A Hole for Jews

Sasha Reznikov and meThis story happened in the summer of 1975. I was 16. Before that, I was naive and brainwashed; by the end of the summer I had grown up. All that summer I was stunned and didn’t know what to do as I watched this story unfold.

I was invited to the summer training camp for the International Math Olympiad. There I became friends with a fellow team member Sasha (Alexander) Reznikov. Sasha had dreamed of being a mathematician from childhood. He was gifted and brilliant and when he was in the 7th grade he got noticed by professional mathematicians. They told him that the only way to become a mathematician is to do undergraduate studies at the math department of Moscow State University. He was also told that the math department doesn’t accept Jews. Sasha was Jewish.

But there was a hole in the system. If he could get to the International Math Olympiad, he would be admitted to the place of his choice by an order of the Ministry of Education. As the IMO was conducted during entrance exams for universities, there was this special arrangement for the team members. Besides, the Soviet Math Olympiad wasn’t yet corrupted, so the Olympiads would give him a chance.

Sasha was brilliant, but he had a disadvantage — he was 2 years younger than his classmates because he had skipped grades. Since the IMO is only for high school students, he had to make it to the IMO before he graduated at 15 years old.

He worked very hard and really pushed himself, and he made it on to our team. The photo of two kids is of Sasha and me that summer.

We had a supervisor — Zoya Ivanovna — who was a Ministry liaison. She was to compile the list of team members for the Ministry of those who should be accepted without entrance exams to universities and colleges. The team had eight people, so every year the list consisted of eight students. That year was special, since we actually only had six people on our team who were high school seniors. Two of us, Sergey Finashin and I, were not yet seniors. But Zoya Ivanovna who was a good-hearted lady decided to sneak in eight people and added our two alternates to the list. As our alternates were preparing for the IMO instead of preparing for entrance exams, this was a generous and fair thing to do. Everything was fine and everyone was happy.

Sasha Reznikov and me

Until one day when strange things started to happen. We were invited for a meeting where Zoya Ivanovna told us that there was a problem with Moscow State University. We were told that the math department has a limit of four people who can be accepted without an entrance exam, and we had five students applying. Zoya Ivanovna asked if there was a volunteer who might reconsider. At this point Alexey Muzykantov said that he would volunteer since he was an alternate. Besides, he was always as interested in physics as in math, and would be happy to study in the physics department.

After the meeting I stumbled upon Zoya Ivanovna crying in the ladies room. She told me that she didn’t know what to do. The problem was that out of five people applying for the math department of Moscow State University, three were Jews. Three Jews were too many out of the 400 people annually accepted to the department. Our team coordinator, Valentin Anatolievich Skvortsov, was working at the math department, where he was being pressured. Zoya Ivanovna told me he had been threatened with expulsion from the Communist Party if he didn’t reduce the number of Jews by at least one. Being expelled from the Communist Party was a serious threat at that time and Zoya Ivanovna was eager to help, so she invented this idea about the limit. The idea didn’t work, because Alexey Muzykantov, who removed himself from the list, wasn’t Jewish.

After several days, Sasha Reznikov’s mother appeared at the summer program. She told me that she was being pushed to persuade Sasha not to go to Moscow State University.

I asked Zoya Ivanovna why she chose Sasha. She told me that out of the three Jews, one was from Moscow, so she didn’t consider him, and Sasha was much younger than the third student and, besides, he had health problems. So she tried to convince Sasha’s mother that Sasha would be better off in his home town Kiev than in Moscow.

Sasha went to Kiev University. The system had had a hole through which two Jews passed that year, so even though Sasha had made astonishing efforts, he hit a wall. He was crushed.

Later he tried to transfer to Moscow State University, but was ridiculed, humiliated and denied. Eventually Sasha moved to Israel and got his PhD in mathematics. He died in 2003 by, according to rumors, suicide.

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18 Comments

  1. misha:

    I can’t keep myself from posting the poem from the last page of
    “The Yawning Heights,” a satire on the Soviet Union by Alexader Zinoviev,
    translated from Russian by Gordon Clough (Vintage, 1980):

    It was clear from the earliest days of my youth
    That the years would go by without leaving a trace,
    But it’s rather annoying, to tell you the truth,
    That there will not be a Last Judgement to face.
    The departed will never rise up from their graves,
    And their souls won’t return, seekind mouldering flesh,
    To learn if they’re damned, or if they have been saved.
    That there will be nothing, I freely confess
    I think it’s a shame. It’d be rather fun
    For a moment or two to rise up from the dead
    In the splendor of Heaven, to gaze on the One
    In the seat of his Judgement, in fear and in dread,
    And hear his voice calling: Speak now, come, we’re ready!
    One lie, you poor bastard, and you’ll be unmasked;
    Tell us all you’ve done – but we know it already.
    Be honest then. Honest, Lord? That’s quite a task!
    Consult your own ledgers. They are far more complete,
    They would show you my sins are just run of the mill.
    I admit I’ve not always protected the weak;
    I admit that I’ve frequently done people ill.
    I admit that I’ve compromised, being less than frank,
    I’ve informed on my friends – sometimes when I’ve been forced;
    I’ve licked arses to get an improvement in rank,
    I’ve broken my promise and shown no remorse.
    I’ve lied on my own, and I’ve slandered in chorus,
    I’ve put in the tune to the demagogues’ lines.
    I’ve consorted with scoundrels, although I deplored it,
    I’ve tippled with crooks of all classes and kinds
    So you see, Lord Almighty, my life has been pure.
    If you want to reward me, I’ve got a request.
    Perhaps I could ask you – or rather implore –
    To order that I should now cease to exist.
    I’m told that the dead feel no pain and no fear;
    Their conscience is clear, for all that that’s worth,
    But their main advantage – they can’t see or hear
    How the living are treating each other on earth.

  2. Roman:

    Tanya, it’s not true about Sasha death. Due to some life sircumstances, I have more details about his life in Israel. If you are interesting about other details of his life – please reply me private.

  3. Roman:

    http://books.google.co.il/books?id=nLaWI8Rc9RYC&pg=PR10&lpg=PR10&dq=Prof.Alexander+Reznikov&source=bl&ots=GoBtlq5Uf_&sig=3ZvP7S3VsXbzcwoTZLdz68YrPqY&hl=en&ei=Ell0SrSVBNurjAeDtN2nBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7#v=onepage&q=&f=false

    Tanya, esli Vy ne videli eta knizhka o Sashe online s vospominaniyami i statyami

  4. Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog » Blog Archive » The Defining Moment:

    […] suspicious; they hinted at the existence of non-Russian blood in his veins. As it was the period of brutal anti-semitism at MSU, they didn’t allow him to go to graduate […]

  5. Jay:

    It’s called positive discrimination or affirmative action. Now please consult “List of Moscow State University people” in Wikipedia, section “Mathematics”. No Jews?

    The Chinese and the Indians complain about discrmination in Ivy League universities, guess what particular group now has a vested interest in keeping talent out? Jews…

    What a shocker.

    Please Tanya, what about Judaism? How come this religion keeps people with ‘bad’ blood out? It’s just a religion right?

  6. Genady:

    I am shocked with Sasha’s death.
    I knew him in THU, after he returned from Germany.
    One more person, Victor Galperin, who graduated from MSU,
    applied at approximately the same time. I am wandering what is his fate,
    I am not sure if he got his Ph.D. in THU…

  7. Coffin problems (los problemas judíos) « Insomnia:

    […] cuasi imposibles que se le daban a estos “indeseables”. (La matemática Tanya Khovanova escribió un artículo muy interesante sobre como vivió muy de cerca esta […]

  8. Oleg Kolosov:

    We are shocked too – just learned about it searching for the classmates from our school in Kiev. My wife Tanya and me were Sasha’s classmates from 4th till 7th grade (still have class photos with him (all in the “pioneer” neck ties), and our other classmate – Katya who was sitting next to Sasha at the same desk, found sites about him. He was quiet, but very determined, in his own mind, collecting post stamps (remember standing with Sasha by the foreign students dorms in Kiev, asking for stamps from Africa, Middle East, etc places). Was surprised that we both worked in UK – me in Oxford, he in Durham over the same stretch of time, and that my classmate from another school (145 in Kiev – Volodya Lyubashenko) had a paper with Sasha. Small world – and not nice often to great people too… Glad that at the end Sasha realised himself a bit and a pity he is not with us …

  9. Boris:

    Sasha did not kill himself! it is not truth.

  10. Leonid:

    I knew Sasha quite well in Israel (we met in 1990 there), then in Germany in Bochum and in Bonn and further
    in France in 90’s when he tried to do many famous problems in 3-dimensional topology,
    some of them he succeeded some not. He was great but not an easy person. I’m proud that I’m one of the rare people with whom Sasha didn’t have any life problems.
    I didn’t see the pictures above, they are indeed beautiful. Thanks Tanya !
    It is pity that we didn’t have them when we prepared our book mentioned by Roman (I’m its coauthor N 5).
    Maybe somebody knows the woman with whom Sasha lived in Jerusalem at the beginning of 90s ? Did they have a child ? (I heard something about it but not sure). Do you know if his mother is alive ? Hope yes.

    I know that Sasha’s grave was moved from Brasil to Israel, do you know how it was managed (I know that his math department in Durham refused to do it so maybe it was done by his family in Israel ?).
    All the best to all of you
    Lenya

    PS Tanya a small question: do you have something in common with Misha Khovanov (Khovanov’s homology) ?

  11. Tanya Khovanova:

    Leonid,

    I know that Sasha has a child, but I never new the mother of the child.

    I think you might find your answers if you talk to Sasha’s ex-wife – Lucy Williams.

    Tanya

    Misha Khovanov is my half-brother.

  12. Leonid:

    Dear Tanya,

    Thanks a lot. I met them (Sasha and his ex-wife) together only once in Lyon during a conference in 3-mfds topology about ’97 but then I’ve never met her (I don’t really like to contact her).
    Maybe Sasha’s brothers in Israel know the family of his son. I don’t know why he was running so quickly from the real hapinness in life.
    Btw in Lyon he was really happy even though his solution of Haken-Waldhausen problem didn’t work (recently it was solved by Ian Agol).
    My friend (and Sasha’s also) Vlad S. from Grenoble has visited his grave in Israel recently and told me that it is very much OK.
    All the best
    Lenya

  13. Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog » Blog Archive » Next Tanya Khovanova:

    […] study mathematics at Moscow State University was to get to the IMO. I wrote a story about my friend Sasha Reznikov who trained himself to get to the IMO, but because of some official machinations, still was not […]

  14. Petr Ivankov:

    Моей мечтой была математика и я познакомился с Сашей в больнице в 1978 году. Мне тогда было 23 года. Я старался быть похожим на него достичь его уровня. Частично удается сейчас я работаю над этим http://www.mathframe.com/articles/noncommutative/c_algebra_homotopy_theory.pdf Я стал МАТЕМАТИКОМ ЛЮБИТЕЛЕМ. Не только в математику евреев не пускали. Об этом я много пишу. После написания данного поста еду на семинар Хелемского в МГУ. На том семинаре большинство – евреи.

  15. Petr Ivankov:

    Татьянв. Сашу посещали в больнице друзья с мехмата и одна девушка в 1978 года. Я ее издали видел. Судя по описанию это были Вы http://www.mathframe.com/ Саша мне про Вас рассказыал

  16. Petr Ivankov:

    Татьяна я сейчас пишу из электрички с ошибками. Когда я стал ездить на математические конфенции я познакомился с Шарко который преподавад у Саши в Киеве. Шарко сказад что Сашу отговорила его мама и тем самым загубила его. Я прекрасно понимаю Сашу меня моя мама тоже отговорила. Сашу я все эти годы вспоминал. Я не мог понять тероию галуа а Саша мне в 2 х словах объяснил что это тривиальность

  17. Tanya Khovanova:

    Petr,

    I did visit Sasha when he was in a hospital.

  18. Sharon:

    Dear Tanya,
    I am very touched by your account of Sasha’s youth and the serious obstacles he encountered while trying to assert himself as a mathematician. It is also lovely to see your photo of him when he was a youth. I befriended him when he joined ICTP (where I was the administrator of the Maths Section) in January 1990. There was something charismatic about him that endeared him to people. As he was a very private person who did not speak a lot about himself, I found it really sweet to witness how devoted he was to Lucy, whom I unfortunately never met. I was truly upset and incredulous when I learned of his death, by suicide I was told. I hope it wasn’t like that. I was unaware that he had had a child previously and I am happy that he did, for I got the impression that he was fond of children. I am submitting this to your wonderful blog by way of remembering him.