Escaping the Moscow ghetto

How a brilliant young Russian mathematician was blocked by blatant Soviet anti-Semitism

Edward Frenkel teaching at Berkeley: Classed as Jewish, he was rejected by Moscow State University (Søren Fuglede Jørgensen CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Russian teenager in a small town two hours out from Moscow who claimed to hate maths is, many years later, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Modern particle physics was what intrigued him, but his very supportive parents arranged for him to meet a local mathematician, and he was hooked. Many mathematicians started out that way, and in Love and Math (Basic Books), Edward Frenkel explains how it worked for him, with one big difference — officially classed as Jewish, he was denied entrance to Moscow State University (MGU), whose department of Mechanics and Mathematics (Mekh-Mat) was the flagship mathematics programme in the USSR.

Living out in the sticks, he enrolled in a correspondence course for three years to prepare for the special exam. The correspondence school sent him a letter advising him to visit MGU, where he was asked the nationalities of his parents. He was unable to hide the fact that his father was Jewish, though no one in the family was religious. The young woman questioning him was unsympathetic: “Don’t you understand that Jews are not accepted to Moscow University? You shouldn’t even bother to apply. Don’t waste your time. They won’t let you in.” This was the early 1980s but, discussing it at home with his parents he went ahead anyway since the Mekh-Mat exam was always scheduled one month before the other schools. On the written exam he checked and double-checked everything, and back at home his mentor agreed it was all correct. Returning to Moscow for the oral exam, he found 15 to 20 other students and four or five examiners. All the questions were known in advance: each applicant drew a ticket with two questions on it.

Within two minutes he had collected his thoughts on both questions, scribbled some notes, and was ready to answer any challenges. He put his hand up. The young examiners were all waiting for a student to be ready, but “they ignored me, as if I did not exist. They looked right through me. I was sitting with my hand raised for a while: no response.” As soon as other students raised their hands the examiners rushed over. “An examiner would take a seat next to a student and listen to him or her answer the questions . . . they were very polite . . . mostly nodding their heads, only occasionally asking follow-up questions.” They then posed one further question, and after answering that the student was free to go. Finally Frenkel grabbed a passing examiner to ask why they wouldn’t talk to him. “He looked away and said quietly: ‘Sorry, we are not allowed to talk to you’.”

Then came the crunch. “About an hour or so into the exam, two middle-aged men entered the room” and presented themselves to the invigilator at the front. “It became clear that these were the people I’d been waiting for: my inquisitors.” They beat him up intellectually. Before he could even begin to answer the first question, about a circle inscribed in a triangle one of the men interrupted him: “What’s the definition of a circle?” Frenkel gave the standard definition as the set of points on a plane equidistant from a given point. Frenkel writes: “Wrong!” declared the man cheerfully, and after a brief pause said, “It’s the set of all points on a plane equidistant from a given point.” Even given the absence of a definite article in Russian this is unreasonable hair-splitting. Further sharply-worded questions followed. “After nearly an hour-long interrogation, we moved to the second question on my ticket. By then, the other students had left, and the auditorium was empty . . . I guess they tried to place Jewish students so that there would be no more than one or two of them in the same room.”

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.