On Shafarevich And NAS: Tolerance Vs. Indifference

Editor's Note: Last July, National Academy of Sciences president Frank Press and foreign secretary James Wyngaarden sent an unprecedented letter to Russian mathematician Igor R. Shafarevich, head of the V.A. Steklov Institute in Moscow, suggesting that he resign his membership as a foreign associate of NAS because of "anti-Semitic writings" contained in Russophobia, a book by Shafarevich. The letter further alleged that Shafarevich "used [his] position to interfere with the careers" of young Je

Apr 19, 1993
Semyon Reznik
Editor's Note: Last July, National Academy of Sciences president Frank Press and foreign secretary James Wyngaarden sent an unprecedented letter to Russian mathematician Igor R. Shafarevich, head of the V.A. Steklov Institute in Moscow, suggesting that he resign his membership as a foreign associate of NAS because of "anti-Semitic writings" contained in Russophobia, a book by Shafarevich. The letter further alleged that Shafarevich "used [his] position to interfere with the careers" of young Jewish mathematicians. Shafarevich, denying that Russophobia is an anti-Semitic work and that he interfered with anyone's career, refused to resign from the academy.

When word of the letter spread through the scientific community, several mathematicians and NAS members from all over the world criticized the academy's action. For one thing, they said, NAS had not previously criticized a member for holding unpopular beliefs, although numerous precedents existed. Furthermore, several Jewish former students of Shafarevich reported that he had helped to advance, not hinder, their careers; those objecting to the Press-Wyngaarden letter said that the NAS officials should not have based their allegations on hearsay evidence, but should have first checked the facts themselves.

On the other hand, some researchers expressed support for the sentiments expressed in the NAS letter, even though a number of them said they believed that the wording used was problematic. They contended that anti-Semitism is a grave problem in Russia and that Shafarevich, through his high standing as an eminent mathematician, was encouraging widespread religious intolerance in the country, potentially leading to violence. The academy, they said, had an obligation to express its disapproval for such intolerance, and they were glad that some action was taken, regardless of the specifics of the language in the letter.

Shafarevich, widely acknowledged by his colleagues to be a brilliant mathematician, was a vocal critic of the Soviet government in the 1970s. In retaliation for his activities as a dissident, he was ousted from the Steklov's Scientific Council. He was elected a foreign associate of NAS in 1974. Some contend that his anti-Soviet politics played a role in his election; yet the academy's bylaws state that nominees are to be judged only on the basis of their scientific achievements.

In the following essay, Russian migr writer and historian Semyon Reznik reacts to two articles in The Scientist describing the Shafarevich affair (Barbara Spector, The Scientist, Sept. 28, 1992, page 1; Dec. 7, 1992, page 4). Reznik says that the main issue in the discussion should be the mathematician's "hatred against Jews, liberal intellectuals, and everybody whose so- called patriotism does not go as far as Shafarevich wishes," rather than the text of the academy's letter. The fact that NAS distanced itself from Shafarevich's views, Reznik says, is "of great moral importance."

A chapter in my latest book The Red and the Brown: Russian Nazism in the Past and Present, which was published in Russian (Washington, D.C., Challenge Publication, 1992) but is yet to be published in English, is devoted to the literary and public activities of Igor Shafarevich. Thus, the two articles by Barbara Spector dealing with Shafarevich (The Scientist, Sept. 28, 1992, page 1; Dec. 7, 1992, page 4) are in the framework of my professional interests.

Both articles cover an extensive discussion among United States scientists provoked by a letter that Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and James Wyngaarden, NAS foreign secretary, had sent to Shafarevich, who is a foreign associate of NAS. In this letter, the NAS leaders condemned their Russian colleague for his anti-Semitic activities and asked him to resign from the academy.

I was pleased to learn from Spector's articles that the American scientific community is so concerned about the rise of anti- Semitism in Russia, but at the same time I was surprised that some participants in the discussion concentrated more on the letter than on Shafarevich's activities. Such an emphasis focused the discussion on the academy's response--not on the reasons for the response.

More than two decades ago, when Shafarevich--together with Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Pyotr Grigorenko, and other dissidents--started to speak out against human rights violations in the Soviet Union, the support of Western intellectuals helped them to survive in that cruel and repressive environment.

In 1974, Shafarevich was elected a foreign associate member of NAS, primarily in recognition of his outstanding achievements in mathematics. His prestige had dramatically increased, and even the KGB could not ignore that fact. Authorities forbade him to teach at Moscow University, but he was never fired from the Steklov Institute of Mathematics of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Shafarevich never was arrested, tried, exiled, or searched, as were many other active dissidents.

Unfortunately, the Soviet dissidents were united only on the issues of what they stood against. When time came for them to define what they stood for, it became increasingly obvious that for some of them, like Sakharov, democracy was the only alternative to the communist regime, while for others, like Shafarevich, democracy was an even greater evil than communism. The latter group dreamed about replacing a bad form of dictatorship with a "good" one, based on an ideology of Russian chauvinism, which they preferred to define as "patriotism." Shafarevich started to promote a so-called Russian idea, which does not differ much from the "German idea" under the Third Reich.

Shafarevich expressed his views in his book Russophobia, in which he developed a theory of "the small people"--including Jews and liberal intellectuals under Jewish influence--and "the big people," or the majority of Russians. According to this theory, the small people have nothing in common with the big people: The small people do not understand--and despise--traditional values and the beliefs and lifestyles of the big people, and seek to introduce, by force, values and lifestyles borrowed from the West. According to Shafarevich, these "russophobic" activities of the small people are very dangerous for the big people, so patriots should do everything possible to stop them.

After publication of Russophobia in 1989, Shafarevich dramatically increased his public activities. In numerous articles and interviews published in different Russian newspapers or broadcast on radio and television, he continued to press the same point: that the Jews and liberal democrats are inside enemies of Russia and the Russian people.

Shafarevich was among the authors of the anti-Semitic "Letter of 74 Writers" that was widely quoted in the American press in 1990, when a group of anti-Semitic Russian writers, some of whom also signed this document, traveled throughout the U.S. (Washington Post, April 17, 1990, page 1).

Shafarevich was also one of the instigators of a campaign of obstruction against a Russian liberal literary journal, Oktyabr, that dared to publish a few works forbidden by Soviet censorship for decades. While the communist ideologists considered these works to be anti-Soviet, Shafarevich labeled them "russophobic."

One of the characteristic realities of today's Russia is the unification of communists (the "Red") and radical nationalists (the "Brown") in order to fight against democracy. Following this trend, Shafarevich put aside his previous differences with communists and actively began cooperating with them in right-wing organizations like the Russian National Sobor ("Gathering") and the Russian Salvation Front, which were created last year. The main goal of these organizations is to "save" Russia from democratic reforms, which, they claim, are introduced by Jews, liberal intellectuals, and "russophobes."

Shafarevich joined the editorial board of Nash Sovremenik, a Russian journal that is a champion of anti-Semitic and anti- democratic propaganda. Until recently, he was also a member of the editorial board of the Den ("The Day") newspaper, which is especially active in bringing together the "Red" and the "Brown," including leaders of the August 1991 coup against democracy. This newspaper demands the restoration of the Russian state "within the 1985 borders"--that is, the return of all former Soviet republics and East Europe back to Moscow rule.

Promoting such ideas in modern Russia is especially dangerous because that nation's traditional xenophobia is rapidly intensifying in the ongoing crisis there--a crisis that is not only political and economic, but also spiritual--which leads to the loss of all human values.

Escalation of hatred against Jews, liberal intellectuals, and everybody whose so-called patriotism does not go as far as Shafarevich wishes incites ethnic clashes and bloody pogroms. Thousands of people of different nationalities have already been killed in the violence, and millions have managed to save their lives only by fleeing in panic from their native countries, cities, villages, and homes. They have been left in despair, without shelter, food, and jobs, helpless and neglected.

Shafarevich, together with other "patriots"--not only Russian, but also Georgian, Azarian, Tadzhikian, Osetian, and so on--have to share direct and indirect responsibility for this nightmare.

Russian chauvinists are active on a wide international arena as well. They work hard to undermine good relations between Russia and the West because a renewal of the Cold War-style confrontation with the U.S. would help them to achieve their domestic goals--to restore a militant, totalitarian regime in the former USSR.

While Serbian extremists have been condemned by the whole civilized world as war criminals, Russian hard-liners, including Shafa revich, are strongly supporting their "Slav brothers" in their violent activities, including ethnic cleansing. At the same time, they support their "Moslem brothers" in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. During the Gulf War, one "patriotic" paper covered it under a headline: "Thanks to Iraq for bombarding Israel! The kikes deserve it!!!" (emphasis as in the original).

Surely, Shafarevich personally does not use such language, but it is obvious to me that he shares similar views. In late January of this year, a leading Russian TV program, "Vremya" ("The Time"), announced a major event: Shafarevich expressed his sympathy and support to Saddam Hussein, and criticized the Russian government for adopting the Security Council sanctions against Iraq and for taking what he considered to be "the wrong side" in the Gulf war.

With his public activities Shafarevich has put himself beyond the borders of civilized society, but his international reputation as a mathematician is still very high and contributes to his influence--thanks especially to his NAS membership. And there is no Iron Curtain available to guard the NAS from that unpleasant reality.

Tolerance of independent thinking is one of the most precious values of the world culture, but if it becomes boundless, it turns into indifference. Probably a more adequate form could be found to denounce Shafarevich's activities than the one used by Press and Wyngaarden. I think their letter would have been more convincing if they had said more about Shafarevich's writings and did not touch on his alleged participation in discriminating against Jewish mathematicians in the Steklov Institute. (The late academician Ivan Vinogradov, the longtime director of the institute, cynically enforced a policy of squeezing all Jews out of the institute--and mathematics at large. Many others were enthusiastic about helping him, but Shafarevich's personal involvement in these activities is difficult to prove.)

Despite these problems with Press and Wyngaarden's letter to Shafarevich, the very fact that they publicly detached the NAS from his cannibalistic "patriotism" is of great moral importance. Practically, NAS has no other choice if it wants to remain on the side of humanity.

Semyon Reznik is a Washington, D.C.-based Russian migr historian and writer, author of 11 books and hundreds of articles.