The USSR's bans on Jews

Submitted by Matthew on 8 February, 2012 - 1:36

In November 2002 the Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman posted his proof of the Poincaré conjecture on the internet. The conjecture had been formulated in 1904 by the French mathematician Henri Poincaré and is no abstract, dusty problem, but deals with the possible shape of our universe.

By 2006 Grigori Perelman’s solution had become widely accepted. He was awarded the Fields Medal (the maths version of the Nobel Prize), had jobs offers from leading universities, and was awarded $1 million (the Clay Institute prize for solving one of the seven “Millennium” maths problems).

Perelman refused the Fields Medal and the million dollars, declined the university positions, and retreated into the St Petersburg apartment shared with his mother. Although this is a story of a great achievement it has no happy ending — Perelman, Green believes, has Asperger’s, and he seems to have found the whole process so disturbing he has now given up mathematics.

Masha Green’s book (like Simon Singh’s book on the solving of Fermat’s “Last Theorem”) contains almost none of the maths (despite the fact that Green is, apparently, herself an accomplished mathematician). If the mathematics interests you, perhaps you would do better to read The Poincaré conjecture by maths professor Donal O’Shea.

None of this would necessarily find its way into a political paper except for the fact that Perelman is Jewish. And as a Jewish maths prodigy growing up in the USSR in the 1970s he faced a staggering series of anti-semitic obstacles. The details are shocking even for someone who thought himself familiar with the main themes of Soviet anti-semitism.

Leningrad University’s maths department had a quota of two Jews per year among 350 students. Its Moscow equivalent was more zealous and actively investigated all candidates for traces of a Jewish background. Students with Jewish sounding names were refused entry, just in case.

The quotas were not formally stated, but were nevertheless enforced stringently.

When Perelman was thirteen the Leningrad maths olympiad was won by Alterman, Levin, Perelman and Tsemekhman. Green writes, “This was worse than just four Jewish boys; this was four obviously Jewish boys… The university professor who chaired the city jury that year, himself a Jew, looked at the list and sighed, ‘We ought to have fewer of these sorts of winners’.”

Perelman’s academic progress had to be finessed by a number of mathematicians who were convinced of his talent. Post-graduate work was almost off-limits for Jews at the prestigious Leningrad Steklov Maths Institute. In 1978 a group of American mathematicians circulated an open letter complaining that its director had kept the institution “free of Jews” for thirty years.

It was only the death of this director, some clever footwork from his supporters, and Perelman’s ability, that got him through.

Later Perelman was lucky again as Gorbachev’s reforms opened up the possibility of international collaboration.

The shock is how open the anti-semitic practice was — not even disguised with anti-Zionism. Nevertheless it seems that Perelman was oblivious to all this. The boy with Asperger’s did not think anti-semitism was possible, because it was not logical.

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