti-Soviet, subjectively base, rude, and antipatriotic composition, its every appeal to patriotism notwithstanding.

Let us abstain from judging the author severely but rather pity him since we observe an indubitable pathological case. Only a perverted mind and turbid imagination can bring about such a flood of insolence and mud! Renegades, domestic emigrants, immature moral viewpoints halfway from amoeba to cave-dweller, a shitting bull, a beast, a toady-like mediocrity of a petty shop-keeper and, to crown all these, the monstrous image of villains that crawl to loot the wounded as description of the “horde” of scientific workers and, in particular, his fellow colleagues. Well, that is the limit: an obvious pathology.

We are to pay tribute to the Mathematics Division of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and personally to Yu. V. Prokhorov who was an initiator and editor of the following Resolution of the Bureau of the Mathematics Division as of March 25, 1983:
Academician Yu. V. Prokhorov informed the body about a recent article in the weekly newspaper Science in Siberia of the Presidium of the SDAS6 of the USSR (No. 7 of February 17, 1983) by Yu. I. Merzlyakov, ScD on the staff of the Institute of Mathematics of the SDAS of the USSR. This article contains a uniquely decipherable insinuation against Academician A. N. Kolmogorov, an outstanding Soviet scientist.
The floor for discussion was taken by Academicians S. M. Nikol’skii, V. S. Vladimirov, S. P. Novikov, A. A. Samarskii, S. L. Sobolev, and L. D. Faddeev; Corresponding Members of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR A. V. Bitsadze, I. M. Gelfand, A. A. Gonchar, and S. V. Yablonskii. All of them unanimously condemned the indecent insinuations of Merzlyakov’s article and qualified them as slander against one outstanding scientist and patriot. It was also observed that the article contains insinuations against a number of other Soviet mathematicians.
The Bureau of the Mathematics Division of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR HAS DECIDED
1: to observe that the article of ScD Yu. I. Merzlyakov “The Right of Memory” in the newspaper Science in Siberia of the Presidium of the SDAS of the USSR contains slander against one outstanding scientist/mathematician and Soviet patriot;
to observe that the article contains a number of indecent attacking allusions to other Soviet mathematicians.
2: to call upon the Presidium of the Siberian Division of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR to take due measures pertinent to Item 1.
The Resolution of the Bureau of the Mathematics Division of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR was adopted by a unanimous vote.
The bushes of provincialism were already full-fruited in Siberia those days, and the solicitude for the honor, dignity, and health of Kolmogorov together with counteraction against the filthy things like antisemitism seemed to the chosen few to be negligible as compared with the prevailing sentiments for their own career, success, fame, and prosperity. The following story of Alexandrov looks like a joke nowadays: one of the top bosses of the Siberian Division responded to the protest and indignation against Merzlyakov’s article with the sincere question: “Who is that Kolmogorov guy?” One can easily imagine our reaction...

On March 28 there was a meeting of the Presidium of the SDAS of the USSR. The official letter of the Institute, bearing the signatures of the three deputy directors and the party secretary, was announced together with the second milder letter of Sobolev who was in Moscow. The “Savonarola” letter was never mentioned. Unfortunately, the official copy of the Resolution of the Bureau of the Mathematics Division did not arrived at Novosibirsk (the time of facsimile communication had not come yet). Alexandrov briefed the audience about this Resolution. However, not without reason it is said:“you're nobody till somebody gives you a piece of paper.” V.  A. Koptyug,7 never feeling anything positive towards Alexandrov, moderated the discussion with reference to the unclear standpoint of the Institute of Mathematics and the absence of the Moscow Resolution in writing. Of no avail were the vehement statements of members of the Presidium Academicians G. K. Boreskov, S. S. Kutateladze (1914–1986), and A. N. Skrinskii who condemned the slander against Kolmogorov and insisted on a principled reaction. In result there was adopted a rather insipid resolution which stated that the editorial staff of the newspaper made a serious mistake by publication of Merzlyakov’s article “written in the style inadequate to the spirit and aims of the newspaper.” That was how slander had become a style in the opinion of a part of the then leadership of the Siberian Division.

The efforts of the supporters of Kolmogorov brought about a tactical success: the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR was signed on April 22 upon the decoration of Academician A. N. Kolmogorov with the Order of the October Revolution for his great contributions to the development of the science of mathematics and the long-term and fruitful pedagogical activities on the occasion of the 80 years of his birth. It seems to me that Kolmogorov had never become aware of Merzlyakov’s article.

Of great importance to Novosibirsk was the publication in the issue of May 12 of the newspaper Science in Siberia of an article about Kolmogorov which was written by S. L. Sobolev, A. A. Borovkov, and V. V. Yurinsky. Their article ranked Kolmogorov as one of the most eminent mathematicians on the 20th century, an outstanding teacher, an ardent patriot, and the founder of his scientific school of a worldwide reputation and few analogs in the history of science. The authors particularly emphasized the undisputable influence of Kolmogorov on the development of mathematics in Siberia.

This did not close the case however. “The Special Opinion of L. S. Pontryagin” was made public already on April 30. In this article Pontryagin expressed his disagreement with the Resolution of the Bureau of the Mathematics Division (he was a member of the Bureau but missed the meeting on March 25 since he was ill). He refuted the accusation against Merzlyakov of slandering Kolmogorov and estimated the article “generally in the positive since it summons up citizenship which is in great demand of our scientists.” In particular, Pontryagin wrote:

I ascertain that the statement of Yu. I. Merzlyakov about Kolmogorov, even in deciphered form, cannot be viewed as slander. It does not ascertain any causal relation between the failure of the reform and the awarding of the prize. But the thought about a causal relation can be borne in upon the reader.
“The Special Opinion” pinpointed a few rare facts of public subscription to soiling Kolmogorov’s reputation. Pontryagin’s text full of the bits of an open polemic with Alexandrov raised the question: “Whom does A. D. Alexandrov defend so vehemently in his response?”. There was little doubt that Alexandrov would leave this question rhetorical.

Alexandrov finished his response to Pontryagin on May 28. Confirming his view of Merzlyakov’s article as politically slanderous insinuation, Alexandrov wrote:

In my response to Merzlyakov’s article I characterized this as baseness and I reiterate: this is baseness, and the meanest baseness at that.

Academician Pontryagin is not a young man and he knows the intended consequences of such a baseness in the times of the year 1937. He could know in particular that Nikolai Nikolaevich Vavilov, a great Russian scientist/biologist, died in prison since someone casted a political slanderous innuendo about him. Now Academician Pontryagin supports the revival of political slanders and insinuations and even discerns some “citizenship” in them. However they were condemned by our party and people long ago. It is the Bureau of the Mathematics Division that revealed the genuine citizenship by repulsing Merzlyakov’s slander. The “citizenship” in the sense of Pontryagin was revealed already in his article in The Communist where he spread slander against our mathematics. Now it is revealed once again in his “Special Opinion” supporting baseness and slander against not only A. N. Kolmogorov but also the whole school of our scientists which supposedly incorporates a crawling horde of the most monstrous careerists and villains...

The copies of the March Resolutions of the Bureau of the Mathematics Division and the Presidium of the SDAS of the USSR were displayed on the advertisement board of the Institute of Mathematics of the SDAS of the USSR from July 2  to July 7. So ended the crisis of “patriotically slanderous citizenship” at Novosibirsk in 1983.

The above events in the history of science in Russia may be compared only with the so-called “Case of Academician N. N. Luzin.” The pivotal distinction of the year 1986 from the year 1936 lies in the fact that the personality of Kolmogorov had morally united the overwhelming majority of the Russian mathematicians who shielded their professional community from slander and political insinuation.

Sic transit separation.

S. S. Kutateladze

May 12, 2003


1The initials seem abundant to the English eye but they reflect the style of the Russian polemics in which the presence of initials brings about some extra respect to the persons in question whereas the absence of initials clearly demonstrates slight indifference, disrespect, or even neglect. Every Russian professor knows that the initials of Gagarin are Yu. A., and the initials of Tereshkova are V. V. To keep the flavor of the polemic I preserve the authors' rules for placing initials in the Russian originals throughout. 

2The Communist , 1980:14, p. 99–112

3The official journal of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR. 

4The Communist , 1980:18, p. 119–121; 1982:2, p. 125–126

5Notices of the AMS  (1981) 28:1, p. 84

6 The abbreviation of “Siberian Division of the Academy of Sciences.”

7The Chairman of the SDAS from 1980 to 1997.  

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.21.
On 31 May 2003, 19:25.

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