Krawtchouk in the GULAG

The article Krawtchouk in the GULAG (Russian) by Olga Unguryaw is at We give an English translation in which the Russian style is retained.

Krawtchouk in the GULAG

In the Camp at Kolyma, Academician Mikhail Krawtchouk made the Most Important Mathematical Discovery, the Record of which ... disappeared.

Sixty years ago, an outstanding Ukrainian mathematician, the mentor of the legendary designer Sergei Korolev and the creator of the first turbojet engine Arkhip Lyulka, died.

... One morning in March 1942, the warder struck the prisoner Krawtchouk with a metal stick three times - so that he would get up and go to work. But the prisoner was already dead. The semi-literate record of his burial, drawn up in an invalid OLP (a separate camp point) in Kolyma, read:
We, the undersigned, Commandant T Kuznetsov, chief of medical unit, T M Krasovskaya and Borisov drew up this record in the volume, that Mikhail Filippovich Krawtchouk died on 9 March and on 13 March was buried at a depth of 1.5 m with his head to the west ...
Thus ended the earthly journey of one of the outstanding mathematicians of the 20th century.

Krawtchouk had not been forgiven for refusing to "cooperate" with the justice system.

"The only consolation: he was buried with his head to the west. To the west - to his native Dnieper, to Ukraine," says the author of the first biographical story about academician Krawtchouk, the author Nikolai Soroka.

Far, far from the permafrost zone - in the Krawtchouks hut under a thatched roof, next to the Konopelka river, in the quiet village of Chovnitsa in Volyn, the future academician grew up. Mikhailik's father worked as a land surveyor, in his youth; he graduated from the Petrovsko-Razumovskaya Academy. His mother was fluent in several European languages and taught their four children German, Polish, and French. But the main language in the family was their native Ukrainian. And it is no coincidence that later Mikhail Krawtchouk was the first in the Ukraine to develop a project concerning algebraic and geometric terminology. Under his leadership, in the 1920s, employees of the Institute of the Ukrainian Scientific Language compiled a three-volume mathematical dictionary. And the students of Mikhail Filippovich, even after his death, will remember not only the beauty of the ideas that were presented in Krawtchouk's lectures, but also the beauty of his Ukrainian speech.

He was awarded the Gold medal from the Lutsk gymnasium, and a 1st degree diploma from Kyiv University ... At the age of 25, Krawtchouk became a privat-docent in the Department of Mathematics, at the age of 33 he became a Doctor of Sciences, a Professor, and at 37 he became a full member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.

"Mikhail Filippovich was a mathematician from God, indeed a poet of numbers," says Nina Virchenko, Doctor of Physics and Mathematics, Professor of the Department of Higher Mathematics at the National Technical University ("KPI"). His report at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Bologna, Italy, in 1928 became a sensation. Then he became friends with the best mathematicians in the West. Krawtchouk often solved problems that were beyond the power of other famous scientists. In 1929, he discovered fundamental results in the field of probability theory: he introduced new polynomials of the binomial distribution. Since then, in world scientific literature, they are known as the 'Krawtchouk polynomials'. Mikhail Filippovich managed to write over 180 scientific papers (of which 10 are monographs in various fields of mathematics) before he was arrested ...

The organisers chose the date of the trial, of course, with intent - after all, 9 March is the birthday of Taras Shevchenko. And they wanted to get Krawtchouk as a prosecutor for a reason: he was a very noticeable figure, and the company of his friends was appropriate: academician Agatangel Krymsky, poet, and literary critic Mykola Zerov (later they were repressed).

On 9 March 1930, in Kharkov, a show trial of the "counter-revolutionary organisation" "Spilka vizvolennya Ukrainy" (SVU) began, organised by the GPU. This was the beginning of the pogrom of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. Mikhail Krawtchouk was offered to act as a public prosecutor at the trial. He refused ...

For this Krawtchouk was not forgiven. In 1937, the newspaper "Kommunist" published a denunciation article "Academician Krawtchouk advertises enemies" signed by Mikhail Filippovich's respected colleagues; and the persecution of the academician began.

Then on 21 February 1938, NKVD [People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs] officers came to the apartment of the house on Engels Street (now Luteranskaya), where Mikhail Filippovich, his wife Esfira Iosifovna and children Zhenya and Natasha lived. A visiting session of the military collegium of the USSR Supreme Court sentenced the scientist to 20 years in prison and 5 years in exile for "anti-Soviet nationalist activity on the scientific and pedagogical front" and "the creation of a nationalist group at the Institute of Mathematics of the Academy of Sciences." They recalled his knowledge of foreign languages, and the correspondence with the "Polish henchmen" from the "panska Poland" (that is, the Ukrainian mathematicians from Galicia, Tchaikovsky and Zaritsky).

In a complaint addressed to the Chairman of the Supreme Court of the USSR, Mikhail Krawtchouk wrote (this appeal, like others, remained unanswered):
I was stunned by these wild accusations, physically broken by night interrogations, in particular, complete sleep deprivation for eleven days, exacerbation of heart disease, measures of direct physical pressure ..., The threats finally broke me: if I refuse to take on the uncommitted crimes, they will arrest and destroy my family ...
He spent six months in the special cell of Lukyanovskaya prison, got a single meeting with his wife and was sent to the zone ...

Even after the rehabilitation of Mikhail Krawtchouk in 1956, with the standard wording "in the absence of corpus delicti," his name was hushed up. It took the writer Nikolai Soroka many years of effort to recreate the history of the life and death of the academician.

Nikolai Alekseevich Soroka writes:
At first, I received anonymous letters with threats: "If you deal with Krawtchouk, the same fate awaits you - Kolyma," But little by little the "well-wishers" calmed down. And other letters began to arrive - answers to hundreds of my appeals to different people and to different authorities. In the end, it was possible to establish exactly how Academician Krawtchouk died. There were several versions on this score. I heard one of them from Academician Nikolai Bogolyubov: allegedly in 1941, at the personal request of the President of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Alexander Bogomolets, Krawtchouk was pardoned, but on the way home to Ukraine, he fell ill with typhus, and the train passengers threw him out of the carriage ... myth. Two records were filed to the personal file of prisoner Krawtchouk - about his death and about his burial, leaving no doubt about how everything really happened. Unless they dug a grave in the permafrost for him - most likely, they threw the body into a spent drift ...

In Kolyma, Krawtchouk suffered from scurvy, and his legs swelled up because of a bad heart. And this while he was engaged in science!

Despite a bad heart and with his health completely undermined in prison, Krawtchouk was declared as fit for physical work in the Far North. His route went to Magadan, and from there even further north, to the Kolyma gold mines.

The scientist worked as a miner in the most terrible Kolyma camp, Mal'dyak. Here, even in 60-degree frost, the daily rate was one and a half tons - three times more than a convict was supposed to do in the Nerchinsk mines under the tsar! In the last winter in Kolyma, Mikhail Filippovich was tormented not only by scurvy; his legs were terribly swollen due to a bad heart. And yet he was still engaged in science!

Former convict Popov testifies that in rare moments of rest in the barracks, the academician wrote some formulas on scraps of paper and every evening handed over notes to the camp authorities - only under this condition was he allowed to do mathematics. And the convict also recalls that Krawtchouk in Kolyma "solved the main problem over which he had been struggling for so long, and handed over the papers to the guards." And where these records are now is unknown ...

But in the same place, in Kolyma, Sergei Korolev was then serving time, So the student could meet with his teacher. At one time, they did not want to enrol Korolev in the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute - the young worker from Odessa lacked six months of work experience. But Krawtchouk convinced the members of the selection committee to enrol him as a talented applicant in violation of the instructions of the People's Commissariat for Education. At the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, Korolev listened to the lectures of Mikhail Filippovich. Who knows if Korolev would have become General Designer if it hadn't been for Krawtchouk's participation in his fate ...

The famous aircraft designer, creator of the first turbojet engine in the USSR, Arkhip Lyulka, would not have taken that place without his teacher. Mikhail Filippovich began to take care of a gifted orphan boy from the village of Savarka in the Kyiv region, when he was still a teacher at a local school. Then he helped him finish the vocational school, supported the student at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, paying Arkhip a "scholarship" from his own funds.

When many years later I met Academician Arkhip Mikhailovich Lyulka in his Moscow apartment, I saw two portraits of Taras Shevchenko and Mikhail Krawtchouk in the most honourable place.

What is the fate of Krawtchouk's "Kolyma theorem"?

They were looking for it in the KGB archives. But so far, alas, no traces have been found ...

"... From Magadan, Krawtchouk wrote to me that he had made a mathematical discovery, on which he had been working for 20 years. He gave the manuscript and calculations to his superiors. Perhaps the manuscript has been preserved there," the mathematician's wife, Esfira Iosifovna Krawtchouk, wrote in June 1945 in a letter to Savchenko, the People's Commissar state security of the Ukrainian SSR. "I beg you to reconsider the Krawtchouk case and, first of all, send an inquiry whether M F Krawtchouk is alive." Mikhail Filippovich was no longer in the world, but his wife did not know about it ...

When she returned to Kyiv from evacuation with her daughter Natasha (her son Zhenya served in the army until 1950), they were not allowed to enter the apartment. But then they were still allowed to occupy the smallest, 13-metre room. Natasha, who has grown up, brought her husband here. Zhenya returned here, and when he got married, his young wife Valeria also came here.

Until his last hour, Krawtchouk's wife remained faithful to him.

"Later it became clear that we are all relatives of 'enemies of the people.' Not an apartment, but an enemy's lair!" Valeria Mikhailovna Krawtchouk recalls with a sad smile. "The most surprising thing: there were no quarrels, no conflicts. But there are five people in one room, two young families!" Now I understand how wise and kind a person Esfira Iosifovna was. She never divided us into "friends" and "enemies". And until her last hour she remained faithful to Mikhail Filippovich.

She worked as a primary school teacher (the wife of the "enemy of the people" could not count on anything more) in the 86th Kyiv School. And she died soon after her husband's rehabilitation. I remember her telling me and Zhenya that she wanted to take a walk. We dissuaded her; the weather was bad. We heard her voice from behind the chintz curtain: "I do not need ..." And that's all. Her heart stopped ...

Did she tell you how she met Mikhail Filippovich?

They met for the first time during their student days, in Kiyanovskiy lane, where two sisters from Kyiv arranged dinners for students. They got married in 1918, taught together at the Savarian school. Mikhail Filippovich called his wife "mother". Once, Esfira Iosifovna told me, he said: "You know, mother, I would like to work with one boy - a very talented boy from a very poor family." This boy was the future famous mathematician Boris Isaac Korenblum ... Many people know about another student of Mikhail Filippovich - Arkhip Lyulka. But, probably, not everyone knows that he later helped our family - both morally and financially. If is wasn't for him, we would have huddled in the same room for a long time - Arkhip Mikhailovich sent Natasha and her husband money for a cooperative apartment.

And which of Mikhail Filippovich's colleagues helped the family after his arrest?

I know from Esfira Iosifovna that his talented student, the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute teacher Alexander Smorgozhevsky did not renounce his teacher. He expected arrest from day to day. And he even prepared a suitcase with things. Esfira Iosifovna worried about him: "What about your family?" He said: "You live, and I will live ..."

Valeria Mikhailovna kept Krawtchouk's last letter to his wife's brother in Moscow with a desperate question: "Where is Esfira? Where are the children?" Family photographs are also preserved, capturing the expressive features of Mikhail Filippovich's face, thick hair, and a soft smile.

Once a former student of Mikhail Filippovich came up to me and said: "You know, he was so handsome!"," recalls Valeria Mikhailovna. And looking at the last photo of Krawtchouk, taken in the Lukyanovskaya prison, quietly adds: "And what did they do to the man! ..."
P.S. In the USA, in the Museum of American History, there is a letter from American John Vincent Atanasoff to the Ukrainian scientist: "Dear Professor Krawtchouk! I found your series of publications ... very useful for my work. I would like to receive copies of any of your publications ..." John Atanasoff. He is the inventor of the first electronic computer ... According to tradition, the International Scientific Conference named after Academician Krawtchouk is held annually in KPI. This year it will take place on 16-19 May. The permanent organiser of these conferences is Nina Virchenko.

Nina Afanasyevna Virchenko says
Unfortunately, neither Kyiv nor Lutsk has a museum for the scientist. There is only a modest room-museum in the school, in the homeland of the academician - in the village of Chovnitsa. It was created thanks to the enthusiasm of the Lukashchuk family. As long as I live, I will strive for one of the streets in the capital to be named after Academician Mikhail Krawtchouk ...

Last Updated March 2021