Alexander Esenin-Volpin

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Alexander Esenin-Volpin
Александр Сергеевич Есенин-Вольпин
Alexander Sergeyevich Esenin-Volpin

(1924-05-12)May 12, 1924
DiedMarch 16, 2016(2016-03-16) (aged 91)
Boston, U.S.
CitizenshipSoviet Union, United States
Alma materMoscow State University
OccupationSoviet mathematician, human rights activist, dissident, poet
Scientific career
InstitutionsBoston University

Alexander Sergeyevich Esenin-Volpin (also written Ésénine-Volpine and Yessenin-Volpin in his French and English publications; Russian: Алекса́ндр Серге́евич Есе́нин-Во́льпин; May 12, 1924 – March 16, 2016) was a Russian-American poet and mathematician.

A dissident, political prisoner and a leader of the Soviet human rights movement, he spent a total of six years incarcerated and repressed by the Soviet authorities in psikhushkas and exile.[1][2] In mathematics, he is known for his foundational role in ultrafinitism.


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,[3]: 221  a celebrated Russian poet, who never knew his son. Alexander and his mother moved from Leningrad to Moscow in 1933.

His first psychiatric imprisonments took place in 1949[4]: 20  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 mathematics 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."[5]: 639 

Apprehensive about the prospect of prison and labor camp, Volpin faked a suicide attempt in order to initiate a psychiatric evaluation.[6]: 119–21  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.

In 1953, after the death of Joseph Stalin, Volpin was released due to a general amnesty. Soon he became a known mathematician specializing in the fields of ultrafinitism and intuitionism.

The Glasnost demonstration[edit]

In 1965, Esenin-Volpin organized a legendary "glasnost meeting" ("митинг гласности"), a demonstration at Pushkin Square in the center of Moscow demanding an open and fair trial for the arrested writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel. The leaflets written by Volpin and distributed through samizdat asserted that the accusations and their closed-door trial were in violation of the 1936 Soviet Constitution and the more recent RSFSR Criminal Procedural 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).[7] The demonstrators were promptly arrested.

[Volpin] would explain to anyone who cared to listen a simple but unfamiliar idea: all laws ought to be understood in exactly the way they are written and not as they are interpreted by the government and the government ought to fulfill those laws to the letter [...]. What would happen if citizens acted on the assumption that they have rights? If one person did it, he would become a martyr; if two people did it, they would be labeled an enemy organization; if thousands of people did it, the state would have to become less oppressive.

Fellow dissident and human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva on the approach spearheaded by Esenin-Volpin[8]: 275 

In the following years, Esenin-Volpin became an important voice in the human rights movement in the Soviet Union. He was one of the first Soviet dissidents who took on a "legalist" strategy of dissent. He proclaimed that it is possible and necessary to defend human rights by strictly observing the law, and in turn demand that the authorities observe the formally guaranteed rights. Esenin-Volpin was again hospitalized in February 1968 as one of those protesting most strongly against the trial of Alexander Ginzburg and Yury Galanskov (Galanskov-Ginzburg trial).[9]

After his 1968 psychiatric confinement, 99 Soviet mathematicians sent a letter to the Soviet authorities asking for his release.[10] This fact became public and the Voice of America conducted a broadcast on the topic; Esenin-Volpin was released almost immediately thereafter.[3]: 221  Vladimir Bukovsky was quoted as saying that Volpin's diagnosis was "pathological honesty".[11]

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.[12]

In 1969, he signed the first Appeal to The UN Committee for Human Rights, drafted by the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR.[13] In 1970, Volpin joined the Committee on Human Rights in 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.[14]

Abroad he again alarmed the Soviet authorities in 1977 by threatening to sue them for spreading rumours that he was mentally ill.[15]

In 2005, Esenin-Volpin participated in "They Chose Freedom", a four-part television documentary on the history of the Soviet dissident movement.

He died on March 16, 2016, aged 91.[16][17]

Mathematical work[edit]

I have seen some ultrafinitists go so far as to challenge the existence of 2100 as a natural number, in the sense of there being a series of “points” of that length. There is the obvious “draw the line” objection, asking where in 21, 22, 23, … , 2100 do we stop having “Platonistic reality”? Here this … is totally innocent, in that it can be easily be replaced by 100 items (names) separated by commas. I raised just this objection with the (extreme) ultrafinitist Yessenin-Volpin during a lecture of his. He asked me to be more specific. I then proceeded to start with 21 and asked him whether this is “real” or something to that effect. He virtually immediately said yes. Then I asked about 22, and he again said yes, but with a perceptible delay. Then 23, and yes, but with more delay. This continued for a couple of more times, till it was obvious how he was handling this objection. Sure, he was prepared to always answer yes, but he was going to take 2100 times as long to answer yes to 2100 then he would to answering 21. There is no way that I could get very far with this.

Harvey M. Friedman "Philosophical Problems in Logic"

His early work was in general topology, where he introduced Esenin-Volpin's theorem. Most of his later work was on the foundations of mathematics, where he introduced ultrafinitism, an extreme form of constructive mathematics that casts doubt on the existence of not only infinite sets, but even of large integers such as 1012. He sketched a program for proving the consistency of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory using ultrafinitistic techniques in (Ésénine-Volpine 1961), (Yessenin-Volpin 1970) and (Yessenin-Volpin 1981).

Mathematical publications[edit]

  • Ésénine-Volpine, A. S. (1961), "Le programme ultra-intuitionniste des fondements des mathématiques", Infinitistic Methods (Proc. Sympos. Foundations of Math., Warsaw, 1959), Oxford: Pergamon, pp. 201–223, MR 0147389 Reviewed by Kreisel, G.; Ehrenfeucht, A. (1967), "Le Programme Ultra-Intuitionniste des Fondements des Mathematiques by A. S. Ésénine-Volpine", The Journal of Symbolic Logic, Association for Symbolic Logic, 32 (4): 517, doi:10.2307/2270182, JSTOR 2270182, S2CID 117082459
  • Yessenin-Volpin, A. S. (1970), "The ultra-intuitionistic criticism and the antitraditional program for foundations of mathematics", in Kino, A.; Myhill, J.; Vesley, R. E. (eds.), Intuitionism and proof theory (Proc. Conf., Buffalo, N.Y., 1968), Studies in Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics, Amsterdam: North-Holland, pp. 3–45, MR 0295876 Reviewed by Geiser, James R. (1975), "The Ultra-Intuitionistic Criticism and the Antitraditional Program for Foundations of Mathematics. by A. S. Yessenin-Volpin", The Journal of Symbolic Logic, Association for Symbolic Logic, 40 (1): 95–97, doi:10.2307/2272294, JSTOR 2272294
  • Yessenin-Volpin, A. S. (1981), "About infinity, finiteness and finitization (in connection with the foundations of mathematics)", in Richman, Fred (ed.), Constructive mathematics (Las Cruces, N.M., 1980), Lecture Notes in Math., vol. 873, Berlin-New York: Springer, pp. 274–313, doi:10.1007/BFb0090740, ISBN 3-540-10850-5, MR 0644507


  1. ^ Документы Инициативной группы по защите прав человека в СССР
  2. ^ Александр Есенин-Вольпин - биография и семья
  3. ^ a b Zdravkovska, Smilka; Duren, Peter (1993). Golden years of Moscow mathematics. AMS Bookstore. p. 221. ISBN 0-8218-9003-4.
  4. ^ Gilligan, Emma (2004). Defending human rights in Russia: Sergei Kovalyov, dissident and human rights commissioner, 1969–2003. RoutledgeCurzon. p. 20. ISBN 0-415-32369-X. Archived from the original on 2016-05-11.
  5. ^ Nathans, Benjamin (2007). "The Dictatorship of Reason: Aleksandr Vol'pin and the Idea of Human Rights under Developed Socialism" (PDF). Slavic Review. 66 (4): 630–663. doi:10.2307/20060376. JSTOR 20060376. S2CID 159974080. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-09-07.
  6. ^ Irina Kirk, Profiles in Russian Resistance (New York, 1975)
  7. ^ (in Russian) Text Archived 2005-10-27 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Alexeyeva, Lyudmila (1987). Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights. Carol Pearce, John Glad (trans.). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6176-2.
  9. ^ A Chronicle of Current Events (1.3, item 2), 30 April 1968, "Repressive measures". Archived 15 August 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ (in Russian) Text of the letter Archived 2014-02-26 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 21 February 2014.
  11. ^ "NRS | Kayak Gear, Raft Supplies, SUPs & Boating Equipment". Archived from the original on 2005-02-18.
  12. ^ (in Russian) Text Archived 2010-05-26 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Yakobson, Anatoly; Yakir, Pyotr; Khodorovich, Tatyana; Podyapolskiy, Gregory; Maltsev, Yuri; et al. (21 August 1969). "An Appeal to The UN Committee for Human Rights". The New York Review of Books. Archived from the original on 7 October 2015.
  14. ^ "Humanist Manifesto II". American Humanist Association. Archived from the original on October 20, 2012. Retrieved October 9, 2012.
  15. ^ The Bukovsky Archives, 26 January 1977 (St 42/18). Archived 13 October 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ "Aleksandr Yesenin-Volpin, Prominent Soviet-Era Dissident, Dies Aged 91". RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. 2016-03-16. Archived from the original on 2016-03-16. Retrieved 2016-03-17.
  17. ^ "Early Soviet dissident Alexander Esenin-Volpin dies at 91". GlobalPost. Agence France-Presse. Archived from the original on 2016-03-24. Retrieved 2016-03-17.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Russian language links

Audio-visual material[edit]