Isis— Volume 108, Number 2, June 2017 479



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Isis—

Volume 108, Number 2, June 2017 

    479

Paul Bishop is William Jacks Chair of Modern Languages at the University of Glasgow and a fellow of the In-

stitute of Linguists. He has published widely on various aspects of intellectual history, especially psychoanaly-

sis and analytical psychology, and is currently working on an introduction to the thought of Ludwig Klages.



Sergei S. Demidov; Boris V. Lëvshin (Editors). The Case of Academician Nikolai  

Nikolaevich Luzin. Translated by Roger Cooke. (History of Mathematics, 43.) xxix +  

375 pp., illus., indexes. Providence, R.I.: American Mathematical Society, 2016.  

$59 (cloth).

The flourishing of mathematics in the Soviet Union is often explained by portraying this field as allegedly 

isolated from ideological and political influences and therefore attractive to thinkers striving for intellec-

tual autonomy. This book is a very powerful statement to the contrary. In July 1936 a group of talented 

young mathematicians, former members of “Luzitania,” an informal creative mathematical circle led by 

the charismatic Nikolai Luzin, viciously attacked their own teacher, falsely accusing him of all sorts of 

misdeeds—from academic misconduct to anti-Soviet activity. The Case of Academician Nikolai Nikolae-

vich Luzin gives voice to all participants—both the accusers and Luzin himself—and presents overwhelm-

ing documentary evidence to conclude that mathematicians themselves, not an outside political force, 

drove the charges against Luzin, in pursuit of their own political and administrative gains.

The bulk of the book is made up of the translated minutes of five sessions of the Soviet Academy of 

Sciences Special Commission appointed in July 1936 to investigate the accusations against Luzin. Intro-

ductory articles put the events in a broader historical context, and a richly detailed commentary provides 

ample evidence to evaluate the validity of the charges.

The accusers, among them the future leaders of Soviet mathematics Pavel Aleksandrov, Sergei So-

bolev, and Andrei Kolmogorov, showed remarkable political adroitness and drew on the vast repertoire 

of Soviet ideological clichés to attack Luzin. The variety of charges reflected the diverse agendas of the 

different accusing parties. While committed ideologues labeled Luzin a reactionary proponent of fascist 

ideas, more practical, career-minded mathematicians were accusing him of holding up the promotions 

of younger scholars in the academy. While some accusers focused solely on the allegations of plagiarism, 

others brought forward the heavy political charges of deliberate concealment of problems with math-

ematical education and denounced him as an enemy of the Soviet state, which could potentially lead to 

Luzin’s expulsion from the Academy of Sciences and his possible arrest and execution.

The higher political authorities, however, including Stalin himself, did not seem to be interested in 

the petty fights over priority or administrative rivalry. They showed concern about only one issue—Luzin’s 

close ties with French mathematicians and his habit of publishing much of his work abroad. Luzin was 

apparently considered for the role of whipping boy in a public ideological campaign aimed at reaffirming 

scientists’ commitment to the goals and values of the Soviet state. A series of meetings condemning “Luz-

inism” swept through the scientific community, extracting pledges from scientists to publish their work 

first and foremost in Soviet academic journals. The choice of Luzin as a target in this particular campaign, 

however, did not prove wise, as most leading Soviet mathematicians, including many of his accusers, were 

similarly publishing their work abroad, for the simple reasons of wider reach and speed of publication; 

indeed, Luzin was probably not the worst offender. Eventually the higher authorities decided to leave 

Luzin alone, and the Academy of Sciences Special Commission had to back down and downgrade the 

accusations. Luzin lost his position of authority but remained a full member of the Soviet academy.

The outcome of the Luzin affair was a decisive shift of administrative power from the older generation 

of mathematicians to a younger cohort. A similar generational conflict played out at about the same time 

in France between the old guard (René-Louis Baire, Arnaud Denjoy, and Henri Lebesgue—all connected 

to Luzin) and the Young Turks (e.g., André Weil, who had links to Luzin’s accusers). The young genera-

tion fought their fights with the resources available to them, and in the Soviet context such resources in-



Recent'>480  Book 

Reviews: 

Recent 

cluded ideological charges and political accusations. A significant change in research focus accompanied 

this power shift—from Luzin’s somewhat old-fashioned interests in descriptive set theory and mathemati-

cal analysis to his students’ trendy research on topology and group theory. Ironically, the hierarchical So-

viet system of organization of research, which concentrated decision-making power in the hands of several 

authoritative figures, made those individuals natural targets of attacks by those desiring change.

Roger Cooke’s superb translation of the Special Commission’s minutes conveys the gloomy and fasci-

nating stylistic mix of mathematicians’ careful professional wording, Soviet bureaucratic clichés, and the 

inflammatory language of political accusations. This is not an easy read; nor should it be, given the heavy 

emotional load of the proceedings. Yet this is a must-read for any historian of science under an authoritar-

ian regime and for historians of twentieth-century mathematics.

The Luzin case left a deep scar in the collective memory of the Soviet mathematics community. 

Luzin’s accusers preferred to remain silent about the whole affair. Some of them lavished posthumous 

praise on their teacher, masking their role in the notorious campaign. Most original documents were 

destroyed (this publication is based on a recent accidental find of barely legible bottom carbon copies). 

Yet, through word of mouth, talk of the ethical failures of Luzin’s students continued to spread, black-

ening their reputations and poisoning the moral atmosphere in the community. This publication (the 

Russian original came out in 1999) is a difficult post-Soviet effort to come to terms with the Stalinist past. 

Ironically, the English translation arrives at a moment when political attitudes in Russia have taken a turn 

toward renewed nationalism and scholars are once again publicly castigated for their lack of “patriotism” 

and dubious connections with the West. History repeats its tragedies, but not necessarily as farce. If forgot-

ten, it repeats itself as another tragedy.



Slava Gerovitch

Slava Gerovitch is a historian of Soviet mathematics, science, and technology who teaches at the Mas-

sachusetts Institute of Technology. His books include From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet 

Cybernetics, Voices of the Soviet Space Program, and Soviet Space Mythologies, a finalist for the 2016 

Historia Nova Prize.

Recent

Axel Jansen; Andreas Franzmann; Peter Münte (Editors). Legitimizing Science: National 

and Global Publics (1800–2010). 331 pp., figs. Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, 2015. 

€45 (paper).

Ever since Big Science lost its energy from the Space Race, and the rising costs of cutting-edge medical 

research resulted in politicians questioning the necessity of state involvement in them, science has been 

under heavy fire. It is not surprising that historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science incessantly 

propose and discuss models of politics-science relations and entanglements. Legitimizing Science, the 

result of a 2013 workshop in Tübingen, Germany, is another recent publication asking how the science-

policy nexus functions and how scientists garner the “legitimacy that science itself cannot provide” (p. 11). 

The introductory essay by the editors, Andreas Franzmann, Axel Jansen, and Peter Münte, discusses 

the modes of interaction between science and elites, the latter described as having a “key role in shielding 

the experimental sciences from religious or cultural attacks and in supporting and transferring authority to 

them” (p. 12). This quotation, however generalizing it might be, gives a good sense of the general outline 

of the topics in which scientists stay on one side and politics—research policies, grant agencies, or even 

professional politicians—stays on the other. The second introductory essay, by Rudolf Stichweh, takes the 

longue durée perspective and asks how we can understand science-society and science-politics couplings 




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