The achievements of Russian-Jewish mathematician Vladimir Maz’ya in analysis and the theory of partial differential equations, including work on Sobolev spaces and counterexamples related to Hilbert’s 19th and 20th Problems, are documented in Wikipedia and demonstrated by his own published output. Such fundamental contributions are only alluded to in this autobiography, and then only cursorily and humbly. This work, translated from the Russian original, is an account of Maz’ya’s first three decades. It is a witty and humorous recollection of a life: from survivor in Stalinist Russia to becoming an academic in the anti-intellectual environment of Khrushchev’s Russia. Politics is purposefully set aside to instead see Leningrad and the disruption of World War II from a child’s eyes, and the story continues from there with life as Maz’ya remembers it.
What Maz’ya recalls includes his participation and involvement in performing arts (opera and piano), friends and fellow luminaries (some contribute their own memories), avid reading, and life under Communism. The final pages, following the travails and triumphs of graduate study and integration into the professional community, touches on some of Maz’ya’s success in mathematics. This includes some comments on his work in the theory of Sobolev spaces and his approach to Hilbert’s 19th Problem. A rich trove of photographs liven the text and also make this a brisk read. Maz’ya mentions and recommends many works of literature and art. Unfortunately, the translation of many is a near miss, as in “The Cat and the Owl” for Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat”.
Maz’ya’s recollections map a personal landscape of hopes realized and sorrows endured and makes for a vivid picture of these times and this largely closed country. This memoir should be of interest to those looking for insight into daily life in Soviet Russia, especially life for Jewish families, as much if not more so than to learn about the author’s career as a mathematician.
Tom Schulte keeps alive the passions of his young years: mathematics, music, and massive piles of books being read and to be read.