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Remembering Math Heroine Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya

November 12, 2007

Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya, who died under suspicious circumstances in Moscow in 1982, is being hailed as a heroine of mathematics. She was a founder of the Jewish People's University, which for several years helped young Jews to continue studying mathematics in an oppressive Soviet Union. Mathematician and journalist George G. Szpiro recounts her story in the November 2007 Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

Born in 1938, Bella Subbotovskaya fell in love with mathematics at a young age. In the late 1950s, when Nikita Khruschev was in power, Subbotovskaya was able to study mathematics at one of the Soviet Union's best institutions, Moscow State University. She wrote papers on mathematical logic and worked at technical research institutes doing programming and numerical computation.

By the late 1970s, with Leonid Brezhnev in power, Jews were systematically denied entry to Moscow State University. In 1978, Subbotovskaya and other mathematicians founded the so-called Jewish People's University, which offered young mathematicians the chance to continue their education and attend lectures by outstanding local mathematicians. Although Subbotovskaya herself did not do any teaching, she was regarded as the university's "guiding spirit." She arranged and scheduled lectures, which were initially held in her apartment. As the number of Jewish students grew larger, so did the venues in Moscow.

"Even though it had no political intent whatsoever," Szpiro wrote, the Jewish People's University "defied the Soviet system on a grand scale." The KGB summoned Subbotovskaya several times. In September 1982, she was hit by a car and killed. After her death, the activities of the Jewish People's University ceased.

During the four years of its operation, the Jewish People's University instructed about 350 students in higher mathematics and brought forth about 100 "graduates," some of whom would become professional mathematicians and faculty members at prestigious institutions, largely in the United States and Israel. "But Bella had given her alumni more than just a math education," Szpiro concluded. "In the face of injustice, discrimination, and seemingly insurmountable difficulties, she had offered them hope and taught them to fight back."

Source: American Mathematical Society, Oct. 30, 2007.

Start Date: 
Monday, November 12, 2007