This is just a transcription of Dmitry Kleinbock's translation
of Vershik's impressive text.
Which side are you on, mathematicians?
This question, addressed to mathematicians, seems to make no sense: if the
question refers to political disputes, like whom to vote for and whom to
support, then from their point of view these are mere trivialities, which
mathematicians are not partial to. Maxim Gorky demagogically posed a
similar question to Western liberals exactly 90 years ago in his article
"Which side are you on, masters of culture?" At that point, for Western
liberals, this question--about their attitude towards the Soviet
system--was rather academic.
By contrast, the question about the attitude of mathematicians towards
holding the next International Mathematical Congress in St. Petersburg in
July 2022 is far from a merely academic matter. In 2017, when several of
my mathematician friends started to enthusiastically discuss the
possibility of holding the ICM 2022 in St. Petersburg, I repeatedly
expressed my view that this was a bad idea, and that a country that had
recently (in 2014) committed a monstrous mistake at the behest of its
leadership, and had been conducting a manifestly dangerous foreign and
domestic policy, would not stop there and would go further along this
path. At that time, of course, I did not imagine that it would come to an
Therefore, when the Mathematical Union in 2018 decided in favor of holding
the Congress in St. Petersburg (choosing it over Paris), I wrote that I
had not changed my point of view but would neither participate nor
interfere in the planning and organization of the Congress. Some time
before the decision was made, I had an interesting conversation with C.
Villani (at that time director of the Poincaré Institute and an
influential figure in the French academic establishment), in which we
agreed that it was very important that Paris be chosen. But the lavish
promises of the Russian government’s representative at the Executive
Committee meeting tipped the scale in favor of St. Petersburg. Some time
afterwards I was involved in the case of Azat Miftakhov, a young
mathematician who was unlawfully sentenced to 6 years in prison. One would
have thought that our authorities would have jumped eagerly to meet the
demands of the numerous, mostly foreign, scientists who spoke up for Azat.
But the outpouring of letters and appeals was all in vain. Even at that
time, however, I did not participate in discussions of a possible boycott
of the Congress.
And now we come to the denouement. When I called for the Congress to be
canceled in my February 24, 2022 post on Facebook, I did not yet know that
the decision to cancel it had already been made, and I don't know who in
the Executive Committee of the IMU finally figured out that the Congress
had to be canceled or rescheduled.
But now that this question has become irrelevant, it is time to raise a
different one: are we (mathematicians, scientists) going to be silent
about what is happening in Ukraine? Who are we with and who are we
against? Saying "We are against the war", or, more cautiously, "the
special operation must stop," is equivalent to saying nothing, given the
ambiguous character of such statements, which ignore the obvious asymmetry
of the ongoing carnage.
It is difficult at the moment to discuss the future of the participating
countries, and it is rather dangerous to speak frankly about the current
situation. I would like to emphasize, however, that I am not talking about
the brainwashed consumers of official propaganda, but rather about Russian
public figures, intellectuals and scientists who want to maintain
self-respect and do not want to come up with feeble excuses for their
silence. They all need to clearly declare:
- that the current actions of the Russian authorities in Ukraine and, no
less importantly, recent policies enacted domestically within Russia,
remind us of the most disgusting and seemingly long-rejected episodes of
our past, namely the suppression of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the
war in Afghanistan, the fight against dissent, the jamming of radio
transmissions, the persecution of dissidents, branding those of whom we
should be proud as foreign agents;
- and, as a conclusion, that an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops
from Ukraine is necessary, followed by a (peaceful) transition of power in
our country. Subscribing to these statements has nothing to do with
political or other opinions and does not contradict the separation of
science from politics, since the matter involves expressing support for
people who are dying. Such a position entails a certain real risk which a
self-respecting scientist can afford, incomparable with the risks
inflicted on people by an actual war.
The above text was written in the beginning of March. I subsequently came
across several letters and appeals to the president of Russian Federation
in support of this terrifying war aimed at the destruction of Ukraine,
signed by "scientists" who are members of the Association of Graduates of
Leningrad State University and St. Petersburg State University, rectors of
almost all Russian universities, "cultural figures, poets, writers". Of course, there are letters of the opposite
nature, i.e. "against the war", but their tone is not resolute enough.
The collection of
signatures for letters of support was apparently very urgent and entirely
followed the Soviet playbook, yet was carried out too sloppily - there are
"signatures" of people who died recently or not so recently; some are
repeated twice, etc. I have only two questions for the signatories:
- do you understand what you have done to your reputation now and
especially in the very near future?
- do you understand what will happen to the reputation and future of a
country in which all university rectors, as well as countless poets and
writers, sign on to the most abject expression of devotion to authorities
that have tarnished themselves with the blood of peaceful people?
Last modified on March 15, 2022.