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A later commentator, using Frenkel’s story as an example, compared this exam to the Red Queen interrogating Alice in Through the Looking Glass. But it got worse, much worse. “If this were a boxing match, with one of the boxers pressed in the corner, bloodied, desperately trying to hold his own against the barrage of punches falling on him (many of them below the belt, I might add) [the next] would be the equivalent of the final, deadly blow.” It was an innocent-looking problem, which even a professional mathematician would find pretty tough, and this was just a 16-year-old. But Frenkel had a good idea, and started work. The examiners left and came back to fail him. “More than four hours had passed since the beginning of the exam. I was exhausted.” He asked to see his written exam. “All answers were correct, all solutions were correct. But there were many comments . . . all made in pencil.” Nitpicking comments, of no importance except to reduce the top grade of 5 to 3. “I knew it was over. There was no way I could fight this system. I said, ‘All right’.”

He withdrew his application, and their faces lit up. “A really impressive performance . . . It’s the first time I have seen such a strong student who did not go to a special maths school.” Now relaxed, they advised him to go to the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas, from where he attended seminars at MGU after scaling the fence with other Jewish students, got involved with research problems, and with the coming of glasnost under Gorbachev was allowed to take up a visiting position at Harvard, even though he did not yet have a PhD.

While he was there, a senior but second-rate Soviet physicist named Logunov, the rector of MGU, came to give a talk on physics. The Russian mathematicians were ready to pounce, and lined up the hapless Frenkel as a witness, though he still intended to return to Russia. They brought up numerous cases of anti-Semitism at MGU, but Logunov dismissed them all as hearsay. There were no witnesses to confirm anything, so Frenkel was called to speak. As a visiting professor at Harvard aged only 21, his ability and evidence could not be gainsaid. “I am outraged by this,” yelled Luganov, which is exactly what such people do when faced with the truth — as if they were previously unaware of any problem. Despite ubiquitous evidence, any actual case is seen as a glaring exception.

Sadly the hard Left of the British Labour Party always turned a blind eye to Soviet anti-Semitism, and their problem has now come home to roost with their leader and possible future prime minister producing anti-Semitic tropes such as saying that British Jews  (or “Zionists”) “don’t understand English irony”. How tragic.
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Daniel Bamford
November 9th, 2018
3:11 PM
Mark Ronan’s article about anti-Semitism in Soviet academia explains that Russian Jewish mathematician Edward Frenkel grew up ‘living out in the sticks’ (‘Escaping the Moscow ghetto’, October 2018). Presumably Mr. Ronan means the Styx, rather than the ‘sticks’. This name is sometimes used to refer to somewhere remote and obscure, because the River Styx is located at the entrance to the underworld of Hades in Greek mythology. If it is any consolation, then I have seen the same mistake made in The Economist (November 2nd 2013) and in Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (2000). Ironically, the article in The Economist was about businesses in Greece and the main character in The Human Stain is a Professor of Classics. Still, since Standpoint seeks to defend ‘western civilization’, it would help if your contributors got their classical allusions right. https://bham.academia.edu/DanielBamford

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