In Memory of Academician A. P. Ershov

By chance a letter came my way today that made think of Russia, and thinking about the four trips I have made to Russia made me think about Andrei Petrovich Ershov, and thinking about him led to my writing this post.

Ershov was a pioneer in the field of computing in the U.S.S.R. In the early 1960’s he did fundamental, ground-breaking work in the area of programming optimization while constructing an Algol compiler. He did this work on his own, in isolation, and independently came up with many of the key ideas that were then being discovered by Western scientists in the early 60’s.

His work became known in the West because of the writings of my colleague and thesis advisor at New York University, Jacob T. Schwartz.

My wife and I made our first trip to Russia in November, 1973, just weeks after the “Yom Kippur War.” We went as ordinary tourists to visit her many relatives. Both her parents were born in Russia, and her relatives there were then living in the Ukraine, in the cities of Kiev and Lvov. Many of them later emigrated to the U.S. We also went to Novosibirsk, Siberia, during our stay to visit Ershov.

Ershov was a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, a position in those days that gave its owner about the power and prestige of a U.S. Senator. He was one of the founders of Akademgorodok, a community based on education and research that was established in Siberia to provide a foothold for such work in Siberia, in the hopes it would speed Siberia’s development. [1] I believe he was a native of Siberia. It is similar in many ways to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in that respect.

Not many Americans went to that city in those days. Indeed, I happened to have a “Q” clearance in those days as I had been invited to apply for a job at Los Alamos for a job in September, 1972, and having such a clearance was part of the process. [2] Indeed, I had to check in at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on my arrival, and was interviewed by a representative from the CIA on my return.

My wife and I were next in Russia in September, 1976. This was for a conference on SETL jointly sponsored by Ershov and the Soviet Academy of Scieces on the Russian side, and by the National Science Foundation on the U.S. side.

One of the presenters at the conference was a young academician whose first name was David. I forget his last name, though I think I have a copy of the conference proceedings somewhere and will try to find it when time permits. It would interesting to see if I can find trace of him today.

David was Jewish. Ershov was both a distiguished scientist and a committed Communist, yet he took David on as a student knowing that this would put him at risk. And he even went on to help advance young David’s career.

I learned during my first visit that Tsarist and then Communist Russia had spent several centuries mastering the art and practice of anti-Semitism. See for example Protocols of Zion, a cruel and deadly hoax by the Tsar’s secret police that led to the death of an untold number of Jews. My wife’s relatives left Russia because of that anti-Semitism. The ones we met during our 1973 trip were there because they or their fathers were men of draft age, and so were not allowed to emigrate.

My most vivid memory of this is that when we asked our relatives if they went to synagogue — when we in their own, private homes when we did so — they hushed us up and said they couldn’t even talk about it, though it was evident by their faces that to even speak of Judaism in those days was a risky business indeed.

I have since learned that it wasn’t only the Russians who were such experts. While on vacation in Austria last summer we visited a museum that had a time line of recent Austrian history. The part that mentioned the Jews and World War II had been defaced. A much richer account of this sad story can be found in the recent book “On Memory” by Erik Kandel. Kandel emigrated from Austria as a young man and went on to spend a lifetime studying memory, work for which he recently received a Nobel Prize. His book is the best scientific memoir I have ever read, and also includes accounts of his days in Austria, both as a youth and on trips back to Austria after he won the Nobel Prize.

A.P. Ershov was one of those individuals who are true volunteers, taking a risk that they didn’t have to take so they could help others.

Andrei Petrovich Ershov — may his memory be a blessing.

Notes:

1. “Gorodok,” which means “small town,” was one of the first words I learned in Russian during the two years I studied Russian during my high-school years. A famous story by Lermontov begins with the words, “Taman yeset malenky gorodok … ” — “Taman is a small town …”

2. I know the date because the Munich massacre of the 1972 Olympics occurred during our stay in Los Alamos.

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