Kolmogorov’s options

A while ago, Scott Aaronson wrote about Kolmogorov’s way of dealing with life in a Stalinist paradise. He mentions how Kolmogorov testified against his former mentor Luzin. It is suggested that Kolmogorov was blackmailed into doing this by the secret police, who threatened to reveal Kolmogorov’s homosexuality.

But that’s silly. It is based on the assumption that Stalin’s agents needed a reason to put you in the jug, send you to Siberia, or kill you. If you kept your nose clean, obeyed the written and unwritten rules, nothing bad could happen to you! Because that would be wrong !

The firmament of the Soviet Union during the Great Purge was studded with dead stars. No one was safe, no one was innocent. Old Bolshies, creative artists, four-star generals, farmers with a cow, ex-heads of the Cheka, personal friends of Stalin serving in the Politburo – nothing made you immune.

Supreme talent in a profession with military applications gave better-than-average protection: there were some scientists that, as far as we know, never informed on anyone. I’ve never heard that Kapitsa did.

That was probably more the case after the Bomb, when the survival and success of the state hinged on nuclear physics, and they really had to put up with people like Sakharov.

Kolmogorov was a hell of a mathematician, but not a particularly admirable man.

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33 Responses to Kolmogorov’s options

  1. dearieme says:

    We enjoyed this film.

    • magusjanus says:

      Scott Alexander’s post (which is far more interesting than Scott “maybe I should cut my balls off” Aaronson’s original one), seems simultaneously incredibly naive and pessimistic.

      Like, his scenario is everyone will one day wake up and just magically realized that Mao was nuts, or SU a disaster, or whatever, without taking into account the massive sacrifices by those who laid the groundwork for that moment (Deng’s son was thrown out of a f multistore window and left paraplegic because his father resisted). Also, it means we need to go to hell and back first before we can start reassembling a functional society amidst the ruins. When the whole point is to try and stop the ruin in the first place! So in a way it’s defeatist, like “the war is lost, we just need to wait till they stop raping babies and then hopefully we can rebuild something.”

      Now, he may be correct, it certainly looks like Prog dominance is stronger than it’s ever been, virtually hegemonic across almost every institution of import in the West. But still, weirder things have happened in history. Maybe, just maybe, the right combo of tech, men, luck makes us avoid having to run around worshipping mangos to survive. There’s a lot of ruin in a nation, and I’d rather avoid most of it if we can. The West for all its all faults still has a lot of Good in it, and it’s worth fighting for.

      And what would help tremendously in that fight would be for the Scott Alexander’s of the world to grow a f backbone and start calling a spade a spade instead of coming up with longwinded rationalizations for why he keeps quite on certain obvious facts about nature that EVERYONE knows he knows, he knows we know he knows, and yet he maintains some kayfabe cuz he people are mean to him in his bizarre ‘rationalist’ sex cult in San Fran.

      • Steve Johnson says:

        Always keep in mind with Scott (Alexander) that he’s actually on the same team as the commissars and his main wish is simply that they saw him that way as well.

      • shadow on the wall says:

        Your analogy is as faulty as it could be.
        Why Stalinism ended?
        It was due to Beria, who ended the purges and downsized Gulag, because he understood it was inefficient and unprofitable (unlike Stalin, who was firm believer in forced labor), and due to Kruschev, who denounced the cult of Stalin in attempt to discredit old Stalinist guard and secure his power (unsuccesfully).

        Not because of any “fight” that anyone below them did.

        • Anonymous Reader says:

          Your analogy is as faulty as it could be.
          Why Stalinism ended?

          Stalin had a stroke and died. That is why.

  2. Steve Johnson says:

    My earlier comment said that was Scott Alexander but he was referencing an earlier post by Scott Aaronson in his post – my mistake.

  3. Gringo says:

    The firmament of the Soviet Union during the Great Purge was studded with dead stars. No one was safe, no one was innocent. Old Bolshies, creative artists, four-star generals, farmers with a cow, ex-heads of the Cheka, personal friends of Stalin serving in the Politburo – nothing made you immune.

    Indeed. I am reminded of the famous Beria phrase: “Show me the man, and I’ll show you the crime.”

  4. Marvin says:

    Ex-Soviet citizen here. I don’t think you fully understand how it really worked then and are too quick to judge. Fate of renown non-political people hinged on their connections and the level of protection they got from it. The NKVD agents weren’t random as you suggest. People the Leader targeted – of course, nobodies – sure, but renown people was trickier. You are right that “threatening to reveal homosexuality” is silly. Either he had protection if he hasn’t.
    Same about Kapitsa. Options available to Kapitsa and Kolmogorov might very well be different so it isn’t very fair to compare them. Of course he could have been “not very admirable man” as you say. The thing is we will probably never know what went on behind the closed doors there. Given that none of this generation have (yet) had to face the same choices I wouldn’t be too quick to judge.

    • j says:

      Probably there was no need for police blackmailing at all. Mathematicians, and scientists in general, are not especially nice people. Look at the USA academia today, they denounce each other for imagined racism and sexism etc/

      • Ivan says:

        j, you are right on point. As far as is known, Alexandrov and Kholmogov fight with their former teacher Luzin was for power and influence in academia (young guard v. the old). Regrettably, they used not so clean methods in their fight (in hindsight) as documented in the secret protocols of various commissions. See https://arxiv.org/pdf/1710.10688.pdf, for example, with an English language overview. So, no NKVD pressure in this specific case.

    • Triinu Remmel says:

      I can comment on how it was for common people in seventies and eighties. In universities, from every student year a few students were hired as snitches and had to report on their fellow students every now and then. It was possible to refuse to become a snitch if there was everything okay with your reputation (I know people who successfully did so). But if you had been caught at bad drunken behavior or something else (perhaps also homosexuality) you had two choices, get thrown out of the university or become a snitch.

      I want to add that many snitches had probably good intentions. They could e.g. think like this: I’m a kind person, if I’m the snitch I won’t report anything really serious. If I refuse to be a snitch, someone else will be hired, and that someone may be a bad person, who’s more dangerous to the fellows.

  5. Coagulopath says:

    Even Stalin wasn’t safe from Stalin.

    On 1 March 1953, he retired to bed late at night after a party, giving orders that nobody was to disturb him until they’d heard signs that he’d woken.

    Those signs never came. He suffered a hemorrhagic stroke during the night. His associates and friends didn’t want to disobey the order, so they left him lying unconscious in his own filth for well over a day, until the 2nd of March. He died three days later.

  6. CopeCeiling says:

    You may have missed my off-topic question Greg but I’d love to know your answer to this since it seems to be the strongest argument to your theory about how Jews came to be smart.

    Persian Jews dominate Beverly Hills and are wealthier than any group in the US if they are counted as one. I’ve never heard of a people becoming so disproportionately rich and successful while being so supposedly dumb. Also, Sephardim seem to have an IQ of roughly 100 which is much higher than any people we know of in the Middle East.

    If you are somehow correct though then I take it you think Israeli is screwed due to its demographics?

    No indication Arabs will decrease that much as a proportion of the population, and the Mizrahi and Sephardi birth rates seem quite bit higher. If Mizrahi’s really do have an IQ of 89 as someone here suggested recently then that would mean catastrophe as they are also mixing ever more with Ashkenazi and thus bringing down the average in a way that can’t be reversed.

    The one saving grace may be the Haredi which are mostly Ashkenazi and therefore have IQs of 112 I assume? But if their behaviors are genetic that means they may never be able to use their IQs for the nation which means they are actually a major negative and burden on the population which is doubly fucked…

    • Anonymous says:

      How many of the super-rich are Mizrahi? And it is easier to be rich than be an eminent scientist.

      What if the inbreeding of Haredis reaches a certain threshold so that they suffer more of the usual disadvantages of cosanguinity on cognitive capacity?

    • Peter says:

      How many of the super-rich are Mizrahi? And it is easier to be rich than be an eminent scientist.

      What if the inbreeding of Haredis reaches a certain threshold so that they suffer more of the usual disadvantages of cosanguinity on cognitive capacity?

    • Peter says:

      How many of the super-rich are Mizrahi? And it is easier to be rich than be an eminent scientist.

      What if the inbreeding of Haredis reaches a certain threshold so that they suffer more of the usual disadvantages of cosanguinity on cognitive capacity?

  7. Codreanu’s estimate after the 1989 Revolution was that one in three Romanians had reported something to the Securitate in the previous twenty years. A little here, a little there…

    A physician who was a Baptist got permission to emigrate with his son who needed an eye surgery. His wife and daughter were to stay behind, presumably forever. The night before he left his neighbor from two doors down came to him and told him he had long been assigned to watch him and would still be watching his family. He pointed a gun at his head and told him to never come back. Even after the Revolution he was still worried about it.

  8. There are Kolmogorov students around; you could ask them what they think happened. Gay Kolmogorov is a new one to me; would take a man who writes algorithms for imaginary computers to dream that up.

    FWIIW I was just talking to …. eminent mathematician of eminent mathematician society about whether or not their society should denounce the latest California math shennanegins. There are good reasons not to, even though it’s the right thing to do.

    • Anonymous says:

      depends how bad the shenanigans really are; a lot of the fuss about this seems clickbait-ish. I’m fine with eliminating tracking for math lower than algebra so long as kids who are ready for algebra in 7th grade are still able to take it.

    • The Big Red Scary says:

      The “Luzin affair” is described in various places, including in the book “Naming infinity”, which describes various strange corners of Russian mathematical culture of the time:

      It is written there that Alexandrov and Kolmogorov really were homosexual lovers, and that Luzin knew this and even commented on it sarcastically in a public confrontation with Kolmogorov.

      Unfortunately, the authors of the book don’t know much mathematics, so they don’t understand that set theory is for losers and that Egorov and Luzin are nowadays mostly remembered for work in measure theory.

  9. Joseph Lewis says:

    Did an obscure TV show from decades ago predict China’s plan against America? https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=KYWD45FN5zA

    My cousin sent me the link (he told me it is from a British TV show), and the resemblance to our days is uncannily eery to say the least.

  10. gabriel alberton says:

    Cochran, anything to say about Nature crossing the Crazy Rubicon?

  11. Rich Rostrom says:

    Yes, to a certain extent they could just crush you if they wanted to, but it worked better if they had something on you. Especially if it was something that could discredit you with friends or family or colleagues.

    Also, people want to believe that they can avoid or limit danger by their choices, even if the choice is submission. Crushing people at random, with no apparent justification, puts others into a state where they are afraid and can do nothing to relieve the fear – so they may as well fight.

  12. Sinij says:

    I believe Peterson when he is suggesting that if you had misfortune to be German during Nazi regime, most of us would end up Nazis. It is too easy to condemn moral failures during Stalin’s purges, but there is no certainty you would do any better yourself.

  13. James Anthony Thompson says:

    The Nikita Kruschev story. At the closed session in 1953 when he was denouncing Stalin’s crimes, someone in the audience yelled at him “You were in the Politburo, why did you do nothing?” Kruschev bellowed: “Who said that?”. There was absolute silence in the whole auditorium. “That is why” he replied.

  14. Woof says:

    I recall reading somewhere that an idea, no matter how bad, only needed 25% of the population to be true believers to take over a society. Most people would simply conform and whatever opposition exists would need to get to the magical 25% of support to stand a chance of winning and taking over themselves. Currently the opposition to the insanity in our society is either divided or too timid to stand up and realize they have the numbers to win if only they’d be willing to fight.

  15. Unladen Swallow says:

    My bet is on too timid, people are sheep, and follow whatever is popular at the moment.

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