The Fate of Academician Mikhail Krawtchouk

Sergey Gupalo wrote The Fate of the Academician Mikhail Krawtchouk (Russian) which was published in Mirror of the Week 38 (413) (5-11 October 2002). It is also on the web at We give an English translation in which the Russian style is retained.

The Fate of the Academician Mikhail Krawtchouk

September 27: - 110 years since the birth of the world famous Ukrainian mathematician Mikhail Filippovich Krawtchouk. Many scientists know the Krawtchouk qq-polynomials, the Krawtchouk-Meixner qq-functions, and the so-called "Krawtchouk series" which scientists from the USA and Japan used decades ago in television equipment. In his mathematical works M Krawtchouk pointed out many promising problems. But for many years, few people knew that the great Ukrainian scientist was repressed in 1938.

M Krawtchouk was born in 1892 in the village of Chelnitsa, Volyn province (now Kivertsovsky district of Volyn region). His father was a land surveyor. A native of the lower classes, who graduated from the Petrovsko-Razumovskaya Academy, he appreciated knowledge and did everything so that the inquisitive Mikhail Filippovich received a good education.

In 1901, the family moved to Lutsk, where the future great mathematician graduated from the gymnasium with a gold medal. In 1910, Mikhail Filippovich was a student of the Physics and Mathematics Faculty of the Kyiv University of St Vladimir. Having brilliantly graduated from his studies, M Krawtchouk taught for several years at various universities in Kyiv. During the First World War he was evacuated to Moscow. After the revolutionary events, the mathematician returns to gold-domed Kyiv [a reference to St Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv] to devote himself entirely to science and the people. Teaching at Ukrainian grammar schools and the Ukrainian People's University, he developed Ukrainian-language mathematical terminology, and translated into Ukrainian a textbook on geometry by Andrei Petrovich Kiselev, which was very popular at that time. But after the overthrow of the Ukrainian People's Republic and the arrival of Soviet power, the young scientist had to leave for the village of Savarka (now in the Boguslavsky district of the Kyiv region). Here M Krawtchouk became both the director of the school and a teacher of mathematics. In the same village, he helped the future talented scientist, the famous designer of aircraft engines, Arkhip Lyulka to grow stronger. And already upon his return to Kyiv, he taught the "star" designer Sergei Korolev a lot. ['star' is a reference to Korolev as Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer.] These two students will be worthy of their teacher!

Throughout his life, Mikhail Filippovich remembered with gratitude his mother, a Polish national, who taught him foreign languages from childhood. French, German, Italian, Polish - these are the languages that M Krawtchouk used in his work. He published his scientific works both in the USSR and abroad.

In 1924 M Krawtchouk defended his doctoral dissertation, became a member of the mathematical associations of France, Germany, Italy, and in 1929 was elected a full member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.

The theory of quadratic forms, matrices and determinants, algebraic equations and analytic functions, differential and integral equations, mathematical statistics, various areas of analysis, number theory, geometry; these are an incomplete spectrum of the scientist's work.

Professor at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, Nina Afanasyevna Virchenko, researcher of the life and scientific works of M Krawtchouk, came to the conclusion that the main direction of development of mathematics the academician saw came from studying dialectical regularities in the development of concepts and positions which arise in reality. His works including "Space, time, matter", "Modern atomism", "Mathematical science in Ukraine", "Euler's influence on the further development of mathematics", "Mathematics and mathematical science at the University of Kyiv for a hundred years", "Introduction to higher mathematics", "Selected questions from the basics of infinitesimal analysis" have a broad scientific outlook, and contain the analysis of problems in the field of sciences close to mathematics. We owe to M Krawtchouk the development of the programme for the course "Elements of higher mathematics in relation to agriculture", and the textbook "Mathematics for agricultural vocational schools". The science world was enriched by the polynomials of the binomial distribution now called the Krawtchouk polynomials.

The scientist, being in his heyday of creative forces, had many plans and hopes. Unfortunately, he was not bypassed by the repressive Stalinist machine ...

Shel 1937. An article appeared in the Communist newspaper on 14 September, accusing the academician of exalting the enemies of the people, as the article "Successes in Mathematical Sciences" mentioned the names of several repressed scientists. In October, the presidium of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR recognised M Krawtchouk's actions as anti-Soviet and bourgeois-nationalist. On 21 February 1938, the academician was arrested by NKVD [People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs] officers, and his apartment was searched in Kyiv. For the "scientist with the face of Jesus Christ," as many of his contemporaries observed, the ascent to Calvary will begin.

It was especially difficult for Mikhail Filippovich to realize what his teacher, the mathematician Dmitry Aleksandrovich Grave, had told him. Many colleagues denounced M Krawtchouk, only some had the courage and honesty not to believe Stalin's traps, A Smogorzhevsky, I Pogrebinsky, P Bondarenko - people who did not make a deal with their conscience ...

On 23 September 1938, a visiting session of the military board of the Supreme Court of the USSR sentenced M Krawtchouk to 20 years in prison with a loss of political rights for five years. The sentence was not subject to appeal. The academician was accused of treason and espionage, as he was a member of the Scientific Society in Lviv and often travelled abroad. The accusation was even that he had knowledge of foreign languages and corresponded with scholars of capitalist countries.

"I was stunned by these wild accusations, physically beaten by night interrogations, in particular, complete deprivation of sleep for eleven days, exacerbation of heart disease, measures of direct physical impact, morally affected by screams, moans of torture in neighbouring rooms," wrote M Krawtchouk in a complaint dated 16 August 1940 from Magadan to the chairman of the Supreme Court of the USSR. M Krawtchouk was finally broken by threats: if he refused to accept that he had committed the crimes he was accused of, his family would be arrested and destroyed.

After the trial, M Krawtchouk's wife Esfir Iosifovna appealed to many of the authorities with complaints about unfair accusations, but there were no answers. In June 1945, after another petition to the People's Commissariat of State Security of the USSR to review her husband's case, she received a notification that Academician M Krawtchouk had died in Magadan in March 1942.

Mikhail Filippovich never found out that in the ill-fated 1937, the American scientist Atanasov, the inventor of the first computer, wrote to him in a letter that he used his works, those of a Ukrainian scientist, to develop an invention.

For many years M Krawtchouk worked on one mathematical problem, but did not tell anyone about it specifically. Already from Magadan, he wrote to his wife that he had solved this problem. The scientist's calculations were transferred to the camp authorities. Unfortunately, the fate of the academician's manuscripts remain unknown.

M Krawtchouk's path through the places of imprisonment was incredibly difficult. From the Lukyanovskaya prison he was transported to Novocherkassk, from where in April 1939 he was transferred to Vladivostok.

The organiser of the world's first museum-room for M Krawtchouk at the school in his native village of Cholnitsa, Stepan Lukashuk, managed to find out that the prisoners were transported to Khabarovsk in freight cars, and from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok they walked on foot. The equestrian NKVDs shot those who, weakened, could not walk ... In Vladivostok, the convicts, loaded onto barges, were transported for two weeks across the Sea of Okhotsk to Magadan, then through the mountain ranges to the mines.

For some time, the academician worked on the construction of the railway, and made calculations for transformer substations and power grids. But this lasted only three weeks, since M Krawtchouk substantiated the conclusion that it was inexpedient to build a railway in that place. The academician again found himself adrift. The daily norm for miners-prisoners was one and a half tons of ore (3 times more than for convicts under the tsar).

In March 1940 M Krawtchouk was declared unfit for physical labour. In June 1941, he was released from work in the mines. But he was sent for treatment only on 23 February 1942. Unfortunately, it was already late, and on 9 March the academician died. The cause of death was nephrosclerosis, cardiosclerosis and nephrogenic ulcerative gastroenterocolitis. The burial place of M Krawtchouk, like many other prisoners, remaines unknown.

Professor Nina Virchenko did a lot for the name of M Krawtchouk, the greatest patriot of Ukraine, to take his rightful place both in science and in history. Nina Afanasyevna is the organiser of international scientific conferences named after Academician Mikhail Krawtchouk, which are held in Kyiv with the participation of scientists from many countries of the world. Lesya Svinovey-Lukashuk, the daughter of the director of the Chelnytska school, S Lukashuk, told the residents of Volyn about the talented compatriot by bold publications in the press. It was not easy to break through to the reader with the work of the Kyiv writer Nikolai Soroka "Mikhail Krawtchouk". A bust of the scientist was erected near the school in Chelnitsa. For many years, the idea has been hatched to open a museum for the world famous mathematician in his native village. In the meantime, there is only a museum room at the local school.

Several years ago the inhabitants of Chelnitsa decided the village should celebrate on the day of the birth of the great compatriot. This tradition has been preserved. School mathematics Olympiads are held on the premises of the Chelnitsa school. (By the way, in 1935 M Krawtchouk organised the first mathematical Olympiad in Kyiv). Unfortunately, local obsessed admirers of M Krawtchouk cannot manage to raise enough money to open the museum. But this, of course, is a matter of time, which puts many things in their places. "You know," S Lukashuk, the organiser of the M Krawtchouk room-museum, once told me, "at the VIII scientific conference, which was held in 2000 in Kyiv, authoritative scientists from many countries declared that the works of our fellow countryman should be developed for another hundred years. ..." And this is another confirmation that the name of the academician from the Volyn village of Chelnitsa is not forgotten and will live on.

Last Updated March 2021