The culture that was Russian math departments

Here is a new paper (pdf) by Tanya Khonanova and Alexey Radul, entitled “Jewish Problems”:

This is a special collection of problems that were given to select applicants during oral entrance exams to the math department of Moscow State University. These problems were designed to prevent Jewish people and other undesirables from getting a passing grade. Among problems that were used by the department to blackball unwanted candidate students, these problems are distinguished by having a simple solution that is difficult to find. Using problems with a simple solution protected the administration from extra complaints and appeals. This collection therefore has mathematical as well as historical value.

For the pointer I thank Rahul R, a loyal MR reader.


Surely these tests could be useful today as well, to help keep down the number of Asians.

Unlike those racist Russians, we're kind enough to Asians have the same questions as everyone else. All we ask is that Asians get dramatically higher scores to compensate for the lower scores of other groups. U S A! U S A!


What we SHOULD do is have Asians get the same math scores but also get the same communication and everything else scores.

But if there aren't effective tests for 'everything else' the math premium may act as a compensatory proxy.

GRE verbal and analytical writing sections? TOEFL? Interviews?

Yeah, that's exactly what the Russian discriminators had in mind. A "compensatory proxy" for net Jewish genetic shortcomings.

The first name James is on my possible farehts' (biological) side a lot. I saw a George Nelson in your post and as names get held on to a lot I was wondering if you know of a Nelson Bunch b. 1851, married to Rebecca Hembree 8/9/1894; father to James Bunch d. 10/4/1930 and married to Laura Phipps. JB was father to james finley bunch b.2/21/20 in evarts, ky. There's a James Bunch who was married to ellen stamper on 2 /8/ the family somewhere I'm told. Do any of these names ring a bell.? James finley bunch was in butte, Mt. in 1950 and in wallace, idaho in 1951. I m really ruhing here, but hope I made some senser. Thanks

Yet East Asians aren't smart enough to build schools in East Asian that they are happy with. They have to come to America, Canada, Australia, England etc. to get educations. To use and take the resources European people created.

That's not really true. I'd say rather that immigrants are one of the strongest pools
of resources that America is able to attract, with its hopes of a new life built through
meritocracy and hard work. Dont be so eager to exclude one of the engines of American growth from access to education - with the economic rise of other countries, America might not be the ideal destination anymore.

Americans can do it on their own. We don't need foreigners to drive our economy. However, foreigners like East Asians are dependant on information Westerners' produce. Without that information you wouldn't progress.

These problems are quite typical as homework problems for advanced math classes. They are useful because they demonstrate how a seemingly difficult problem can be solved easily with a somewhat obscure substitution.

These questions also look similar to (but much harder) to the current GMAT.

I have trouble figuring out how these are used to screen out undesirables. Are the tests only given to undesirables? Are the answers provided to the desirables? Or is it the case of handicapping everyone equally to make it appear "fair" and then cherry picking from the group of failures?

I've seen all these methods used for discrimination, but for various categories of undesirables. In law school, certain groups of students had banks of old exams that the professors routinely recycled. If you had access to the test bank, your chances of getting a good grade skyrocketed.

Only undesirables got these questions

1. These are the university _entrance_ exam problems for high school students. However, the level of difficulty is roughly comparable to the problems given in a graduate math class.

2. People were given around 15 minutes for each problem to solve in an oral exam setting.

3. Only undesirables were given these questions. Other students were given similar looking questions but with far simpler solutions (something that an advanced high school student should be able to solve in 15 minutes).

Willitts, could you even do any of the problems without looking at the hints/answers?

You get the sense that Russian Jews remain even today more distressed over anti-Semitic policies that were instituted in the later Stalin years and thereafter and less about the collectivization of agriculture begun in 1928, great purges of the late 30's, and Holodomor. The Soviet Union of the 70's was not remotely as repressive as it was a generation before. This is, at best, a very trivial case of discrimination.

And your proof of this is where? Once the Soviet emigration policies were liberalized, a great number of Russian Jews picked up and left the country often having to leave their belongings behind. If this was 'trivial' one would have expected them to stay put. Didn't happen!

That kind of spectacularly misses the point. If Soviet immigration policies were liberal in the 1930s do you think anyone would have been left? The Russian out flow in the 1920s was enormous - much bigger than the out flow of Soviet Jews in the 1970s. Yes, Soviet Jews preferred to flee to Israel and America. But in the 1940s large numbers of Soviet citizens not only would have fled if they could, many were driven to collaborate with the Nazis.

So by any standard, the problems in the USSR in the 1970s were trivial compared to the 1930s.

What makes this 'trivial' discrimination so interesting is the effort to which the authorities went to discriminate in such a specialized field.

I have previously come across a much longer version of the back story that explained why so much was on the line for both the test-takers and the test-givers. Russian universities had strict quotas on the number of Jewish students that would be accepted, with an even tighter quotas for the elite math departments. Participation on a winning international math competition team came with a guaranteed University spot and was a way of getting around these quotas (the teams were significantly larger than the quota amounts for the math universities). The Russians needed the Jewish students in order to win the competitions, but needed to keep Jews below 50% of the team for political reasons (there is an anecdote about a non-Jew losing a spot for having a Jewish-sounding name). These questions were required in order to make room for the non-Jewish competition members in what was a somewhat internationally public process.

Maybe they just wanted a campus that reflected the demographic reality of the Soviet Union. What would be wrong with that?

I bet they did not have a separate set of question for Uzbeks.

This discrimination is strange because right to the end of the Soviet Union, Jews were disproportionately represented in the Communist Party. So why wouldn't they want Jews in the Moscow University Mathematics Department, but they would be fine with them in, say, the Foreign Ministry?

Perhaps they would've been represented even more disproprtionately in the Communist Party and the Foreign Ministry without the discrimination.

Kind of like how Asians are both disproportionately represented and discriminated against at places like Cal Berkely and UCLA.

They might be. It is possible. But Asians don't run America. They are not disproportionately represented in the leadership of this country.

Jews, as defined by the Soviet Union, did not run the USSR either, but they were certainly disproportionately represented among those who did. So the Jewish members of the leadership are tolerating their flagship university discriminating against other Jews. That is odd.

At least when White people design a system of racial discrimination in university admissions, they end up with one that has next to no impact on White people. That is the sort of clever thinking that has got the WASP elite of this country where they are today.

You don't understand the amount of fear that
minority elites live with. This is universal and becomes cultural in groups the longer they remain minorities.

Elite Jews have completely internalized this and are willing to
make huge sacrifices to protect themselves, and by extension the entire Jewish community. Jewish cultural unity and awareness of the massive protection that Jewish elites do offer to weaker Jews in what is frankly a deadly environment allow the entire group to survive as an embattled minority.

One of the key survival tactics of embattled elites is to not be overbearing, to surrender immediate opportunities to create breathing space. Remember the stakes are not personal advancement, but rather both individual and group survival. The prospect of pogrom, expulsion, or worse is inherent. In the more violent anti semitic outbreaks no one is safe.

This is not just a Jewish problem, look at Greeks and Armenians in the middle east, Chinese in SE asia, South Asians in Africa and the Pacific. I even think this is one of the main reasons that East Asians in the US don't speak out against affirmative action and other discrimination, especially in California.


If not for the predictably convoluted government bureaucratic strategiary I'd say "this is math, what does an extra chair and piece of chalk cost?"

These are just like the questions on the GRE math subject test. Except these have all older maths than the current test.

The GRE math subject test is orders of magnitude easier than these questions.

Agree with Math Enthusiast. The GRE is trivial compared to these.

GRE math *subject* test is pretty hard in an objective sense and is a good test of one's undergraduate fundamentals. I think it is a bit misleading to call the GRE subject questions trivial, even in comparison to these questions.

Do they still throw in one historical question on the test? Although even those aren't entirely trivial.

When I took it, the questions were hard enough, but you also didn't have to get a perfect to get a perfect, so it seemed like everybody got a 990 on the GRE math subject test.

wow.. everyone you know got a 990? Nobody I knew got a 990. dayum. I know that the average score of the students admitted in top-10 schools is around the 80th percentile, around 800, so I guess your cohort must've really killed it.

When I took the test I didn't remember there being any historical question.

They might have recentered the scoring since I took it back in 2001. Back then (and for some years priior), I think that a max score of 990 was only around 90th percentile, maybe even lower. At the point, you essentially *had* to get a 990 to be admitted to a top-10 school (maybe some exaggeration, but close.)

Your statement makes me pretty certain that they recentered it.

My year, there was a historical question about "Order these four mathematicians in the chronological order of their contributions to the theory of limits and integration," with Cauchy, Riemann, and Lesbegue being three of the four. Certainly a knowledge of math itself helps with the question.

I like the Cauchy, Riemann and Lebesgue question. One can answer it without knowing any history at all, simply on the basis of how their work shows up in analysis textboooks.

No, most of these have pretty clever solutions. It's true that, as the paper notes, most of these clever problem solving techniques are a lot better known these days, especially by people with a good math education.

What makes these problems brilliant (and devious for this use) is that these seem so obvious once you know the answer. The mathematics used are, as you note, fairly old, just the techniques (often clever substitutions) are non-intuitive for many.

Am I missing something here (with respect to the GRE/triviality assesments)? Isn't all of mathematics, clever or not, one hundred percent trivial unless it is original? And isn't even the original stuff, after it isn't original anymore, one hundred percent trivial? I'm not saying that varied means of testing or obscuring the cleverness of individual aspiring mathematicians isn't an interesting topic, in a lyrical and repeated type of way, and I think this post is fascinating, but I've visited a few math websites and some of the mathematicians there seem to think everything is trivial unless it is the sort of thing they can brag about as "original". Or is originality an artefact of their Aspergeresian (aspergerese?) collective lack of prior interest in far-flung "trivial" backwoods areas of arithmetic and analysis, and consequent joy in proclaiming other people's mathematical ideas trivial?

No, most mathematicians in my experience (but not all) think of proofs in an artistic manner. Some arguments are clever, some proofs are beautiful or elegant, some problems are trivial.

Not that all of them go as far as Paul Erdős and talk about "Proofs from The Book" and all that, the idea that every problem has some Platonic ideal most elegant proof of it. But people generally dislike inelegant proofs and search for better ones.

Thanks, that makes sense

One reason to prefer "elegant" proofs is that they are often more useful. Irit Dinur in my field became famous for finding a better proof for a known core result called the "PCP Theorem".

Aside from the obvious difference in difficulty (and the fact that GRE is a multiple choice test), these were given to high school students for the university entrance exam. GRE is taken by students applying to graduate schools, who, presumably, have already taken advanced math classes.

I think most replyers mistake the questions I am talking about with the general test's math questions.

No, they do not.

This selection against Soviet Jews (or more politically correct "undesirables") was a secret policy of USSR government. If they do it openly could we call this policy as "Affirmative action" ? "Openly" would not be a problem, because Soviet Parlament (Verhovnyj Sovet) had rejected 0.00% of Soviet government proposals. One may say that there is a big difference because Soviet policy was against minority vs. US policy protecting minority. Well, there was not a big difference for a rejected Soviet teenager with undesirable word in his/her passport and a rejected US teenager with not preferable race. The both policies were (ir are) against the best.

Yes, if only the Russians had been clever enough to use "diversity" as the reason for enforcing racial quotas, we'd be celebrating them for their foresight instead of lamenting the awfulness of their discrimination against the poor Jews.

What this leaves out was the affirmative action for citizens of no slavic, or Armenian, State Republics and ASSRs. The whole system was a huge attempt to maintain both standards and political stability. One way it was able to do this is that all but the most gifted affirmative action beneficiaries were then sent back to their place of origin to become local elites. This was trye not just in math, but in all the sciences, and in political and artistic fields as well.

Is it true that despite the bias against certain "undesirables", the Soviet Union had high standards in mathematics, both at school and university levels?

Yes, the USSR did have very good mathematicians and theoretical physicists.

These are activities that you can do well at with very little equipment and a lot of sheer determination and brainpower. (By way of contrast, experimental physics, which requires lots of expensive high quality equipement, sucked in the USSR.) Russia has a long history of holding these areas in high regard, and the soviet idealization of engineering and central planning increased their regard further.

They tended to toil in obscurity on lone projects rather than work collaboratively to advance the field. Many a modern string theorist has found that some thorny math problem he encounters in a new string theory was solved in some obscure Russian journal 50 years ago. The original solution will have been completley unmotivated, just a isolated perl of mathematical wizardry left in a dark cave decades ago.

As with, for instance, Stealth technology. The theoretical underpinnings of which were done by a Russian mathematician (although I don't know whether he was Jewish or not[1]) in the early 1960s. Even though his Superiors told him not to and that it would cripple his career as it wasn't good for anything. The Soviets thought it was so useless they let him publish internationally.

[1] His name was Pyotr Yakovlevich Ufimtsev and he was born in the Altai Kray. Peter is not a Jewish name. Ufimtsev? No idea. Yakovlevich? Siberia? I would have to say that combined with the stereotypical job of a mathematician, I would let my prejudices run wild and guess he might have been Jewish. But they did let him teach at Moscow State so maybe not.

Yakovlevich means (roughly) son of Jacob. Not always a Jewish name (see, e.g. the Christian supra-Dickensian poet Yakov Polonskiy), but more often Jewish than, say, Slavic derived names like Vladimir, Kiril, Vladislav and Msistislav (to use a few musician's names). Btw, Peter is the Latin translation of a Hellenistic Greek Jewish name, I think; the only obvious Latin male name beginning with a P would be Paulus. If you were ever unfortunate enough to be a recruit in the Soviet army, the name Yakov would lead, unless you were obviously non-Jewish, to threatened extra hazing and other despicable "dovanschina" (I think that is the word, if I am up on my history of evil details) activities on the part of the Jew-haters who made up a large percentage of that very unblessed organization.

I think we can agree that Yakovlevich is not always Jewish. For instance it is the patronymic of Yevgeny Yakovlevich Dzhugashvili who was Jewish (according to the State of Israel, most Rabbis and Hitler although whether he thinks he is Jewish is another matter) but not because his Father was called Yakov.

Peter is a translation? I suppose it is. But surely it is a translation of a Aramaic or Hebrew name, not a Greek one?

I would be willing to bet that Yakov Iosifovich Dzhugashvili was never hazed in the Soviet Army. But you never know.

We have the same thing in US colleges. It's the "what race are you?" question.

Most Civil Service tests here are extremely easy to get near 100% of the questions correct. This is deliberate, because if they made the test difficult enough, Asians and whites would make up too large of a majority of passing test takers. And that would be BAD. So they make sure a huge % of test takers pass, then pick & choose whoever they want and have plenty of Latino and blacks to choose from.

Or maybe it just isn't useful to make the test more difficult than it is, so long as people can demonstrate the intelligence to actually do the job.

Unfortunately not the case

That's not what the paper says...

There's a wonderful book ("Perfect Rigor") that has an extended discussion of the math culture in socialist Russia.

Nice... except MSU entrance exams were (and are) written.
There were the (in)famous "5th problem" given for extra credit. To discriminate the really bright students against the grey mass...
What a load of politically charged bullshit that everybody is eager to believe.

Was born few years ago? Never heard of oral math exams?

Not *entrance* exams in MSU. For over 30 years at least (I have quite a few grey hairs, kiddo)


I entered the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics (MechanicoMathematical Facultet - MechMat, for short) of the Moscow State University as a freshman in 1966. At the time, as in prior and - as far as I can tell - following decades, aspirants had to take four entrance exams - written and oral mathematics, physics, and Russian language/literature.

In Mech-Math, there was an oral math. Always! And, #5 wasn't for extra credit. It was to separate "A" from "B". In my class, only four got an "A" on math. Their fate today: one is a small time Russian oligarch, one has gone mad, one is a prof at MSU, and one is a prof at a small time Canadian college.

Whateva. I went to the Physics dept. of Moscow State. Math exam was written and physics oral. Math was first and was intentionally made very difficult. Even though applicants were all "elite", only few out of several thousands managed to get an "A". Maybe there was a bias during an oral physics or chemistry exams but even that is a stretch, considering that a large fraction of examiners were Jews themselves. In any case, our class, like all classes before and all classes after, had something like 30% Jews. So much for the awful, awful discrimination.

Oops, you're ignorant.

I must be missing it - no mention in the comments or the article itself about Edward Frenkel? Just had an article in the New Criterion about his experience with anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union (which is not the same as Russia, people).

I just read that article and I can assure you that it's bullshit. To put it simply: Edik is a shameless liar. There is no way he knew everything and yet studied in the correspondence school for three years, and there is no way he could have given "C" when he solved all five math questions in written math. Most likely, the thing is that he just failed entrance exams where many other Jews and half-Jews succeeded. And he is still bitter over it the same way many are bitter about not being admitted to [insert name here]. And he invented a fantastic story for gullible audience that cannot critically evaluate his version of events.

Truth is simple: Yes, there was discrimination against Jews. But in the 1980s, and on a basic level like undergrad entrances, it was "mild", very mild. Ironically, the policy looked a lot like today's affirmative actions efforts in the USA and the resulting discrimination against Asians. Like I said, my class had a very large Jewish cohort (25-35%, I'd guess, depending on how one counts half-Jews like Ed Frenkel and myself), so the bullshit that Edichka pushes with his "Do you know that Jews are not accepted to Moscow University?" simply does not stand the most basic reality test.

Interestingly, he later became Professor at UC-Berkley. So, either he had a late burst of intelligence or the standards for being accepted as a student at Moscow are more stringent than a Prof. at Berkeley?

I think md just hates Jews. Hard to argue with people like that.

Eh, that's not impossible. I'm sure there are hundreds of professors at very respectable universities throughout the US who got rejected as undergrads by Harvard or Yale.

The smartest guy in our class failed to gain entrance from the first try. Had to try again a year later and succeeded. Depending on School, the selection in MSU was 1/20 to 1/50. All exams have an element of randomness and all oral exams are subjective to a degree. And exams are only a proxy to future achievements. I never questioned that Ed is a smart enough guy. His particular story is not very believable, that's all.

To Vernunft below:
I think md just hates Jews. Hard to argue with people like that

I am as much Jew as Ed. Like we say in Russia, my mother was Russian and my father was a lawyer :-)

Yes. Tyler says the list he links to is recent, but it's a year old. I imagine it is recirculating because of Frenkel's article.

I'm sure this discrimination was significant, yet what proportion of oligarchs are Jewish, or even Jews with a math or engineering background?

Even today in many former Soviet countries people's ethnicity/background is written in their passport (e.g. Jew, Uzbek, Gypsy, Russian), and in my experience this information is used for little else than discrimination.

Russians were looking out for their interests. Great for them. Whenever a European population does that it's a bad thing however whenever a non-European population looks out for their own interests it is encouraged. The Russians wanted Russians to lead them not some foreign population whose interests are only for their own people. You can find in Israel many examples of things that were done to them in the past that they are doing to the non-Jewish population. Don't wag your finger when you don't care about fairness for everyone just yourself.

Solzhenitsyn's book is titled "Two Hundred Years Together". How long does it take for them not to be considered foreign any more? And of course the Ashkenazim have been in Europe for centuries before even then.

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