The 1936 Luzin affair

Delo akademika Nikolaya Nikolaevicha Luzina. (Russian)
[The case of Academician Nikolai Nikolaevich Luzin]

Edited by S. S. Demidov and B.V. Levshin. Russkii Khristianskii Gumanitarnyi Institut, St Petersburg, 1999. 312 pp.

Reviewed by F. Smithies

This book gives a full account of the "Luzin affair" of 1936, when an attempt was made to discredit the Russian mathematician Nikolai Luzin and have him expelled from the Academy of Sciences.

Details of the affair became available from about 1990 onwards, and an investigation, originally led by the late A. P. Yushkevich, was set on foot; its results are described in the present volume. The main descriptive text is by S. S. Demidov and V. D. Esakov, but is described as having been accomplished "with the collective help of the scientific community".

The authors describe the background of Moscow mathematics from 1920 onwards; an important school, in real-variable theory, was led by Luzin, and was nicknamed ("Luzitania"). They remark that Stalin's repression was weaker in mathematics than in some other sciences. The chief sufferer was D. T. Egorov, who had led an important school before World War I; he was attacked as a reactionary, was arrested in 1930, and died in exile in 1931. The Moscow Mathematical Society saved its skin by censuring Egorov and electing Ernest Kolman as president; Kolman was a loyal Bolshevik and an active ideologue, who became head of the scientific section of the Moscow party committee, but he was not generally taken seriously as a mathematician.

The Egorov affair alarmed Luzin, who had only recently returned from a long trip abroad; he gave up his university work, took refuge in the Central Aero-Hydrodynamics Institute in Leningrad, and worked in the Steklov Institute there. He continued to be head of the mathematical group in the Academy of Sciences.

Kolman attacked Luzin in print, associating him with Egorov and other reactionaries, and alleged that he was tainted with Fascism; this denunciation prevented Luzin from going to the international congress at Zurich in 1932. Very much later an OGPU file was discovered alleging that Luzin had met Hitler and received instructions from him.

The Academy and the Steklov Institute were both moved from Leningrad to Moscow in 1934, with the intention of giving the Academy a leading role in the development of Soviet science, making it a world leader, under the control of the Party and the Government.

The attack on Luzin began after he was asked to report on some school tests, and reported in an invited article in Izvestiya on 27 June 1936 that he found the standard surprisingly high. An article in Pravda on 2 July accused him of hypocritical praise, with the aim of smearing over inefficiencies and harming the school. An anonymous article on 3 July, almost certainly by Kolman, accused Luzin of
(i) praising weak work,
(ii) publishing his best papers in the West, and only second-rate ones in the USSR,
(iii) claiming his pupils' results as his own (in particular, those of Suslin and Novikov),
(iv) keeping good young candidates out of the Academy, and
(v) continuing to hold reactionary ideas from Tsarist times. It also described Luzin as "an enemy in a Soviet mask". Mekhlis, the editor of Pravda, immediately wrote to the Party's Central Committee, which authorised further inquiries, especially on item (ii).

On the same day a meeting of members of the Steklov Institute passed a vote of censure on Luzin, and asked the Presidium of the Academy to examine Luzin's position as head of the commission on the qualifications of prospective members.

Over the next few days, the Presidium decided to set up a special commission to investigate the accusations in the Pravda article, under the chairmanship of Krzhizhanovskii, who had been made vice-president in 1929, and had been given the task of overseeing the work of the Academy from the Party's point of view; he had direct access to Stalin.

A meeting of Moscow mathematicians on 7 July passed an anti-Luzin resolution. A stenographic record of the meetings of the special commission has survived. The commission met on alternate days from 7 to 13 July; the record of its meetings is reprinted in the present volume, and has been briefly annotated.

The tone of the first three meetings (7, 9 and 11 July) grew more and more aggressive towards Luzin; he was attacked by S. L. Sobolev, Shnirelman and Khinchin and defended by S. N. Bernstein. P. S. Aleksandrov agreed that Luzin had taken over Suslin's work, but kept his criticisms on an ethical level, with no hint of political wrong-doing. On the third day Sobolev raised the question of Luzin's exclusion from the Academy. On the same day Luzin attended the meeting by invitation; he defended himself for publishing his theoretical work abroad, on the grounds that it had no immediate practical value; he also attacked Kolman's mathematical competence. The wording of a draft resolution was discussed; in later drafts the words about harming the Soviet Union were omitted, as were those about subservience to the West, which had been the theme of a Pravda article on 9 July.

At the next sitting (13 July) the tone of the meeting had completely changed. It appears that Krzhizhanovskii had had a word with Stalin, who had asked for more factual specifics about some of the accusations, and asked for any resolution to be phrased in academic language; the upshot was that the softer form of the resolution was accepted, one that did not echo the more abusive remarks of the Pravda articles, such as the phrase about "an enemy in a Soviet mask". Luzin made a statement, promising to take account of the criticisms, and to publish primarily in the Soviet Union; his statement was received with understanding and sympathy. The authors indulge in a good deal of speculation about the reasons behind this remarkable reversal.

At the sitting on 15 July, the tone was sympathetic to Luzin, who was defended by several members. Krzhizhanovskii, as chairman, adhered closely to the formal resolution; he summarised the conclusion as saying that Luzin's behaviour was not on the level that should be expected from an Academician, and that he had been given a warning.

There is some evidence that another meeting may have taken place on 19 July; if so, no record of it has survived. The final text of the resolution reached the party's Central Committee by 25 July. Pravda continued its anti-Luzin campaign in articles on 15 July and on 6 August, but they provoked little notice. Eventually Gelfond and Shnirelman published a destructive review of Kolman's book on methods in mathematics, and he lost his position on the Moscow committee of the Party.

Publication of mathematical papers abroad had hitherto been common, but now practically ceased.

Luzin himself lost his university post and his role in selecting new members of the Academy, but remained an Academician. A certain alienation developed between some of the older academicians such as Bernstein, Vinogradov, A. N. Krylov and Luzin himself and some of the up-and-coming young men such as Aleksandrov, Sobolev and A. Ya. Khinchin. Nevertheless, the Soviet mathematical community recovered remarkably rapidly from the Luzin affair.

A number of documents are reprinted at the end of the book, including the Pravda articles, the resolutions passed at various meetings, and a selection of letters.

Reviewed by F. Smithies

Copyright © American Mathematical Society 2001, 2004

Last Updated March 2003