Dan Mostow and the ICM, 1972-1990

We received the following article by Dr Sidnie Feit in early 2020. We have only made very minor editorial changes to the original material. She gives the following Acknowledgements: With thanks to G D (Dan) Mostow for carefully preserving his records of events, and Olli Lehto for his frank history of the IMU, Mathematics Without Borders.

1. Introduction.

Every four years, mathematicians from all over the world meet in an enormous 'International Congress of Mathematicians' (ICM), held in August. This is a time for greeting old friends, hearing fresh ideas, and identifying new talent. Attendees look forward to the lectures at the Congress, and it is a great honour to be invited to speak. A highlight of the meeting is the presentation, on the first day, of the Fields Medals - the "Nobel Prizes" in mathematics, awarded to up to four mathematicians under the age of 40.

The lecturers for each mathematical specialty (called a "Section") are selected by international panels consisting of experts in that specialty. In 1972, Dan Mostow was appointed to be the "Convenor" - in charge of the panel to nominate 1994 speakers for the Section on Algebraic Groups and Discrete Subgroups.

The International Mathematical Union (IMU) has the responsibility for organizing these Congresses. The IMU is one of the many organizations that make up the International Council for Science, (ICSU), which was formed to promote international cooperation for the advancement of science. The articles of the ICSU stated that its organisations (such as the IMU) need to:
... observe the basic policy of non-discrimination and affirm the rights of scientists throughout the world to adhere to or to associate with international scientific activity without regard to race, religion, political philosophy, ethnic origin, citizenship, language, or sex.
They also required:
... freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists, as well as equitable access to data, information, and other resources for research.
The "members" of the IMU are countries. Each country's National Academy selects a National Committee on Mathematics whose members attend a two-day General Assembly (GA) usually) held just before the current ICM. A typical description of the GA, (sent to participants) stated:
At the GA meeting, the major decisions are taken, for instance the members of Committees and Commissions for the next four-year term are elected, the budget is decided, the location of the next ICM is determined, and applications regarding IMU membership are voted on. You will be able to listen to the reports of IMU Committees and Commissions and the reviews of IMU related organizations. You will have an opportunity to participate actively in decision making and to meet and discuss with your IMU colleagues.
The activities include the selection of the members of the Executive Committee that will lead the next ICM.

The country chosen to host the next Congress must provide an Organizing Committee that will take responsibility for all of the tasks associated with staging a very large meeting. But the scientific part of the meeting (e.g., choosing and inviting speakers and prize winners) is organised by a Program Committee made up of selected members of the Executive and Organizing Committees. The Program Committee [Note. The Program Committee used to be called the Consultative Committee] is in charge of setting up the International Panels.

The narrative that follows covers a period when political conflicts challenged the creed of the IMU. In the 1970's and 1980's, influential Russians repeatedly and openly disdained and disobeyed the non-discrimination rules. And in December of 1981, the government of Poland, the country that had been chosen for the 1982 Congress, imposed Martial Law in an attempt to crush political opposition. Many Poles (including mathematicians and other scientists) were jailed or sent to detention camps.

In the 1990s, the Soviet Union dissolved, and many mathematicians fled Russia, in search of security and freedom. This narrative describes some of the events and conflicts of these periods.

2. Mathematics in Russia.

Russia has been the home of many talented mathematicians, but during the 1970's and 1980's, influential Russians exerted mounting pressure on mathematicians who were Jewish, belonged to certain other ethnic groups, or were otherwise out of political favour. Gradually, Jews and other targeted groups were blocked from obtaining the advanced (post-Ph.D) degree required for appointment to a University professorship. Next, they were prevented from obtaining PhDs, then, locked out of graduate school, and finally were barred from studying at undergraduate Universities.

Only a few mathematicians were allowed to travel, especially to countries outside the Eastern Bloc. Occasionally, peers in the outside world would become aware of a specific case of unfair treatment within Russia whose cause seemed mysterious.

Part of this program was the effort, led by Russian mathematicians Lev Pontryagin and Ivan Vinogradov, to gain control over the choice of all Russian lecturers and medal winners at the International Congress of Mathematicians, taking this duty away from the international panels. The Russians already exerted iron control over which mathematicians were allowed to travel to an ICM.

The mechanisms were revealed in a 1994 article in the Mathematical Intelligencer written by Professor Anatoly Vershik, professor at Saint Petersburg State University. In his courageous article, Vershik described the work of Russian government party committees in controlling Russian academic life in the 1970s and 1980s. Part of their job was to see that the party line was followed and to check up on the loyalty to the Communist Party of professors and students. Gradually, another of their important responsibilities at leading universities was to restrict the acceptance of Jews, members of certain other national minorities, and political pariahs - and their children - as students, scientific workers, or professors. In addition, it was very important to give preferment to the children and relatives of high level Communist party members, government officials, and KGB members. Vershik asked:
Why, gentlemen, are you silent about how things were done, how you managed education, admission to universities, selection of cadres? It would be useful for the educational community to know how and why the sciences lost hundreds, and possibly thousands, of indubitably talented individuals, potential leaders, hard workers profoundly dedicated to learning, whose lives have been distorted, often irreparably so.
The reason for silence undoubtedly was fear. Even though the Soviet Union began to collapse in 1989, and was formally dissolved in 1991, former members of the Communist Party Committees often continued to hold powerful positions in their institutions.

3. The 1974 International Mathematical Congress, in Vancouver.

One of the cases of discrimination that became well-known to the outside world in the 1970's was the treatment of Russian mathematician Gregory Margulis.

Gregory Margulis had been an undergraduate and graduate student at Moscow State University. By the time he got his Ph.D. degree, prestigious faculty positions at places like Moscow University and the Steklov Institute in Leningrad were closed to graduating Jewish mathematicians. He never received the essential Post-Ph.D. degree. Margulis obtained a job as a Junior scientific worker at the 'Institute for Problems in Information Transmission in Moscow'.

Margulis' mathematical research was closely related to G D (Dan) Mostow's, and in the early 1970's, Gregory Margulis and Dan Mostow began to correspond, exchanging papers and discussing ideas. Dan was delighted and impressed to discover that Margulis was creating important mathematics at the highest level. He was determined that Margulis should be invited to speak at the 1974 International Congress.

Dan seemed to be well-placed to make this happen. In June of 1972, he had been appointed as Convener of the Section 5 panel, 'Algebraic Groups and Discrete Subgroups'. A convener is responsible for organizing and leading the international panel that nominates a list of speakers for his Section. The list is submitted to the Congress' Program Committee, which makes the final decisions. Dan also was appointed Chair of his Section, with the job of introducing the speakers and presiding over their lectures. [Note. It should be noted that at this time, Dan was completing his most important work, the Strong Rigidity of Locally Symmetric Spaces, which played an essential role in the work of Fields medalists Margulis, Thurston, and Perelman.]

Dan's instructions stated that he should appoint at least two of the following as the core of his panel: A N Andrianov, F Bruhat, Gunter Harder, M S Raghunathan. Dan wrote to all four, inviting them to join. When Bruhat refused, they all agreed to invite Robert Langlands, who accepted.

Panel Member Andrianov, who was Russian, strongly recommended Vladimir Platonov as his Number 1 choice. The lists submitted by other panel members had included Russians David Kazhdan and Gregory Margulis.

Andrianov repeated his strong wish to add Platonov and definitely objected to David Kazhdan [Note. Kazhdan managed to leave Russia in 1975 and took a tenured post at Harvard. He received many awards, including a Macarthur "Genius" fellowship] and Gregory Margulis, (both Jewish), saying that they had not published anything interesting. Andrianov also claimed that Platonov had found a gap in a proof by Margulis. (Platonov was much in favour of removing Margulis.)

Dan agreed to add Platonov to his list. Dan was supposed to submit his list in order of preference, but this was difficult because of Andrianov's strong opinions. So instead, he submitted a list that was in alphabetical order. When the "final" program was circulated, Kazhdan's name was included, (although the Russians did not allow him to attend) but Margulis' name was missing. Dan protested, stating that Margulis's "result on arithmeticity would be the most spectacular announcement of the Section."

Finally, an updated program appeared, with Margulis scheduled to talk in the Section on Differential Geometry and Analysis on Manifolds - whose panel had no Russian members. Dan was not surprised when Margulis wrote him a letter saying that the Soviets would not permit him to attend, and asking Dan to present his paper. Later, Dan described what happened next:
I was the chairman of one of the first-day sessions. On that evening, I received an envelope from the chairman of the meeting committee containing a hand-written paper by Margulis entitled "On Some Motions On Spaces Of Negative Curvature." I looked at the paper and recognized that it was a proof of the arithmeticity of Lattices of Rank >1 [Note. An achievement that had been unsuccessfully attempted by some of the world's top mathematicians]. I spent the night reading the paper. David Kazhdan, who was scheduled the next day, had not been able to attend, so I took the liberty of presenting Margulis' paper at a special seminar at the time of Kazhdan's scheduled talk. The front row included [members of the Royalty of mathematicians] Atiyah, Borel, and Deligne - and there were gasps of surprise and admiration.
In a 1978 article, Dan Mostow wrote about Margulis's background and achievements, stating:
When I lectured on Margulis's results at Harvard in 1974, David Mumford, a Fields medalist in that year, entitled the talk "Recent breath-taking results of G A Margulis." This unwonted adjective for a mathematical topic perhaps helps convey the electrifying excitement generated by Margulis' result among the mathematicians of the world.
Margulis and Kazhdan were not the only invited Russian speakers who did not attend the 1974 Congress. The Russians complained about many of the choices of Soviet speakers, and 21 of the 41 invited Russian speakers could not attend. For the first time, the current President of the IMU, Komaravolu Chandrasekharan, found it necessary to state that as a member of the International Council for Science (ICSU), the IMU was committed to the free circulation of scientists.

Specifically, at that time, the full ICSU Principle of Universality of Science stated that:
The free and responsible practice of science is fundamental to scientific advancement and human and environmental well-being. Such practice, in all its aspects, requires freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists, as well as equitable access to data, information, and other resources for research. It requires responsibility at all levels to carry out and communicate scientific work with integrity, respect, fairness, trustworthiness, and transparency, recognizing its benefits and possible harms.

In advocating the free and responsible practice of science, ICSU promotes equitable opportunities for access to science and its benefits, and opposes discrimination based on such factors as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political or other opinion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or age.
4. Prelude to the 1978 International Congress in Helsinki.

Olli Lehto recorded the history of the IMU and its International Congresses in frank detail in his book, Mathematics without Borders. The period leading up to the 1978 Congress was stressful. From 1971 to 1978, Lev Pontryagin, a brilliant Russian mathematician, was a member of the IMU Executive Committee, tasked with leading the planning of Congresses.

Pontryagin turned out to be a problem, disagreeing with the current IMU rules that stated that the mathematical program was to be created by international committees. Pontryagin insisted that the Russian National Committee must choose all Russian speakers and have control over any Russian medal winners, claiming that the Soviet National Committee was the best judge of Soviet mathematics. Pontryagin also was known to rant about Zionist influences.

Gregory Margulis had been selected to receive the 1978 Fields Medal. In his history, Olli Lehto wrote that in Paris, in the spring of 1978:
During the joint luncheon of the Executive Committee, a veritable clash occurred. Pontryagin knew that one of the Fields medalists was G A Margulis from the USSR, and he was furious about this choice. He let it be understood that it was a shame for the Union and for the Fields Medal Committee to have selected as a winner a second-rate mathematician like Margulis.

If Pontryagin spoke with force, the answer he received came with equal vigour.

The essence of what Chandrasekharan [then President of the Executive Committee] said was that while it might not be absolutely certain that the Committee had found the four most deserving medalists, it was absolutely certain that the mathematics of all those selected was of the highest quality and deserved profound admiration. Pontryagin, realizing that Chandrasekharan had the full support of all the others present, did not continue the debate.
As was usual, a General Assembly of the National Committees met just before the 1978 Congress. [Note. Dan Mostow was a member of U.S. National Committee for 1975 to 1978, and so attended the Assembly.] The Assembly was held in Otaniemi, Finland (near Helsinki) on 11-12 August. Lehto observed that:
... the disagreement between the IMU and the Soviet National Committee for Mathematics about the preparation of the mathematical program of International Congresses began to disturb East-West mathematical relations. At the 1978 General Assembly the discussions about the North-South connections and the Soviet disagreement played a prominent part.
The Soviet Committee managed to gain some ground. At the Assembly, a Resolution was accepted that stated that in 1979, the National Committees would be allowed to send proposals, remarks, and comments on the selection of invited speakers. But almost all members agreed that there was no reason to change the existing procedure.

The Site Committee choosing the location for the next Congress met right after the Assembly and selected Warsaw, Poland as the location for the 1982 Congress.

5. The 1978 Congress in Helsinki.

The year 1978 had special significance for Dan Mostow, because at the age of 55, he had achieved a breakthrough result, later published as: Existence of a Nonarithmetic Lattice in SU(2,1).

Although the regular program had already been set, on May, 17, Oli Lehto wrote:
Thank you for your letter of May 10 and the abstract of your lecture. I had already heard from your remarkable result from Professor Borel. I am pleased to say that we can meet your wishes about time and space, so that we can include your lecture in the program. We have reserved 40 minutes for your lecture ...
* * *
On June 12, 1978, Fields Medalist Margulis wrote to Mostow, saying:
Apparently, I shall be able to attend the international Congress of Mathematicians at Helsinki and I look forward to meeting you. If not, I should be very glad to meet you in Leningrad or in Moscow.
When the Russian demand for control of the choice of all Russian speakers and medal winners did not succeed, only 14 of the 28 Russian speakers who had accepted their invitations appeared, and, instead of the hundreds of Russian mathematicians expected to make the trip to nearby Helsinki, only 55 (which did not include Pontryagin) attended the ICM meeting, which was next-door to Russia.

And the Soviets did not allow Margulis to travel from Russia to the nearby Helsinki Congress to receive his Fields medal.

At the Congress, the highly-respected Jacques Tits of the Coll├Ęge de France spoke eloquently and at length about Margulis' work, saying in conclusion:
Margulis has completely or almost completely solved a number of important problems in the theory of discrete subgroups of Lie groups, problems whose roots lie deep in the past and whose relevance goes far beyond that theory itself. It is not exaggerated to say that, on several occasions, he has bewildered the experts by solving questions which appeared to be completely out of reach at the time. He managed that through his mastery of a great variety of techniques used with extraordinary resources of skill and ingenuity. The new and most powerful methods he has invented have already had other important applications besides those for which they were created and, considering their generality, I have no doubt that they will have many more in the future.
I wish to conclude this report by a non-mathematical comment. This is probably neither the time nor the place to start a polemic. However, I cannot but express my deep disappointment - no doubt shared by many people here - in the absence of Margulis from this ceremony. In view of the symbolic meaning of this city of Helsinki, I had indeed grounds to hope that I would have a chance at last to meet a mathematician whom I know only through his work and for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.

[Note. The J Tits lecture was published in the Proceedings as: The Work of Gregori Aleksandrovitch Margulis.]

In Mostow's later paper, Margulis, written for "Grisha's" 60th birthday celebration, Mostow described the aftermath of the 1978 ICM.
I had exchanged letters with Margulis before the Congress to arrange to meet him in Helsinki in case he was given permission to attend and to meet in Leningrad if he was not able to attend. After the Congress, my wife and I traveled to Leningrad and met him, as we had planned, in front of the Hermitage. Margulis graciously took my wife and me to many interesting sights in and around Leningrad during the several days that we stayed there, and, in the following week, in Moscow.

In order to visit us at our hotel, he had to call me from a public telephone booth near the hotel so that I could come down to the front door and escort him past the guard. Whenever he came to my room, I had to keep in mind that our conversation was being monitored.

Professionally, Margulis could not get a professorial position at Moscow University, even after winning the medal. In fact, even his efforts to defend his advanced doctoral dissertation at Moscow University were fruitless. He had a sinecure job at the Institute for the Transmission of Information, which did have the merit of giving him much free time for mathematics.
[Note. Margulis left Russia in 1990 and in 1991, accepted a professorship at Yale. He subsequently received a Wolf Prize and other honours.]

In 1979, Margulis was allowed to attend a meeting in Bonn, Germany where he was presented with his Fields Medal.

6. The Treatment of Mathematicians in Russia.

The November, 1978 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) included the article, The Situation in Russian Mathematics written by several anonymous mathematicians who had left the Soviet Union. The article exposed both deep corruption and anti-Semitism at every level of the Russian academic environment: in the access to universities, granting of degrees, ability to publish, and the ability to travel. The National Committee of Soviet Mathematicians had extreme power. According to the article in the Notices, which was endorsed by 16 noted American mathematicians:
This Committee determines the membership of delegations to international conferences and has to approve all the addresses by Soviet mathematicians. No Soviet mathematician may join any international society or the editorial board of a foreign journal without the blessing of the Committee. This doubtless explains why scientists who happen to be Jewish rarely take trips abroad, even when the trip is recommended by the employing institution and by the local party organisation.
Before the end of the sixties, the fate of manuscripts depended mainly on their scientific level. After that the editorial board was reorganised. There has since been a radical change in the editorial policy. Manuscripts by Jews and other unwanted people are often rejected, even when they are prepared on the initiative of the publisher.
By 1970, gifted students applying to prestigious institutions were being subjected to the same discrimination. Those already in the system were finding it impossible to obtain advanced degrees.

7. The Russians in 1979.

The Notices article cited above shed light on the motives behind the aggressive behaviour of the Russians by the their National Committee in 1979.

After the 1978 Congress, the Russian National Committee pushed even harder to overturn the established ICM procedures. [Note. Fortunately, Pontryagin was no longer on the Executive Committee. His place was taken by Yuri Prokhorov, who seemed to have no interest in politics. He only attended one meeting - the one that affirmed that the ICM would be held in Warsaw in 1983.] In May of 1979, IMU President Carleson received a letter from Ivan Vinogradov, who had been Chairman of the National Committee of Soviet Mathematicians since its founding in 1956. Vinogradov insisted that all USSR speakers would henceforth be chosen by the Soviet National Committee.

All attempts at negotiation failed. Finally, In November of 1979, Czeslaw Olech, who now was the President of the Organizing Committee for the Warsaw Congress, went to Moscow to discuss the problem. Vinogradov (who was 88 years old) had set out his issues in six points - which included a threat to boycott the Polish Congress. Vinogradov's demands were reported in Lehto's Mathematics Without Borders as follows:

  1. The categorical dissatisfaction of the Soviet Committee of Mathematicians with the procedure by which invited speakers were selected was noted. Further, Vinogradov and Pontryagin noted that "the Consultative Committees have systematically discriminated against Soviet candidates, rejecting strong candidates proposed by the Soviet Committee and including in the program candidates well known to be weak. In this behaviour of the Consultative Committees, an important role was played by the openly racist propaganda of the Zionists, widely advertised by the Western press."

  2. Western mathematicians with Zionist ideology have taken advantage of the ICMs for anti-Soviet political activity, which has nothing to do with and is detrimental to the scientific work of the Congress.

  3. The Soviet Committee will prepare a list of Soviet mathematicians proposed to be invited as speakers and will submit it to the Polish Organizing Committee.

  4. The Soviet Committee is of the opinion that the procedure in force before the Stockholm ICM-1962 should be restored; i.e., invited speakers should be elected by the national Organizing Committee on the recommendation of the participating countries.

  5. In compliance with the wish of the Polish Organizing Committee, the Soviet Committee is doing its best for the successful execution of the Warsaw Congress. Should the justified claims of the Soviets regarding the selection of invited speakers from the USSR not be met with, the Soviet Committee will consider, as an extreme measure, withdrawing from the Congress.

  6. Following the wish of the Polish Organizing Committee, the Soviet Committee intends to consider once more the possibility of the participation of Academician Faddeev [whom the Soviets had ordered to quit the executive Committee] in the activities of the Consultative Committee.
The situation looked hopeless.

However, the next day, the Soviet Academy of Sciences walked it back. Czeslaw Olech met with E. P. Vielichov, a Vice-President of the Soviet Academy, who said that a boycott was out of the question. Olech was promised a letter from Aleksandrov, the President of the Soviet Academy, pledging cooperation and support.

In early February it was official - Russia would participate and nothing would change.

8. The Warsaw Congress, 1982 and 1983.

The Site Committee choosing the location for the 1982 Congress had met right before the 1978 Assembly and selected Warsaw, Poland as the location for the 1982 Congress. At that time, Poland was part of the USSR, but the Polish mathematicians had been resolutely against Vinogradov's proposal.

Czeslaw Olech, a Polish mathematician newly elected to the IMU Executive Committee, was delighted. - as were a group of 1978 meeting attendees from Poland. These Polish attendees had prepared to have a very good time at the 1978 meeting. Olli Lehto noted that:
The Poles came to Helsinki by a boat that they had rented for their exclusive use. During the Congress, it stayed anchored close to the University, and, being in harbour for non-commercial purposes, at a low cost. Thus it offered convenient accommodation. But more than that, the Poles had taken with them ample stores of food and liquor, and there was an orchestra on board. Invitations to Polish parties soon became a coveted privilege.
But Poland turned out to be a fateful choice for the 1982 Congress.

Lech Walesa was a Polish electrician who worked in the Lenin (now Gdansk) Shipyard. His role as a Trade Union activist caused the authorities in Poland to arrest him several times. Walesa continued his activities and became a strike leader, and the strikes spread across Poland. In 1980, Walesa co-founded and headed the Solidarity Trade Union, and Solidarity grew into a powerful political force with over 10 million members.

The Polish government attempted to destroy Solidarity by imposing Martial Law in December, 1981. It was harsh. From Wikipedia:
After the introduction of martial law, pro-democracy movements such as Solidarity and other smaller organisations were banned, and thousands of their leaders and activists, including Lech Walesa, were imprisoned without court sentence. In the morning, thousands of soldiers in military vehicles appeared on the streets of every major city. A curfew was imposed, the national borders sealed, airports closed, and road access to main cities restricted. Telephone lines were disconnected, mail was subject to postal censorship, all independent official organisations were criminalised, and classes in schools and universities suspended. Only newspapers controlled by the Communist Party or the military could be published.

The government imposed a six-day work week while the mass media, public services, healthcare services, power stations, coal mines, sea ports, railway stations, and most key factories were placed under military management, with employees having to follow military orders or face a court martial. As part of the crackdown, media and educational institutions underwent "verification", a process that tested each employee's attitude towards the regime and to the Solidarity movement; as a result, thousands of journalists, teachers and professors were banned from their professions. Military courts were established to bypass the normal court system, to imprison those spreading "false information". In an attempt to crush resistance, civilian phone lines were routinely tapped and monitored by government agents.

There were attempts to resist via strikes and demonstrations. After the violent strike-breaking of the "Wujek" Coal Mine in Katowice on December 23, 1981, the United States imposed economic sanctions against the People's Republic of Poland. In 1982 the United States suspended most favoured nation trade status until 1987 and vetoed Poland's application for membership in the International Monetary Fund.
There was no hope of holding an International Congress in Poland in 1982. Governments were unwilling to provide travel funds to send their mathematicians into a dangerous situation. As Dan Mostow, now Chairman of the U.S. IMU Committee, wrote in a report to the IMU Executive Committee on March 15 of 1982:
In response to the inquiry of President Lennart Carleson about the expected attendance of U.S. mathematicians at the scheduled Warsaw conference, the members of the U.S. National Committee have undertaken to solicit the views of mathematicians in various parts of our country. Although many different views are expressed, there is a broad consensus on the following points.

1. A Congress taking place under martial law would be very poorly attended.

2. The outlook of a 1982 Congress in Warsaw is made even gloomier by the fact that the Polish government has not granted the President of the IMU, Lennart Carleson, the assurances that he has requested.

Our committee does not believe that a successful Congress can be held under martial law. Of course, the decision to attend or not is up to each individual. The opinion we offer is based on the information we have collected.

We understand fully the earnest desire of the Polish mathematicians to hold the Congress in Warsaw. We believe that they, as well as we, would like the Congress to be successful. Accordingly, we would welcome the postponement of the Congress for one year, in hopes that it might be held in Warsaw with complete success a year later.

We recognise the problems caused by postponement impose a heavy burden on the Executive Committee, especially if it turns out that an alternative location becomes necessary.

Our apprehension about convening the 1982 Congress in Warsaw does not apply to the General Assembly. Indeed, the U.S. delegation would be delighted at the prospect of contact with Polish mathematicians.
The 1982 General Assembly did take place - in Warsaw - on August 8 and 9. Conditions in Warsaw had improved, at least for the visitors. Arrangements for the eighty delegates who attended were well-planned and hospitable. There were long discussions on whether to hold the Congress in Warsaw in 1983.

The Proceedings of the Assembly include the following summary of a speech by Dan Mostow, whom the Assembly had elected to the IMU Executive Committee:
As members of the IMU, we welcome the opportunity to assemble in Congresses with mathematicians from all over the world, and we appreciate the mutual trust that our shared language of mathematics fosters. It is normal that the Congress meet in countries governed by diverse political systems.

However, when a country declares martial law, it announces that its authority is irregular, no longer resting on the consent of the governed. On its face, martial law is incompatible with the tranquillity that a host country is expected to provide an International Congress. After December 13, a Warsaw IMU Congress seemed unthinkable.

However, following the visits of Pres Carleson, Prof Lions, and Prof Lehto to Warsaw last February, they reported that our Polish Colleagues fervently desire the Congress to proceed and that moreover, under certain improved circumstances, a Congress was conceivable. We were urged to look beyond the term "martial law" which was aimed primarily at reversing economic decline.

Along with our colleagues in other countries, American mathematicians are caught in a conflict between dedication to principles on the one hand, and the desire to help our Polish colleagues on the other. In today's discussion in this General Assembly, we are asked to advise the Executive Committee on desiderata for its forthcoming November vote on whether to reconfirm the 1983 Warsaw Congress or to cancel it.

Based on information collected by the U.S. National Committee for Mathematics, the major obstacle before individual American mathematicians contemplating attending a Warsaw Congress is the moral repugnance at the imprisonment of many, merely for exercising their rights as responsible citizens.

The Human Rights Committee of the National Academy of Sciences, through its sources of information, has been collecting information about the abuse of scientists, wherever available. For example, it has sought the release of Jose L Massera from imprisonment in Uruguay. I have with me a list of 156 Polish scientists who have been reported imprisoned since December, 13. I hope that by October, the status of the scientists on the list will be made known by Polish authorities--whether freed, detained without charges, or convicted for specified crimes. The French delegation has independently taken a similar initiative. We urge the Executive Committee to study the data made available by these inquiries before making its decision in November. U.S.A. attendance at a Warsaw Congress will be dependent on how much improvement we perceive in the liberation of Polish colleagues.
But the more the discussion progressed, the more the opinion of the delegates turned favourable to the Congress. Whatever doubts there were about the success of the Warsaw Congress, the other alternative, cancellation of the Congress, was seen to be detrimental. The final decision was left to the November meeting of the Executive Committee.

The 1982 Warsaw Assembly did succeed in performing an important function; the Congress accepted an invitation to have the 1986 Congress in the United States (in Berkeley, California).

Before leaving Warsaw, Dan met with officials of the Polish Foreign Ministry to discover the status of the 156 scientists.

He was told that 52 had never been arrested, 76 had been released, 23 were interned, 3 were arrested, and 1 was in a psychiatric hospital. A letter-writing campaign was organised to urge release of the remainder.

Some time after the August 8-9 Warsaw Assembly, the following alarming (undated) document from an unidentified Polish mathematician was received by the Bers and committee and passed to Dan Mostow. It ended with a description of a very disturbing incident on August 14, 1982.
General remarks about a help of scientists to the prosecuted Polish colleagues.

As a person deeply engaged in the events in Poland I do announce: The present events are not the end of the suffering, the worst is ahead. It clearly follows from what is happening in Poland: the growing polarisation of the society and economic gap between the party, militarian establishment and the rest of society, the economic collapse, increasing determination of workers and young people, getting used of the society to the violence etc. We think that the massive economic help is necessary rather not in the present time but it will be in the near future. E. g. actually 10 mathematicians are known to be removed of job for evidently political reasons. Now the Polish math. Society tries to help them, but the number may quickly increase. Information about teachers in the country propagate very slow.

What we actually need is:

1. Do organise an efficient information action about the repressions in Poland, distribute the information's at universities all over the world. The present action seems to be too local.

2. Let the scientists try to visit Poland, both officially and privately, in order to: observe trials, try to visit prisons and internees (do not bother with unsuccessful attempts), contact with their families, listen to relations of released persons.

Do maintain all contacts with your acquainted in Poland.

3. Make an interest of West-Germans mathematicians to the problem. The military authorities have a great respect to West-Germans. Furthermore you should protest when you listen to the following opinions:

i. "The day-after-day life in Poland looks normally." Such opinions were quoted during the session of the Int. Math. Union in Warsaw. Say that a good mathematician should not generalise the life in hotel "Forum" onto the case of all the country. Furthermore, remember that the situation in the country is much worse than in Warsaw (in particular in Silesia, which is the stronghold of Stalinism, Bialystok, Radom, Torun).

ii. "The situation in Poland is better than in Argentina, Lebanon and so on".

All terrible bloodsheds follow gradually. But in Poland the transition of December 13, 1982 was performed extraordinarily quickly and violently. During one night the liberal European country became a totalitarian dictatorship. Nobody knows the number of victims of the martial law and protesting demonstrations and brutality of police. The situation in Poland is a real threat to neighbouring colleagues.

iii. Imprisoned mathematicians are not famous. The prevailing age of imprisoned math. is below 30. But some are winners of internal or international Olympic games (Rusiecki, Dibikajitis, Garez, Kowakski).

Information for the Amnesty International headquarter. It is important to propagate it broadly.

Accident [should be "incident"] in Kwidzn prison.

On August 14, 1982 in Kwidzn at the visiting time police beat internees. The victims were beaten with gum sticks in cells, then dragged outside and pursued through the famous "health tracts." The families of the internees, getting out after the visits, heard terrible cries of their relatives. About 60 people have been beaten, including about 30 seriously. There are 5 hospitalisations: Vladislaw Kalusinki (backbone damage), Zdzisduza (heart attack), Golawaki and two unidentified persons. This accident was considered to be a consequence of a recent change of prison chief: Mr Nikolajczyk was considered as too "liberal" and replaced with a tougher man.
Poland was in an economic crisis, Solidarity was illegal, and there were many demonstrations against restrictions on civil liberties. Doubts of the wisdom of a 1983 Congress increased. In an October 20,1982 letter to Carleson, Mostow stated:
A month ago I requested the members of the U.S. National Committee on Mathematics to sample opinion in their regions of the country about attending an International Congress of Mathematicians in Warsaw, August 1983. The responses that I received from my committee members were remarkably uniform. Everywhere mathematicians strongly reject the idea of attending such a Congress. Over 80% of the responding mathematicians replied that they would not go even if granted travel funds.

The reasons offered for not going are:

1. Reluctance to run the risk of getting engulfed in demonstrations.

2. Attending the Congress sanctions the present Polish regime.

3. Attendance would be tantamount to rejection of their personal beliefs about civil liberties
The only mathematicians expressing strong desire to attend the Warsaw Congress were those who were planning to make public protests on behalf of imprisoned mathematicians.
A practical consideration was that since January 1982 there had been a block on the use of US federal funds for travel to Warsaw.
Further warnings were expressed in a letter [Probably sent in October or November of 1982] from Boleslaw Wierzbanski and Henry Hiz of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America in New York City to Professor Enrico Bombieri of the Institute for Advanced Study (and cc to G D Mostow and Edward Sontag). They argued strongly against holding the Congress in Warsaw, citing the mathematicians and physicists who were in jail, and the fact that accepting the current situation in Poland would be exploited by the government for propaganda.

The final decision was in the hands of the IMU Executive Committee, meeting in Paris in November 1982. For the first - and last - time, their new Russian member, Prohorov, attended. He calmly made a strong case for holding the meeting, whose location was so favourable to attendees in the USSR. Furthermore, Polish member Czeslaw Olech did not wish this chance for a Polish Congress to be lost. The group decided to go ahead with the 1983 Warsaw Congress - knowing that the decision would be very unpopular.

According to Olli Lehto in Mathematics Without Borders:
The matter-of-fact performance of Prohorov was to the taste of the Executive Committee. He certainly contributed to the final decision. After a long discussion, the Executive Committee decided to confirm the organisation of the ICM-82 in Warsaw in August 1983.

The decision defied widespread general opinion. How to make it public was therefore of importance, and the Executive Committee devoted due effort to the formulation of the announcement.
The reasons in favour of holding the Congress were explained as follows (see page 233 of Mathematics Without Borders):

Information and views received did not point in a single direction, and the Committee had considerable difficulty in reaching its decision. In the light of all the information, the Executive Committee did not feel justified in taking the drastic step of canceling the Congress. On the other hand, the Executive Committee believes that there are indications that a Congress in 1983 could be scientifically successful. The tradition of regular congresses is an important one which has only been interrupted during the two world wars. It is our conviction that our decision to hold the International Congress of Mathematicians in 1983 best promotes international cooperation in mathematics.

In reaching this decision, the Executive Committee expresses its sincere wish that all those connected with the Congress will respect its non-political nature.

The Congress was scheduled for 16-24 August 1983.

Fortunately, tremendous luck was on their side.

9. The Miraculous Polish Pope.

The Polish Pope, John Paul II, visited Warsaw in June, 1983, and met with leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski for two hours.

Pope Paul pressed Jaruzelski to end martial law and restore the Solidarity Union - and to allow him (the Pope) to meet with Lech Walesa. Permission was given.

The Pope met with Walesa and persuaded him to halt demonstrations.

At a huge outdoor mass, the Pope urged restraint from his countrymen and an end to demonstrations.

The result was that Jaruzelski set July 22, 1983 as the date for the end of martial law, and angry demonstrations ceased.

Before the ICM convened, all Polish mathematicians had been released from prison and internment. The math Congress proceeded in complete safety from August 16 to 24 and was a success. 600 Polish mathematicians attended the meeting. However, only 100 American mathematicians were able to attend, probably because the announcement to end martial law came too late to obtain funds or make plans.

A final assessment of the Polish ICM was done by Dan Mostow in an article entitled The 1983 Warsaw Congress published in the Notices of the AMS in October, 1983. He stated that the physical and scientific arrangements had been very well organised, the level of the invited speakers was excellent, math topics were well covered, and there were good opportunities for mathematicians to meet informally. He reported that several of the very best Soviet mathematicians were able to attend a Congress for the very first time.

Finally, he noted that "There was wide consensus that, scientifically, the Congress was a success." and concluded "In retrospect, the decision made by the IMU Executive Committee in November 1982 to hold the Congress turned out to be a fortunate one."

However, there was an important issue that remained unresolved. In 1982, Mostow had expressed concerns about countries - especially Russia - that blocked invited speakers and other mathematicians from attending Congresses. To reassure him, he had been given a copy of a letter (dated 8 September 1982) from Frank Press, the President of the US National Academy of Sciences, to Lennart Carleson, who was President of the IMU from 1978 to 1982. In it, Frank Press states:
With particular reference to the ICSU resolutions on the free circulation of scientists, we are consulting with appropriate government officials and will be in communication with you again shortly.
But concerns about the Polish ICM had been the focus of attention, and no specific anti-discrimination action had been undertaken.

10. Ludwig Faddeev, the 1986 General Assembly, and a Resolution.

Ludvig Faddeev was a leading Russian Mathematical Physicist, publishing in both fields. Faddeev was the director of the mathematics division of the prestigious Steklov Institute in Leningrad. In 1982, Faddeev had been elected to be one of the two Vice Presidents of the IMU Executive Committee. Olli Lehto described the events that followed:
Before the 1985 Executive Committee meeting convened, the Soviet National Committee suggested, in March 1985, that Ludwig Faddeev be elected President. Considerable time at the meeting of the Executive Committee on 9 May 1985 was devoted to a discussion of Faddeev's candidacy - one year before the Executive Committee's decision had to be finalised. The minutes of the Executive Committee meeting say not a word about the details of this discussion, but the pros and cons were presented in the letter the Executive Committee member Mostow sent to the members of the U.S. National Committee for Mathematics four days later.
The pros and cons related in Mostow's letter were described in Lehto's 1998 Mathematics Without Borders, as follows:
An argument in favour of Faddeev was the fact that of the mathematical superpowers, the USA had had three IMU Presidents, the USSR none. Remarks concerning this imbalance had been made a few times by the Soviets. It was agreed at the meeting that Faddeev was a mathematician of high standing who had excellent personal qualities.

"He understood the West, and concerns regarding East-West cooperation could be directed to him openly."

"Not agreeing to the proposal of the USSR might prove detrimental to Soviet collaboration in the IMU, particularly since a negative decision could not be easily justified."

Arguments against Faddeev were functional and symbolic. Fears - said to derive from past experience - were expressed that in Leningrad, Faddeev could be badly incommunicado. Worse still, even as President, he might be subjected to constraints imposed on him by the official Soviet bureaucracy.

At the symbolic level, Mostow took up the matter of discrimination against Jewish mathematicians in the Soviet Union. His decision was to oppose a Soviet as President at this time, on the grounds that there were continuing and substantial violations of the norms of scientific merit in the Soviet mathematics faculties.
Many disagreed with his opposition, and he was under a great deal of pressure to drop it. For example, on July 18, 1985, Lennart Carleson, prior President of the IMU, wrote to Mostow:

To keep the IMU working as a means for mathematicians to cooperate and meet should be our main guideline. Politically sensitive problems should then not be dealt with by the IMU but be transferred to other organisations.
If you - as I hope - accept this view of the IMU you must also accept that we have to accept Soviet mathematicians from the establishment as members and also - once in a while - as presidents of the IMU. In my opinion we cannot hope for any such candidate who is more reasonable and positive to international cooperation than Faddeev. Your opposition is of course known in the Soviet Union and if the IMU would let your opposition lead to his name being dropped, this would give rise to an (understandable) negative reaction to IMU in general in the Soviet union.

The 1986 Mathematical Congress was held at the University of California, Berkeley. The Berkeley General Assembly was scheduled for July 31 to August 1 in nearby Oakland.

At the Assembly, the pressure continued, but instead of relenting, on the morning of the first day of the Assembly, Dan thought of a solution. The ICSU's Principle of Universality of Science already called for international collaboration and opposed "discrimination based on such factors as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political or other opinion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or age."

Dan drafted a non-discrimination Resolution (shown on the following page) that was stronger than the existing ICSU rule, and could be submitted to a vote at this General Assembly.

He showed his new draft resolution to Lars Hormander, one of the two incoming Vice Presidents of the IMU [Walter Feit was the other], stating that if Faddeev approved the Resolution, Mostow would support Faddeev's candidacy. Hormander gave him permission to proceed, and Dan wrote:
Thereafter I showed the draft to Faddeev; he replied that the proper person with whom to discuss the draft was the Chairman of the Soviet delegation to the General Assembly. When I did so, the Chairman listened attentively and asked if he might take the draft and meet me a few hours later at noon. When we met at noon, he returned my draft with a barely perceptible revision and pledged their support in the General Assembly.
This step of obtaining Russian support was critical. [Olli Lehto was not aware of Mostow's bargain with the Russian Committee. As a result, Lehto's description of Faddeev's election in Mathematics Without Borders omitted a critical fact.] At the Assembly session, there were 98 votes in favour of Mostow's Resolution (including all of the Russians), 0 against, and 7 scattered abstentions. The only negative comments in the discussion were from Nigeria and Canada, who preferred even stronger language. [The numbers come from a hand-written letter from Mostow to Dr Walter Rosenblith, Foreign Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences.]

The result was that Faddeev was the only nominee for President, and the chairman suggested that the new President be elected by acclamation. The Assembly agreed, and so, for the first time, written ballots were dispensed with. The new President-elect grumbled, "An election like in my country."

Thus, the following Resolution was adopted by the 1986 General Assembly, and preceded the existing Article 5:

One of the principal objectives of the IMU is to promote international cooperation for the advancement of mathematics. It is therefore of fundamental importance that adhering organisations support the basic policy of non-discrimination including freedom of access to higher education, publication in international journals, and participation in mathematical meetings, as expressed in the ICSU Statute, Article 5:

"Article 5. In pursuing these objectives, ICSU shall observe the basic policy of non-discrimination and affirm the rights of scientists throughout the world to adhere to or to associate with international scientific activity without regard to race, religion, political philosophy, ethnic origin, citizenship, language, or sex. ICSU shall recognise and respect the independence of the internal scientific planning of its national Members."

The General Assembly of the IMU supports the ICSU resolution in full and appeals to all adhering organisations to follow it.
Dan's original statement is shown in boldface. The language added by the Russians is "as expressed in the ICSU Statute, Article 5:"

That way, the Russians could defend their vote after they returned home by saying that it was an ICSU requirement.

Dan was proud of having brought the issue of discrimination into the daylight, and having obtained a clear and unanimous vote against discrimination.

Of course, there were no results for the immediate meeting. Although the general attendance at the 1986 Congress was large, almost half of the Russian speakers were not present and only 57 other Russian attendees appeared.

11. Did the Resolution have any effect?

Abram Kagan, who worked at the Steklov Instiute under Mathematics Director Faddeev, had been trying to get permission to emigrate for over 10 years, and had been subjected to a maze of red tape. (See: 1988 Abram Kagan interview.pdf)

The NAS Committee for Concerned Scientists (CCS) took up the case and in September, 1987, in response to a request for action, Mostow quickly sent cables to Steklov Math Director Faddeev and to the USSR Academy of Sciences President Gury Marchuk.

In December, the CCS wrote to Mostow as follows to report the good news that Kagan had been given permission to emigrate:
Recalling your action in September when you cabled Academicians Fadeev and Marchuk, asking that they expedite Abram Kagan's emigration, we are writing to relay good news. On December 10, Kagan was granted permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union. He expects to leave no later than mid-February.

As we take pleasure in this happy development, we want to thank you for your efforts that helped to bring it about.

As you know, in late August, Kagan was refused an exit visa because of the objection of the Steklov Institute of Mathematics. This gives us grounds for hope that many others, such as Leonid Dikii, Alexander Lerner, Naum Meiman and former prisoners of conscience Vladimir Kislik, Alexander Paritsky and Leonid Volvovsky, who also have been handed refusals for reasons of state security, will also be allowed to leave.

We trust that, when called upon, you will lend them your support as readily as you did to Kagan.
Russia had good participation at the 1990 Congress, which took place in Kyoto. Faddeev concluded his presidential address at the 1990 General Assembly with the statement:
It is traditional ... to reiterate our commitment to the principle of free circulation of scientists. The political issues in connection with this were sometimes a source of tension. Now due to changes in many countries this topic became self-evident, as it must be. This makes it possible for us to concentrate on our main professional duty-mathematics.
12. A Russian Revolution - and a Redemption.

Starting in 1985, immense changes occurred in the USSR under Gorbachev. By 1989, Soviet Satellite states were breaking free. Then the Berlin Wall came down, and the Cold War was over. By the end of December, 1991, the USSR had dissolved.

Life in Russia was chaotic. There were serious economic problems. Many mathematicians fled to the West. Others were suffering hardship at home.

The reaction in the U.S. scientific community was extraordinary. The U.S. National Research Council of the U. S. National Academy of Sciences began collaborations with the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. As stated in a 7 December 1989 letter sent to Mostow:
During the past several years we have been gradually expanding our program of scientific cooperation with the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. In December of 1988 the NAS officers and several other NAS members met at the NAS Beckman Center in Irvine, CA, with the leadership of the Soviet Academy to discuss future opportunities for scientific cooperation. The Presidents of the two Academies confirmed their support for the five-year agreement for cooperation signed. in January l988, and developed an ambitious program of joint activities for 1989 and 1990.
The program of bilateral scientific workshops is a particularly important element of our cooperation. The two Academies co-sponsor four scientific workshops per year, with two held in the United. states and two in the USSR. Generally, two of the workshop themes are proposed by NAS and two by the Soviet Academy.

Funds were available from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).
Through the program the NSF seeks to contribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge by combining the complementary efforts and capabilities of leading researchers of the United States and the Soviet Union in the area of basic scientific research on the basis of equality, reciprocity, and mutuality of benefit It promotes this objective through support of long-term cooperative research projects between scientists and scientific institutions of the two countries. The program complements other opportunities for cooperation between American and Soviet scientists.
Vladimir Platonov had become Director of the Minsk Institute of Mathematics of the Academy of Sciences of Belarus, and he proposed hosting a joint USSR/US meeting there. On January 9, 1989, Mostow sent a preliminary proposal for the USSR/US meeting to the NSF and to the Director of Soviet and East European affairs. On April 5, 1990, Dan's colleague Armand Borel submitted an updated version of this proposal - which had been approved by both the U.S. and the Russian National Academies - to the NSF.

The result was the Soviet-American Symposium on Algebraic Groups and Related Number Theory, May 22-29, 1991, at the Minsk Mathematics Institute. The Organizing Committee consisted of: Borel and Mostow (of the U.S.), Platonov and Margulis.

In 1990, Margulis left Russia, and in 1991, he accepted a professorship at Yale.

Last Updated September 2021