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As well as being a significant mathematician, Shafarevich was also a notable dissident of the late-Soviet era—of the generation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov (who were five years and two years older than him, respectively).
It was in that aspect that I first encountered Shafarevich, when I was reading my way through Soviet dissident literature in the early 1980s. His book The Socialist Phenomenon made a strong impression on me. (You can read it online. There is a foreword by Solzhenitsyn.) I have quoted from it more than once: here, for example, when writing about the 2000 Presidential election:
Human society is nothing but the human soul at large, and a part of the human soul yearns for its own extinction. This yearning has been most powerfully voiced in poetry: Tennyson’s “Tithonus,” Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” and the lovely song in Cymbeline are its finest expressions in English. It finds its political outlet in utopianism, the longing for a society of perfect equality, perfect peace — conditions that can actually be attained in only one place. Standing at the graveside while they buried his Down-Syndrome child, Charles de Gaulle murmured: “Now she is like all the others.”
The bluntest expression of this theme was given by the mathematician Igor Shafarevich in his book The Socialist Phenomenon. Using “socialist” as a synonym for “utopian,” Shafarevich surveyed the utopian impulse down through the ages to his own time in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, concluding that: “The death of mankind is not only a conceivable result of the triumph of socialism — it constitutes the goal of socialism.” He went on:
There is no doubt that if the ideals of Utopia are realised universally, mankind, even in the barracks of the universal City of the Sun, shall find the strength to regain its freedom and to preserve God’s image and likeness — human individuality — once it has glanced into the yawning abyss. But will even that experience be sufficient? For it seems just as certain that the freedom of will granted to man and to mankind is absolute, that it includes the freedom to make the ultimate choice — between life and death.
Lesser folk have apprehended the same truth by even more direct experience. A Buddhist Cambodian interviewed in Francois Ponchaud’s book Cambodia: Year Zero, lone survivor of a horrible massacre by the utopian Khmer Rouge, described them with innocent accuracy as “servants of the Prince of Death.” [’Twixt Heaven and Earth by John Derbyshire; National Review, December 4th 2000.]
Shafarevich was a strong Russian nationalist. His later essay “Russophobia” [PDF, 8.6 MB] (that link loads v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y) aroused accusations of antisemitism, accusations I don’t think the content of the essay justifies.
(I cannot forbear pointing out the relevance of that essay to the question posed in my podcast the other day about why we are currently supposed to regard Russia as an enemy.)
Mumford is a transnationalist liberal by temperament and upbringing, although not, so far as I can discover, Jewish. In this same obituary post he has some thoughtful reflections on the current nationalist-globalist conflict:
As I see it now, there is a major conflict, not to be papered over, between the tolerant international liberal viewpoint and the passion with which each culture maintains its traditions and passes them on generation after generation. I grew up completely committed to the former and my whole life working freely with colleagues from every part of the world reinforced this. But now I hear and read more and more voices that say “not so fast”. Our culture, our jobs, our very identities are vanishing. The rapidity with which technology is advancing and the immense growth of international wealth, private and corporate, all support only the “one per cent” and the educated with ties to multiple countries.
And I should say that I got the link to Prof. Mumford’s blog, and the news of Shafarevich’s death, from Not Even Wrong, the blog of Columbia mathematician Peter Woit, whom I tossed and gored the other day on Radio Derb for his anti-Trump ravings.
There you see the problem with being interested in math and the physical sciences: Most of the good bloggers on these subjects are political imbeciles.
My stock explanation for this phenomenon is that math and the physical sciences are so very intellectually taxing, their practitioners have no cognitive energy left over for serious thinking about politics. They just inhale the noxious political vapors of the colleges and universities in which they mostly dwell, vapors emitted by the departments of the “soft” sciences and humanities.
Those disciplines are nothing like as mentally strenuous as math and science, so their practitioners have plenty of time and intellectual energy left over for vapor-production.
Finally, in passing — as a mere curiosity with no relevance to anything else — I note that Shafarevich’s birthday was the same as mine.