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“Stand Against Absurdity and Unfairness”: Mathematicians Support Political Prisoner Azat Miftakhov

[This is an English version of an article that appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on June 29, 2021]

by Allyn Jackson

Last week mathematicians around the world joined in an expression of solidarity with one of its young members, 28-year-old Azat Miftakhov, a political prisoner in Russia.  He has been jailed for the past two and a half years and now faces a six-year prison term. 

A total of about 1.660 people tuned in to the live broadcast of the event, the Azat Miftakhov Day, which took place on Wednesday 16 June 2021 (the videos are now posted on YouTube).  Organized by the Miftakhov Committee, an international group of ten mathematicians, the event combined three mathematics lectures with information about Miftakhov’s case and expressions of concern and outrage by mathematicians from several countries.

“This is one of our colleagues, a member of our community, with whom we have shared work and mathematical dreams,” said Cédric Villani in his impassioned opening statement for the event.  Villani, who in 2010 received the Fields Medal, the top honor in mathematics, now serves in the French National Assembly.  Focusing on Miftakhov could aid the approximately 100,000 prisoners of conscience the world over, he said.  “Mathematicians and scientists always have to stand against absurdity and unfairness.”

Born in the Russian republic of Tatarstan in 1993, Miftakhov showed early talent in mathematics and went on to study at Moscow State University, one of Russia’s major centers for mathematics.  As a student he got involved in anarchist movements.  By 2018 he had done brilliant work in probability theory and stochastic processes and was well on his way to get his PhD when he was suddenly arrested in February 2019, on charges of building explosives.

Three days later, the police, lacking evidence to support the charges, released Miftakhov—only to re-arrest him the same day, this time charging him with breaking a window of a building of the United Russia political party. The window had been broken more than a year before.  Two witnesses, whose identities have been kept secret, provided testimony.  One of the witnesses died in January 2020 and therefore could not be cross-examined.

“Does it not sound like a joke?” said Villani of the case against Miftakhov.  But it is no joke.  The trial took place in the last few months of 2020.  In January this year he was sentenced to six years in a penal colony on charges of “hooliganism” stemming from political hatred.  Throughout Miftakhov has steadfastly maintained his innocence.  He said he has been beaten and tortured, and human rights representatives have confirmed signs of this on his body.

After Alexei Navalny, Miftakhov is probably the best known political prisoner in Russia.  Two online petitions demand Miftakhov’s release: one in Russia has 86.000 signatures, and the other has 3.200 signatures of mathematicians from fifteen countries.  In January 2021, fifty members of the Russian Academy of Sciences signed a letter calling for the release of Miftakhov. Mathematical societies in Brazil, England, France, Italy, and the United States have made statements protesting his incarceration, as have human rights organizations.

One of the Russian mathematicians rallying to the cause is Anatoly Vershik, a professor in the St. Petersburg branch of the Steklov Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Born in 1933, Vershik spent much of his life under the Soviet system. It is obvious that the court had no proof of unlawful activity by Miftakhov, said Vershik in his presentation for Miftakhov Day.  Russia is “returning to a Soviet, Stalinist system and drifting further and further from a civilized norm.  Miftakhov’s case is an obvious demonstration of this fact.”

Russia has a stellar mathematical history.  The field flourished in the Soviet years, when mathematics provided a refuge for some of the nation’s most brilliant minds.  The Russian mathematical tradition was greatly weakened when many of the best mathematicians left after the fall of the USSR.  Recognizing the rebuilding of Russian mathematics over the past few decades, the International Mathematical Union (IMU) decided to hold its quadrennial congress in St. Petersburg in 2022.  The congress is the most important international event in mathematics and includes the awarding of the Fields Medals.

In January this year, 47 mathematicians, including the ten members of the Miftakhov Committee, signed a letter to the organizers of the congress.  “Attending the congress while our colleague Azat Miftakhov is arbitrarily detained will pose a serious dilemma for us and for the entire mathematical community,” they wrote.

While imprisoned Miftakhov has been able to do mathematical work, partly through correspondence with Russian mathematician Alexander Bufetov of the Institut de Mathématiques in Marseille and the Steklov Institute in Moscow.  Bufetov was one of the mathematical lecturers for the Miftakhov Day.  Before starting his lecture he looked straight into the camera and said the word “freedom” in eight languages.  One was Miftakhov’s native tongue of Tatar, where the word is “azatlyk”; his given name, Azat, means “free”.

The other mathematical lecturers were German mathematician and Fields Medalist Peter Scholze of the Universität Bonn and the Max-Planck-Institut für Mathematik in Bonn, and Ukrainian mathematician Maryna Viazovska of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

A week before Miftakhov Day, mathematicians received the grim news that Moscow City Court had denied Miftakhov’s final appeal.  He will be transferred to a penal colony any day now.  “I was more hopeful before the horrible six-year verdict,” said Bufetov.  But he and his colleagues are not giving up.

“We will not let go until Azat is free,” said Miftakhov Committee member Ahmed Abbes, a researcher at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques outside Paris.  “Our community’s long tradition of defending human rights has demonstrated that stubbornness pays off.”

Allyn Jackson is a freelance writer and editor with over 30 years of experience and a specialty in mathematics and theoretical computer science. She served as a senior writer and deputy editor of the Notices of the AMS.

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The Committee of Concerned Scientists: “Gifted Mathematician Sentenced to Six Years for Alleged Act of Vandalism”

The Committee of Concerned Scientists, a premier international science human rights group, released an informational statement about Azat’s case and the Azat Miftakhov Day, and posted a letter, dated June 28, 2021, to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The letter urges a “pardon and rapid release” of Azat and notes that the committee will closely follow further developments in the case.

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Strafkolonie und Folter für eine zerbrochene Fensterscheibe

Der russische Mathematiker Azat Miftakhov muss sechs Jahre in Haft, Menschenrechtler vermuten dahinter politische Gründe. Nun regt sich Widerstand von Top-Mathematikern gegen das Urteil.

Von Allyn Jackson in der Süddeutsche Zeitung am 29 Juni 2021

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Azat Miftakhov and Elena Gorban married on June 23

On June 23, Azat Miftakhov and his co-defendant in the “broken window case”, Elena Gorban, got married, as was reported by the DOXA News  and the FreeAzat! Telegram channel. The Azat Miftakhov Committee expresses warm congratulations to Azat and Elena on the occasion of their marriage. We have sent Azat a congratulatory postcard using the FSIN-PISMO service, a copy of which is included below.

Уважаемый Азат!
От имени международного комитета математиков по вашей поддержке, поздравляю вас и Елену Горбань с заключением брака! Надеюсь что в недалеком будущем вам удастся свадьбу повторить и отпраздновать в значительно более приятных и тому соответствующих условиях.
С наилучшими пожеланиями,
Илья Капович, профессор математики, Хантер Колледж, Нью-Йорк

Dear Azat!
On behalf of the international committee of mathematicians in your support, I congratulate you and Elena Gorban on your marriage! I hope that in the near future you will be able to repeat and celebrate your marriage ceremony in much nicer and more appropriate conditions.
With best wishes,

Ilya Kapovich, Professor of Mathematics, Hunter College, New York

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Videos of the Azat Miftakhov Day

The Azat Miftakhov Day took place on Wednesday June 16, 2021.

It was organized online by the Azat Miftakhov committee and sponsored by Société Mathématique de France (SMF), in solidarity with Azat Miftakhov, a graduate student from Moscow State University who has been arbitrarily detained by Russian state authorities for almost two years and half.

Ahmed Abbes (CNRS & IHES, member of the Azat Miftakhov Committee)

Introduction

Cédric Villani (mathematician, member of the French Academy of Sciences and member of the French National Assembly)

Opening speech (pdf)

The case Azat Miftakhov

Maryna Viazovska (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland)

Sphere packings, universal optimality, and Fourier interpolation (abstract)

Alexander Bufetov (CNRS & Institut de Mathématiques de Marseille, France & Steklov, IITP RAS, Russia)

Determinantal point processes: quasi-symmetries, minimality and interpolation (abstract)

Peter Scholze (Universität Bonn, Germany)

Condensed Mathematics (abstract)

Ilya Kapovich (Hunter College of CUNY, member of the Azat Miftakhov Committee)

Closing remarks (pdf)

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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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Free Azat Miftakhov

Sign the petition set by the Moscow State University students and staff.

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Michèle Audin: For the release of Azat Miftakhov – because science needs freedom

Michèle Audin, who supports Azat Miftakhov received an invitation from the Russian media RT to collaborate, as an expert and speaker, on a documentary dedicated to the “exceptional Russian mathematician” Sofia Kovalevskaya (and offering her, not a salary or remuneration, but a “reward”). She replied to RT that she had searched in vain on their site for information about Azat Miftakhov, adding:

“Depending on the skills you recognize me on Sofia Kovalevskaya, I sincerely believe that what this mathematician would do today would be to defend this colleague. We mathematicians are not looking for ‘rewards’ as you elegantly say, but for freedom – because how can we imagine doing science without freedom?”

Read Michèle Audin’s post on her Mediapart Blog.

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Azat Miftakhov’s last word at the appeal hearing

Тhis is Azat Miftakhov’s last word at the appeal hearing that took place on June 9, 2021 at Moscow City Court. An English translation is avaiable after the Russian version.

Последнее слово Азата Мифтахова в апелляции

Уголовное судопроизводство против меня является одной огромной несправедливостью. Начиная с задержания, в ходе которого я был подвергнут пыткам, и заканчивая приговором, обвинительное содержание которого основано на показаниях засекреченного свидетеля, а строгость наказания которого не обоснована вообще ничем. Этим процессом силовые органы и государство мстят мне за мои политические взгляды и за их выражение.

Тем не менее, я получил колоссальную общественную поддержку, которую я ощущал всё время своего заключения. В этом последнем слове мне бы хотелось поблагодарить всех тех, кто вносил вклад в эту поддержку.

Мои особые благодарности Елене Горбань, проходящей по тому же уголовному делу. Её помощь была активной с первых же дней моего задержания и остаётся таковой по сей день. Она организовывает сбор денежной помощи для меня, на эти деньги она заказывает мне продукты, книги и каждую неделю доставляет мне посылки и передачки. Так же Лена регулярно обеспечивает меня актуальными новостями о происходящем в мире, что очень важно для меня. Безусловно, её вклад в мою поддержку невозможно переоценить.

Попутно, хотел бы поблагодарить всех тех, кто перечислял деньги в мою поддержку. Без вас не было бы таких хороших передачек и посылок, которые я получал всё это время.

Я благодарен математическим сообществам, выступившим с требованием прекратить моё преследование. Мне было очень приятно, что меня поддерживают ученые с мировым именем.

Отдельное спасибо профессору математики Александру Буфетову за научную переписку со мной, благодаря которой возникли мои последние математические публикации. Сложные математические задачи, которые я получаю от него в ходе этой переписки — это то, что мне особенно нужно в заключении.

Хотел бы поблагодарить всех, кто поддерживал меня, отправляя мне письма и открытки с тёплыми словами. За всё время заключения я получил огромное их количество. Мне часто писали, какой я стойкий и мужественный, но если честно, бывали минуты, когда становилось ужасно тоскливо в тюрьме, и ваши письма помогали преодолевать эту тоску. Я извиняюсь за то, что мало кому отвечал. Прошу меня понять: писем было очень много, и я просто не успевал всем ответить, но абсолютно все письма и открытки я читаю с большим удовольствием.

Отдельные благодарности журналистке Натальи Дёминой, которая не только освещала моё уголовное преследование, но и вот уже полтора года каждую неделю, обеспечивает меня свежими номерами «Троицкого варианта» и «Собеседника», которые читаются с большим интересом.

Хотел бы так же отметить блестящую работу моей защитницы Светланы Сидоркиной. Пунктуальность, хорошая подготовленность к заседаниям и отличная аргументация — это всё про неё. Кроме этого, она предавала моё дело общественной огласке, что обеспечило меня ещё большей поддержкой. От Светланы Ивановны я получил не только юридическую помощь и огласку, но и моральную поддержку. В доковидные времена, когда вход в СИЗО был не сильно ограничен, она практически каждую неделю навещала меня, и мы, не имея тогда никаких новостей о продвижении дела, просто общались друг с другом по душам. Эти разговоры здорово поднимали мне настроение.

Огромное спасибо тем многочисленным активистам, которые принимали участие в различных акциях и мероприятиях в мою поддержку. Некоторые из них при этом рисковали своей учёбой, своим комфортом и даже своей свободой. Среди таких отважных людей были как анархисты и члены студенческих движений, так и просто неравнодушные к моей судьбе люди. Мне отрадно видеть, что, не смотря на возрастающий масштаб репрессий, такие люди продолжают протестную деятельность.

И, конечно, огромное спасибо всем моим родным и близким за их любовь и заботу, которые я не переставал получать, сидя в тюрьме. Их сплочённость вопреки трагедии, связанной с моим задержанием, достойны уважения. Отдельное спасибо моей маме и моему дяде за их активное участие в огласке моего дела.

Попав в жернова правосудия, я столкнулся с агрессивной мощью государства в лице правоохранительных органов и кремлёвских пропагандистов. Но в то же время я получил колоссальную общественную поддержку, благодаря которой я всё время чувствовал, что правда на моей стороне, и что всё, что я делал, я делал не зря. И это вселяет в меня надежду, что очень скоро Россия будет свободной. А вместе с ней будут свободны десятки, а то и сотни политузников нашей страны.

Azat Miftakhov’s last word at the appeal hearing

The criminal proceedings against me are one huge injustice. From my initial detention in which I was tortured to the conviction verdict based on the testimony of a secret witness and whose severity is completely unjustified. With this entire process, the state and its strongmen persecute me for my political views and for their expression.

Nevertheless, I received enormous public support that I felt all the time I was imprisoned. In this last word, I would like to thank all those who contributed to this support.

My special thanks go to Elena Gorban, who is also a defendant in this criminal case. Her help has been active since the very first days of my detention and remains so to this day. She organizes a collection of cash assistance for me, with this money she orders me food, books and delivers parcels and transfers them to me every week. Lena also regularly provides me with up-to-date news about what is happening in the world, which is very important for me. Without a doubt, her contribution to my support cannot be overestimated.

Also, I would like to thank all those who transferred money for my support. Without you, there wouldn’t be such good deliveries and parcels that I’ve received all this time.

I am grateful to the mathematical communities that have demanded that my persecution be stopped. I was very pleased to be supported by world-renowned scientists.

I am especially grateful to Professor of Mathematics Alexander Buffetov for the scientific correspondence with me, thanks to which my latest mathematical publications appeared. The complex math problems I get from him in this correspondence are what I especially need during my incarceration.

I would like to thank everyone who supported me by sending me letters and postcards with warm words. I have received a huge number of them during the time I have been in prison. I was often told how persistent and courageous I am, but to be honest, there were moments when it became terribly sad in prison, and your letters helped to overcome this longing. I apologize for not answering most people. Please understand: there were a lot of letters, and I just didn’t have time to answer everyone, but I read absolutely all the letters and postcards with great pleasure.

My separate thanks go to journalist Natalia Demina, who not only covered my criminal prosecution, but also for a year and a half every week, provides me with the latest issues of “Trinity Variant” and “Interlocutor”, which I read with great interest.

I would also like to note the brilliant work of my attorney Svetlana Sidorkina. Punctuality, good preparation for meetings and excellent argumentation are all about her. In addition, she made my case public, which provided me with even more support. From Svetlana Ivanovna, I received not only legal assistance and publicity, but also moral support. In pre-COVID times, when the entrance to the pre-trial detention center was not very limited, she visited me almost every week, and we, having no news about the progress of the case at that time, just talked to each other heartily. Those conversations greatly cheered me up.

Many thanks go to the numerous activists who took part in various actions and events in my support. Some of them risked their studies, their comfort and even their freedom. Among such brave people were both anarchists and members of student movements, and people who were just not indifferent to my fate. I was glad to see that. Despite the increasing scale of repression, such people continue to protest.

And, of course, thank you very much to all my family and friends for their love and care, which I never stopped receiving while in prison. Their cohesion, contrary to the tragedy associated with my detention, is worthy of respect. Special thanks to my mother and my uncle for their active participation in publicizing my case.

Having gotten into the millstone of justice, I faced the aggressive power of the state represented by the law enforcement agencies and the Kremlin propagandists. But at the same time, I received enormous public support, thanks to which I felt all the time that the truth was on my side, and that everything I was doing was not for nothing. And this gives me hope that Russia will be free very soon. And with it, dozens, if not hundreds of political prisoners of our country will be free.

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Moscow City Court upheld the conviction of mathematician Azat Miftakhov

Today, June 9, 2021, the Moscow City Court heard the appeal of the verdict in the case against Azat Miftakhov. Unfortunately, the court upheld Azat’s conviction and six-year prison sentence in a general-regime colony. We remain committed to seeking Azat’s freedom and to overturning this blatantly unfair and cruel decision. The international mathematical community stands in solidarity with Azat and will continue to press for his release.

The Azat Miftakhov Committee