Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya

Quick Info

17 December 1937
Moscow, USSR (now Russia)
23 September 1982
Moscow, USSR (now Russia)

Bella Subbotovskaya was a Russian mathematician most famous for founding the "The Jewish People's University" in Moscow.


Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya is also known by her married name of Muchnik. She was universally known as Bella and we shall refer to her by that name throughout this biography. Bella's parents were Abram Subbotovski and Rebekka Evseevna. Her father was killed during World War II when Bella was a very young child and she was brought up by her mother.

It was when she was in the first grade at school that Bella fell in love with mathematics [3]:-
She read any book on mathematics that fell into her hands and solved all mathematical problems and exercises in her textbooks. Just imagine Berezanskii's exercise book for 5th Grade - a huge text containing several thousand problems. Bella received this book in September and in October she had a pile of notebooks filled with solutions to all the exercises found in the text. ... "A problem cannot be uninteresting, it can only be simple or complicated" - this was her saying.
During her years at school, Bella joined mathematical societies and took part in mathematical competitions. But there was more to her life than mathematics, for she was also passionate about music and studied the violin at the conservatory.

In 1955 she entered the Mekh-Mat, the Mechanics and Mathematics Faculty of Moscow State University. Dmitry B Fuchs writes [2]:-
I studied with her in the same group at Mekh-Mat, and we had known each other since 1955. We were not particularly great friends, since it was not easy to be friends with Bella. Nervous, loud, unusually demanding of everyone, she did not fit into the usual posse. Our class was very strong (Serezha Novikov, Vitya Palamodov, Galya Tyurina, Sasha Olevsky, Volodya Zorich, Sasha Vinogradov were all in our class); we showed off to one another and never suspected that the awkward, noisy Bella was one of the best mathematicians amongst us. I can best recall the various amusing stories. In the summer of 1957, packed into freight train cars, several hundred university students were sent to work [on the Virgin Lands Campaign] - everyone was excited. And suddenly - who is this - but it is Bella, believe it or not, with a bald, shaved head. Her mother is with her - Rebekka Evseevna - I knew her (her father was killed in the War). But, mothers were saying their goodbyes to many, including myself. Her mother was actually going with us to the Virgin Lands! On some small way-station, a grim-looking Young Communist League worker rolled up to our car and asked: "And why is your mother going" In response, Rebekka Evseevna took out of her purse a Young Communist League pass, all is written there: she is going to the Virgin Lands by the calling of her heart. The Young Communist League guy moved off. We ended up working in different places at the Virgin Lands. I met Bella only once and received from her a scolding for the strike we had initiated. But, the guys who worked in the same team with the mother and daughter of Subbotovskayas spoke endlessly about the dinners prepared by Rebekka Evseevna.
In 1959, while still studying mathematics at Moscow State University, Bella began studying singing at the Gnessinykh Musical Institute. Her mathematical studies in algebraic logic and her musical studies were not entirely distinct since she was interested in the mathematical structure of music. In 1960 she met Ilya Muchnik when both attended a seminar held at Moscow State University given by Rudolf Khafizovich Zaripov, an expert on cybernetics and music, who had just published a paper on algorithmic music composition using a computer. Ilya Muchnik writes [3]:-
After the lecture we wandered through university corridors and discussed various possibilities of computer-generated music. Somehow we immediately departed from the idea of composing music and came to discuss the issue of how one might study musical compositions with the help of a computer. ... But we had very different interests in our discourse. I attempted to discuss the question that preoccupied me and seek ideas in Zaripov's presentation that could help me resolve this question. Bella, however, was concerned with something entirely different. She suddenly understood that with me she could sit, listen and understand songs that were of great interest to her. Computer capabilities concerned her little. She just immersed herself in Jewish folk melody.
Bella was in Moscow while at that time Muchnik was living in Gorky. He made frequent visits to Moscow over the following months so that they could be together and talk. They corresponded mainly about the study of Jewish folk songs but also about other things concerning to them. In March 1961 Bella became ill and was hospitalised. Muchnik came to see her in April and they spent a week when Bella was still at the hospital but able to go out for walks with Muchnik. They both felt they had to escape and Muchnik suggested they go to Zhukovsky, a small town about 40 km southeast of Moscow, where one of his friends lived. While on the journey to Zhukovsky in the summer of 1961 they decided to marry.

After marrying, they lived in a small wooden house beside a yard which was surrounded by similar homes occupied by Jewish families who spoke Yiddish. Life was hard, with almost no money. Bella worked with A A Lyapunov on problems of optimization while she also undertook research on algebraic logic aiming at a doctorate. She published the paper Realization of linear functions by formulas using v, &, - (Russian) in 1961 in Doklady Akademii Nauk SSSR. A Russian biography of Bella states:-
In graduate school she wrote two brilliant works on complexity theory, published in the Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences, which were strongly ahead of their time and had a great influence on this very important and now popular field of mathematics related to Computer Science.
During 1961 she continued to study at the Gnesinykh Musical Institute but gave this up in the following year when she began teaching mathematics to adults. A school for adults had opened next to Bella's home and, since the school had no mathematics teacher, those organising the school asked Bella if she would teach mathematics [2]:-
Most of her students were workers ranging from 25 to 40 years of age. She explained to me that the key difficulty with teaching such students was that they could not and did not want to do homework. For this reason, all curriculum had to be covered in class. She came up with the idea of grouping students into bunches of two-three people according to their relative knowledge and preparing specially designed exercises for each group. Six to eight such groups were formed. She found time to solve all the problems with each group. Towards the end of each lesson, all the exercises were solved in each group. Knowing that the majority of the students would not do home assignments, Bella still gave out homework, although these problems were very similar to those solved by the students in the previous class.
She taught through the early months of 1962 although by this time she was pregnant. After the birth of her daughter Masha, Bella's thought in terms of mathematics teaching turned towards how to teach the very young. She continued research for her doctorate and published Comparison of bases for the realization by formulas of functions of an algebra of logic in 1963. Both this paper and the one previously mentioned were published under the name Subbotovskaja but subsequent papers were published under her married name of B A Muchnik. In 1967 Bella defended her thesis and published results from it in the paper A criterion for the comparability of bases for the realisation of Boolean functions by formulas (Russian) which appeared in the same year. Bella's marriage lasted for around ten years but ended in divorce. Dmitry Fuchs writes [2]:-
There was a divorce with a reversion to her maiden name, illness, and a return to life in the form of a teacher of elementary classes in an ordinary Moscow secondary school. The only thing that remained from her former life was the chamber orchestra of Moscow University, where Bella played the viola until her last days ...
Bella is most famous for founding the "The Jewish People's University". Before we describe how this came about we need to look briefly at the discrimination against Jews entering Mekh-Mat, the Mechanics and Mathematics Faculty of Moscow State University, around this time. Perhaps it is worth noting that this discrimination had not been there earlier and Bella, although a Jew, had entered Mekh-Mat on merit in the 1950s. Perhaps the best way to present the problem is to report on the findings of the two mathematicians Boris Kanevsky and Valery Senderov who realised that Jews were being discriminated against in admission to Mekh-Mat and set about discovering the facts. Katherine Tylevich writes [8]:-
Their study followed 87 aspirants seeking admission to Moscow University's leading mathematics faculty. The candidates had a lot in common: all were recent graduates of specialized mathematics and physics high schools in Moscow, many of them were nationally renowned in mathematics Olympiads. 40 of the candidates, however, gave "undesirable" information on their entrance forms. 40 of them were Jewish either by passport or "by trace." Entrance forms required that students state their nationality alongside the names and patronymics of their parents. Even an "officially" Russian student, suspected of having even one Jewish grandparent, could be placed in a group of undesirables. The study clearly showed that Jewish candidates were methodically forced outside the gates of the prestigious university, even though their credentials were similar to, or better than those of other applicants. Of the 47 aspirants who were not Jewish, 40 were accepted after taking the entrance exam. Of the 40 candidates who had at least one Jewish grandparent, all but six were rejected. To add insult to injury, Kanevsky and Senderov also cite one case when examiners wrongly thought that one applicant was Jewish and lowered his grades. After the applicant's mother proved that their family had no Jewish lineage, however, administrators immediately improved his grades and admitted him into the university.
At the time that Kanevsky and Senderov had planned to gather data, Bella was coaching students who were going to sit the entrance examinations for Mekh-Mat. Bella and Senderov met in July 1978 outside Moscow State University when the examination of prospective students was taking place. Senderov was talking to one of the Jewish students who had just been failed by the examiners when the examiner came out and an argument with Senderov ensued. Senderov was escorted off the premises by the University security and this event seems to have been the one which led to the creation of the Jewish People's University. Bella set up the university which began with 14 students who came to her 2-room apartment for lectures. Within a month of the university starting, there were 30 students and by the end of 1979 there were 110. Bella did not teach herself, but organised a collection of talented mathematicians to give courses. Clearly 110 students could not fit into her apartment and another of her organisational tasks was to find rooms in which the lectures could be given. She arranged for classes at the school here she was teaching, at the Oil and Gas Institute, at the Humanities building and later at the Chemistry Department of Moscow University. These classes were held on Saturdays. Bella supplied sandwiches for the students and they contributed a small fee to cover the cost of the food. Dmitry B Fuchs taught there in 1980 and he had 70 students taking his course on analytical geometry and linear algebra. In order to try to ensure that the authorities could have no reason to move against the university, they had a rule that politics must never be discussed. They were well aware that a few of their students were KGB men keeping an eye of the Jewish People's University.

In 1980 Bella approached Andrei Zelevinsky asking him to teach at the Jewish People's University. He writes [9]:-
Bella Abramovna's and her like-minded people's idea was humane and simple: attempt to at least partially restore fairness by offering students who were seriously interested in mathematics the possibility of receiving that fundamental mathematical education which the administrators of Mekh-Mat deprived them. This idea could not but evoke a response from me, not only based on moral grounds, but also because, being myself Jewish and a graduate of Moscow Mathematical School No. 2, known at the time for its free-thinking spirit, I easily identified myself with my future students (although I was lucky, and my journey to mathematics was much easier).
Andrei Zelevinsky taught a course on calculus and functional analysis for two years at the Jewish People's University. The highlight of the early months of 1982 was a lecture by John Milnor [2]:-
In March 1982, Jack Milnor, Andre Haefliger, Bob MacPherson, and Dusa McDuff came to Moscow for a private visit, as it is presently called. Milnor, a great mathematician and lecturer, gave a talk specifically for our students (Alyosha Sossinsky translated). There were many people who were not our own - we gave room to all.
Kanevsky and Senderov were known to the KGB for other activities against the regime which were in no way connected to the Jewish People's University. They were arrested in June 1982 and when the KGB searched their apartments they found a list of students enrolled at the Jewish People's University. Although Bella expected immediate action by the KGB, nothing happened until August when Bella was summoned to meet with a KGB official. She was presented with the list of students that the KGB had found and told that there were tutors in Moscow who were robbing students under the pretence of preparing them for examinations. Bella explained that the list contained the names of the students enrolled for free mathematics lessons. "But we know you take money from them," the KGB man said. Bella explained that this money was only for sandwiches. After the interview she was asked to sign a record of what had been said. When she read the document before signing it she saw that it was quite different from what had been said. The KGB man said it was necessary for her to sign but she refused. She was sent away, told to think about signing the document and, if she was prepared to, to contact them again. After a couple of days she decided to go back and speak to the KGB man again. However, he refused to see her, saying he did not need anything else from her.

On the evening following this second visit to the KGB, on 23 September 1982, Bella visited her mother as she did on most evenings. She left her mother's apartment at about 11 o'clock and set off to walk home. The events which followed are described in many sources, all giving essentially the same account. We quote [7]:-
It was a quiet street, hardly a vehicle passed by at this hour. Suddenly a truck appeared at high speed, hit the woman, and drove off. Moments later another car drove up, stopped for a moment next to the victim, and also drove off. An ambulance came - who had called it? - and took the victim straight to the morgue. The funeral took place the next day. It was a very low key affair, nobody talked, no eulogy was held. Mourners only whispered among themselves, all the while observed by a few official-looking men. Eventually everybody quietly dispersed. The hit-and-run driver was never found, and the case was closed. The accident had all the trappings of a KGB hit.
Many of the sources give circumstantial evidence pointing to her death being a murder by the KGB. We will not list these here. The official cause of her death was, of course, death by careless driving by persons unknown. Further details of Bella's funeral are given in [8]:-
Her funeral was a silent one. Amidst Subbotovskaya's students, colleagues, friends, family, and admirers, stood several unwelcome guests - several members of the KGB. Nobody volunteered to eulogize Subbotovskaya; nobody made a sound except for her mother. The elderly Rebecca Yevseyevna finally cried out: "Why won't anybody pronounce one word." Bella Abramovna's husband quickly escorted the aged woman out of the funeral home.
We should also report on what happened to Kanevsky and Senderov following their arrest. Both were convicted of anti-Soviet activity and propaganda, and sentenced to a prison term. Kanevsky's sentence was for five years, Senderov's for seven. After Senderov's prison term he was to serve five years in exile. If the KGB thought that without Bella the Jewish People's University would not survive, then they were correct. It struggled on for about a year after her death before it permanently closed its doors.

Let us end with the words of Andrei Zelevinsky [9]:-
Her warmth, kindheartedness, and optimism immediately made one predisposed towards her and feel at ease with her. She showed motherly affection to the Jewish People's University's students and, as far as I can tell, evoked equally warm feelings in response. The organization of the Jewish People's University demanded of her great courage and resolve, and the support of its continuation demanded incessant efforts; but in her behaviour there was no sign of self-importance or "showing off." In the general atmosphere of "phoniness" - the most common feature of Soviet society of those years - the very fact of precise and continuous functioning of PU, provided by Bella Abramovna's efforts, gave students (and also the instructors) a significant lesson in professionalism and responsibility.

References (show)

  1. M A Shifman (ed.), You Failed Your Math Test, Comrade Einstein (World Scientific, 2005).
  2. D B Fuchs, Jewish University, in M A Shifman (ed.), You Failed Your Math Test, Comrade Einstein (World Scientific, 2005), 183-190.
  3. I Muchnik, Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya, in M A Shifman (ed.), You Failed Your Math Test, Comrade Einstein (World Scientific, 2005), 197-210.
  4. Remembering Math Heroine Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya, Mathematical Association of America (12 November 2007).
  5. News Staff, Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya: Heroine, Mathematician, Soviet Martyr?, Science 2.0 (ION Publications LLC, 2015).
  6. S L Segal, Review: You Failed Your Math Test, Comrade Einstein, by M A Shifman (ed.), Mathematical Association of America (16 March 2006).
  7. G G Szpiro, Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya and the 'Jewish People's University', Notices Amer. Math. Soc. 54 (10) (2007), 1326-1330.
  8. K Tylevich, Free education at the highest price, in M A Shifman (ed.), You Failed Your Math Test, Comrade Einstein (World Scientific, 2005), 171-182.
  9. A Zelevinsky, Remembering Bella Abramovna, in M A Shifman (ed.), You Failed Your Math Test, Comrade Einstein (World Scientific, 2005), 191-196.

Additional Resources (show)

Other websites about Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya:

  1. MathSciNet Author profile
  2. zbMATH entry

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update July 2015