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While reading about Borel sets I came across comments regarding the Luzin Affair, when Luzin was the subject of various accusations made by colleagues.

These accusations appear to have been both political and professional in nature - for example, that Luzin “felt no shame in declaring the discoveries of his students to be his own achievements”. Some of his accusers may have been coerced into participating - e.g., Aleksandrov and Kolmogorov.

The Intelligentsia section of the wikipedia article on the Great Terror lists only people from the arts - writers, poets, dramatists, and the like - as victims of the purge, many of whom were put to death. No mathematicians are listed and although elsewhere I can find numerous references to scientists being victims, I can find no further references to mathematicians.

It seems unlikely that the Luzin Affair unique in Soviet mathematics. Are there other examples of prominent mathematicians being victims of the purge?

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, there were. The AMS book "Golden Years of Moscow Mathematics" has some coverage about this. I don't recall the details though, I read that a few years ago. bookstore.ams.org/hmath-6-r $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2021 at 10:50
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    $\begingroup$ The book "Naming Infinity" lists other victims (besides Luzin). amazon.com/Naming-Infinity-Religious-Mathematical-Creativity/dp/… $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2021 at 12:31
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    $\begingroup$ Why are you saying "some of his accusers were coerced into participating - e.g., Aleksandrov and Kolmogorov"? From what I remember, the two initiated the affair. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2021 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ One more (likely) name: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lev_Schnirelmann $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2021 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Moishe Kohan The book "Naming Infinity" has some details there too. IIRC Aleksandrov was essentially given the choice: it is either you or Luzin. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2021 at 15:07

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"Great terror" is indeed ambiguous. Essentially the whole period from 1917 to 1953 was the epoch of terror. To the mathematicians murdered by NKVD/KGB listed in Moishe Kohan's answer I can add:

Fritz Noether (He escaped to Soviet Union from the Nazis)

Joseph Marcinkiewicz (One of the 22,000 Polish officers murdered in "Katyn massacres")

Alexandr Witt (in German Wikipedia).

The terror decreased but did not stop with Stalin's death. For example

Israel Glazman (in German Wikipedia) committed suicide after several "conversations" with KGB (as Lev Shnirelman in Moishe Kohan's answer did).

In general, there were fewer mathematicians victims than physicists and biologists.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. By extending the range back to the 1917 revolution, are we saying that Stalin simply inherited the methods of his predecessors, or was Stalin's brand of "terror" essentially different from what came before (and after). $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    Dec 10, 2021 at 0:56
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    $\begingroup$ @nwr: there were several waves of terror, with different targets and different purposes. Both your statements that "Stalin inherited the methods" and that the terror was "different" are correct. It is a long and complicated story. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2021 at 1:34
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First of all, the terminology "Great Terror" is ambiguous: Some authors limit the period to 1937-38, some to 1934-39, etc. In the answer, I will be using the time period 1929-1953. I can explain why if you like.

Here are few more names:

  1. Dmitri Egorov. He was a PhD advisor of Luzin, Alexandroff, Petrovsky and others.

Per Wikipedia article about him:

Egorov held spiritual beliefs to be of great importance, and openly defended the Church against Marxist supporters after the Russian Revolution. He was elected president of the Moscow Mathematical Society in 1921, and became director of the Institute for Mechanics and Mathematics at Moscow State University in 1923. He also edited the journal Matematicheskii Sbornik of the Moscow Mathematical Society. However, because of Egorov's stance against the repression of the Russian Orthodox Church, he was dismissed from the Institute in 1929 and publicly rebuked. In 1930 he was arrested and imprisoned as a "religious sectarian", and soon after was expelled from the Moscow Mathematical Society. Upon imprisonment, Egorov began a hunger strike until he was taken to the prison hospital, and eventually to the house of fellow mathematician Nikolai Chebotaryov, where he died. He was buried in Arskoe Cemetery in Kazan.

  1. A more complex case:

Vladimir Rokhlin.

Per Wikipedia article about him:

He volunteered for the army in 1941, leading to four years as a prisoner of a German war camp. During this time he was able to hide his Jewish origins from the Nazis. Rokhlin was liberated by the Soviet military in January 1945. He then served as a German language translator for the 5th Army of the Belorussian front. In May 1945 he was sent to a Soviet 'verification camp' for former prisoners of war. In January 1946 he was transferred to another camp to determine if he was an "enemy of the Soviet." Rokhlin was cleared in June 1946 but was forced to remain in the camp as a guard. Due to intercession by mathematicians Andrey Kolmogorov and Lev Pontryagin, he was released in December 1946 and allowed to return to Moscow, after which he returned to mathematics.

  1. An even more complex case:

Lev Schnirelman:

Schnirelmann committed suicide in Moscow on 24 September 1938, for reasons that are not clear. According to Lev Pontryagin's memoir from 1998, Schnirelmann gassed himself, due to depression brought on by feelings of inability to work at the same high level as earlier in his career. On the other hand, according to an interview Eugene Dynkin gave in 1988, Schnirelman took his own life after the NKVD tried to recruit him as an informer.

Russian Wikipedia page provide few more details:

Schnirelman told his friend L. A. Lyusternik that he had done something terrible under pressure, which indirectly agrees with the memoirs of E. B. Dynkin:

Sofya Aleksandrovna Yanovskaya told me that he left a note: "I am dying honest before my comrades and the Soviet regime." He was forced to report. ... Sofya Aleksandrovna told me that the NKVD employee who recruited him was shot. But from this, of course, Schnirelman did not come back to life.


Edit. More names of mathematicians (none of them was particularly prominent) who were persecuted during the "Great Terror" are given in

G.G.Lorentz, Mathematics and Politics in the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1953, Journal of Approximation Theory, Volume 116, Issue 2, (2002) 169-223.

See here.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for these examples, all very harrowing, especially Schnirelman's case which sounds particularly tragic. I'm not familiar with this episode in history but I would guess that the reason you have extended the range up to 1953 and the end of Stalin's tenure is that his methods did not change. It was more a case that as the body count piled up there were simply fewer people to persecute, perhaps giving the impression that things were improving. $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    Dec 10, 2021 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ @nwr: By restricting to 1929-1953, I tried to limit my answer to the period that can be described as "Stalin's Rule." (In 1929 Stalin crashed the last open and meaningful opposition (to him) within the Soviet Communist Party, called VKP(b) at the time.) While Stalin definitely inherited the tools and practice of mass terror from the earlier Soviet period, he had left undeniable personal mark on how it was done. During Stalin's rule, terror came in several waves. The relative lulls in between were not due to "simply fewer people to persecute" but due to Stalin's tactical calculations. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2021 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ @nwr: My favorite book on the subject is R.Conquest, "The Great Terror: A Reassessment. 40th anniversary Edition". While, it does not even cover the entire period (the main focus is 1936-38), it also discusses the roots and the legacy of the Great Terror. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2021 at 20:01

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