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Azat Miftakhov Day: honoring a Russian graduate student unjustly imprisoned

For most of the second half of the 20th century, Russian mathematics enjoyed unrivaled prestige. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its relative isolation from the mathematical aristocracy in other parts of the world, the Moscow mathematical school was for over 40 years consistently the source of breathtakingly original ideas in every research area, pure and applied, with smaller cohorts in Leningrad and elsewhere not far behind.  Children who displayed unusual talent or interest would be offered spots in specialized schools, where they would be given intensive training, often by world-famous scholars.  The few duties required of professional mathematicians left them ample time for research; they presented their work and exchanged notes on the latest mathematical news in seminars that went on for hours, ending only when the cleaning staff chased them out into the icy Moscow night.  

The Moscow school continued to thrive even after the departure of some of its leaders, in the first postwar wave of emigration of Soviet Jews; it was still the hottest ticket on the math circuit when one of us spent the year of 1989-90 at Moscow’s Steklov Institute on an academic exchange. The combination of elitism and camaraderie at the Steklov was unlike anything he had encountered in other mathematical capitals. A few years later that spirit survived, but mainly in places like Chicago, Cambridge, and Paris, after the breakup of the USSR made it both possible to leave and increasingly impossible to survive on a Russian researcher’s salary.

Russian schools continue to discover brilliant math students, and in recent years the authorities, together with some of the most distinguished expatriate Russian mathematicians, have taken some steps aimed at reviving the tradition and at encouraging expatriates to spend at least some time in their home country. Crowning these efforts is the planned hosting of the 2022 International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) in St. Petersburg.  The ICM, by far the most comprehensive of all international mathematical events, has been meeting every four years (more or less) since 1897, only interrupted by the World Wars.  Dozens of lectures report on the most striking recent developments in the field, and the host country gets to show off its cultural as well as mathematical accomplishments. St. Petersburg’s organizers won the right to hold the 2022 meeting with the help of generous support from the Russian government, including visa-free entry to all participants, and with reports of Putin’s intention to attend the opening ceremony in person.

But the reality of the current situation in Russia is far less rosy than this picture might suggest, and not all Russian mathematicians who wish to partake in the ICM festivities will be able to do so. As matters stand, to name one prominent example, the young mathematician Azat Miftakhov will not be attending the ICM in St. Petersburg.  Russia’s deep mathematical traditions have coexisted with a no less deep tradition of dissent. Sometimes these traditions have manifested in the same person. The logician Yuri Shikhanovich and the cyberneticist Leonid Plyushch were interned in psychiatric hospitals in the 1970s for their activities in the Soviet dissident movement. This approach to dissent has been revived in the treatment of Miftakhov, who has spent the last two and a half years in a Russian prison. His appeal of the sentence was rejected on June 9, and he is on schedule to be finishing his first year of a six-year sentence in a penal colony on the opening day of the ICM, when the prestigious Fields Medals are being handed out, possibly by Putin himself.   

Miftakhov’s doctoral studies at Moscow State University were interrupted in February 2019 when he was arrested by police and charged with manufacturing explosives. At the police station he was tortured but after three days the court threw out the case for lack of evidence. He was released but was rearrested before leaving the police station; this time he was charged with having participated in a plot more than a year earlier to break a window at an office of President Putin’s United Russia Party. Miftakhov pleaded not guilty, but this January 18, a Moscow court pronounced the six-year prison sentence, on the basis of testimony by two secret “witnesses” — one of whom claimed to have identified the masked Miftakhov by his “expressive brows,” and who died several months before the trial. The other two defendants, who admitted their guilt while denying that Miftakhov was involved in the incident, received suspended sentences of between two and four years.

After Alexei Navalny, Azat Miftakhov is probably the best known of all political prisoners in Russia; the Russian human rights organization “Memorial” had recognized his political prisoner status as early as 2019.  Two petitions in his support had been published by the time of his January sentencing: one in Russia had gathered more than 86000 signatures, while a second petition was signed by more than 3000 mathematicians from 15 countries. While waiting for the court to announce its verdict, academicians, professors, and corresponding members of the Russian Academy of Sciences had published an open letter calling on the court to release Miftakhov.  Human Rights Watch declared after the verdict that “Azat Miftakhov’s conviction is clearly unjust and unfair, and authorities should immediately and unconditionally overturn it.” 

Mathematicians around the world were shocked by the court’s decision.  Just before the court announced his sentence in January, 47 mathematicians sent a letter concerning his case to the members of the ICM Organizing Committee. The Hadamard Doctoral School of Mathematics at Paris-Saclay University issued a statement on March 4, 2021 naming Azat Miftakhov an honorary student and inviting him to complete his doctorate in Paris once he is released. Many professional associations, including the national mathematical societies in the US, UK, France, Brazil, Italy, and Spain, have issued public statements expressing their concern about his case. 

These same learned societies have agreed to designate June 16 Azat Miftakhov Day.  Over 100 colleagues around the world registered for a high-level virtual conference in his honor, with four presentations by distinguished mathematicians, including two former Fields Medalists; more than 1000 additional colleagues watched the conference streamed live on YouTube.

In the 1970s an international committee of mathematicians, primarily in France and the United States, mobilized successfully for the liberation of Shikhanovich and Plyutsch. The mathematicians signing this article have created the Azat Miftakhov Committee, in the hope of bringing about Miftakhov’s liberation.  By sheer coincidence, Azat Miftakhov Day is also the day that was chosen for the planned Geneva summit between Presidents Biden and Putin. We hope the U.S. delegation found time to bring Azat Miftakhov Day  — the very day of their meeting — to the attention of their Russian counterparts, noting that efforts to rebuild Russian mathematics will not be successful if young mathematicians are treated as Azat Miftakhov is being treated.

The Azat Miftakhov Committee

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