Alexander Esenin-Volpin bigraphy, stories - Russian-American mathematician

Alexander Esenin-Volpin : biography

12 May 1924 -

Alexander Sergeyevich Esenin-Volpin ( born May 12, 1924) is a prominent Russian-American poet and mathematician. A notable dissident, political prisoner and a leader of the Soviet human rights movement, he spent total of fourteen years incarcerated and repressed by the Soviet authorities in prisons, psikhushkas and exile.


Alexander Volpin was born on May 12, 1924 in the Soviet Union. His mother, Nadezhda Volpin, was a poet and translator from French and English. His father was Sergei Yesenin, a celebrated Russian poet, who never knew his son. Alexander and his mother moved from Leningrad to Moscow in 1933.

Esenin-Volpin was free from conscription due to "psychiatric" reasons. His psychiatric imprisonments took place in 1949 for "anti-Soviet poetry", in 1959 for smuggling abroad samizdat, including his Свободный философский трактат (Free Philosophical Tractate), and again in 1968.

Esenin-Volpin graduated from Moscow State University with a “candidate” dissertation in the spring of 1949. After graduation, Volpin was sent to the Ukrainian city of Chernovtsy to teach mathematics at the local state university. Less than a month after his arrival in Chernovtsy he was arrested by the MGB, sent on a plane back to Moscow, and incarcerated in the Lubyanka prison. He was charged with "systematically conducting anti-Soviet agitation, writing anti-Soviet poems, and reading them to acquaintances."

Apprehensive about the prospect of prison and labor camp, Volpin faked a suicide attempt in order to initiate a psychiatric evaluation.Irina Kirk, Profiles in Russian Resistance (New York, 1975) Psychiatrists at Moscow's Serbsky Institute declared Volpin mentally incompetent, and in October 1949 he was transferred to the Leningrad Psychiatric Prison Hospital for an indefinite stay. A year later he was abruptly released from the prison hospital, and sentenced to five years exile in the Kazakh town of Karaganda as a "socially dangerous element." In Karagada, he found employment as a teacher of evening and correspondence courses in mathematics. After the death of Joseph Stalin, Volpin was released due to a general amnesty in March 1953. Soon he became a known mathematician specializing in the fields of ultrafinitism and intuitionism.

In 1968, Esenin-Volpin was again hospitalized. After his 1968 psychiatric confinement, 99 Soviet mathematicians sent a letter to the Soviet authorities asking for his release. This fact became public and the Voice of America conducted a broadcast on the topic; Esenin-Volpin was released almost immediately thereafter. Vladimir Bukovsky was quoted as saying that Volpin's diagnosis was "pathological honesty".

Esenin-Volpin was the first dissident in the history of the Soviet Union who took on a "legalist" strategy of dissent, proclaiming that it is possible and necessary to defend human rights by strictly observing the law. On December 5, 1965, the Soviet Constitution Day, he organized a legendary "митинг гласности" (Glasnost Meeting), a demonstration at the Pushkin Square in the center of Moscow. Western journalists were invited to provide press coverage. The leaflets written by Volpin and distributed by samizdat method, asserted that recent arrest of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel violated Article 3 of the Soviet constitution and Article 18 of RSFSR Criminal Code. The meeting was attended by about 200 people, many of whom turned out to be KGB operatives. The slogans read: "Требуем гласности суда над Синявским и Даниэлем" (We demand an open trial for Sinyavski and Daniel) and "Уважайте советскую конституцию" (Respect the Soviet constitution). The demonstrators were promptly arrested.

In 1968 Esenin-Volpin circulated his famous "Памятка для тех, кому предстоят допросы" (Memo for those who expect to be interrogated) widely used by fellow dissidents. In 1970, Volpin joined the Human Rights Committee of the USSR and worked with Yuri Orlov, Andrei Sakharov and other activists.

In May 1972, he emigrated to the United States, but his Soviet citizenship was not revoked as was customary at the time. He worked at Boston University. In 1973 he was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto. In 2005, Esenin-Volpin participated in "They Chose Freedom", a four-part television documentary on the history of the Soviet dissident movement.

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