The petty torturers who worked for Stalin

In the book “When Einstein Walked With Godel” (2018), author Jim Holt talks about a debate in math – does math correspond to real entities independent of the human mind or not? In Russia, this fed into mystical notions of a trio of Russian Mathematicians, Dmitri Egorov – a religious man, and his student Pavel Florensky, who had trained to be a priest. The third member of the trio was Nikolai Luzin, a student of Egorov’s.

In a Western country, you can be a great scientist and religious, but not in Stalin’s Russia. Egorov was denounced as “a reactionary supporter of religious beliefs, a dangerous influence on students, and a person who mixes mathematics and mysticism.” His accuser was Ernst Kol’man, an impish and sinister Marxist mathematician nicknamed the “dark angel”. Egorov and Florensky were eventually arrested. Egorov starved to death in prison in 1931. Florensky was tortured and sent to a Gulag camp in the Arctic, where he was probably executed in 1937.

Luzin was spared, though several of his former students took part in the campaign against him, among them Andrei Kolmogorov, who is himself rated one of the half a dozen greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century and Pavel Alexandrov. (The latter two were gay, and their favorite activity was swimming vast distances and then doing mathematics together in the nude.)

But the point of this post is that in Stalin’s Russia, if you were too mystical and religious, you ended up either tortured and executed in an Arctic work camp, or starved to death in prison. It didn’t take much to be an “enemy of the people.”

An irony: Kol’man ended up in the Gulag himself, and later defected.

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