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Mykhailo Kravchuk, a mathematician, patriot and precursor of computers


Ukraine has given the world a number of outstanding figures who have made their remarkable contributions to world’s science and culture living in foreign lands, away from their native country. Their ethnic background has been either forgotten or ignored, and they remain in history as significant figures of cultures of these foreign lands. Levytsky and Borovykovsky are “Russian” painters, Berezovsky and Bortnyansky are “Russian” composers; Krushelnytska is a “Polish” singer, and Ostrohradsky is a “Russian” mathematician. These are just a few names out of many that immediately come to mind. Mykhailo Kravchuk is another figure in this long list.


Academician Mykhailo Kravchuk was a mathematician of a world standing. He has remained known to world’s mathematics as a “Russian” scientist rather than a Ukrainian one, though he was born in Ukraine and lived and worked most of his life in Ukraine. But it was the Ukraine that was “a constituent part” first of the Russian Empire and later of the Soviet Union, and, at least in the English-speaking countries, anybody from the Soviet Union was “a Soviet” or “a Russian,” regardless of the actual ethnic background.

Mykhailo Kravchuk was born in the land of Volyn, Ukraine, in 1892. In 1914, he graduated from the Department of Physics and Mathematics, St Volodymyr University in Kyiv. After graduation, he came back to the university to teach, and do research, and in 1924 he earned his Ph.D. In 1929 he was elected Academician of the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. In the period from 1921 to 1938 he worked at the Kyiv Polytechnic, rapidly rising through academic ranks to full professorship and head of the Department of Higher Mathematics. In 1938, he was arrested, charged with “support of Ukrainian nationalism” and “spying for the imperialist powers.” He died four years later, in March 1942, in a concentration camp in Kolyma, northern Russia, where so many of the GULAG camps were concentrated. He was one of the untold numbers of Ukrainians who were mercilessly destroyed by the Soviet regime. Now it probably sounds incredible — to kill a preeminent mathematician for his love of his native land, but such was a grim reality of Stalin’s dictatorship (the trumped-up charges of “espionage” were so ridiculous that nobody took them seriously — almost anyone notable, even the communist party apparatchiks, who were arrested in the 1930s, were accused of “spying” or “sabotage”). Another luminary was mindlessly extinguished.

Anyone who studies higher mathematics comes across “Kravchuk polynomials,” “Kravchuk moment,” “Kravchuk formulas,” “Kravchuk oscillators,” and other mathematical terms associated with Mykhailo Kravchuk whose contribution to mathematics is a vast one indeed. He has authored works in various branches of mathematics: algebra, theory of numbers, function theory, theory of integral and differential equations, theory of probability, mathematical statistics, and history of mathematics. Most of Kravchuk’s works deal with the most fundamental problems of mathematics, with the remaining ones devoted to applied mathematics, called upon to help solve more pragmatic problems.

“Almost every important issue in building up the science of mathematics in Ukraine has been dealt with by him [Kravchuk]; teaching of mathematics at secondary schools and universities has been revolutionized by his works; mathematical terminology and the language in science in Ukrainian have been actually created with the most active participation of Mykhailo Kravchuk,” said a reference provided when Kravchuk was being elected to the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in 1929 (thus he became a full member of the Academy at age 37 — there is only a handful of people honoured to become academicians at such an early age in the history of science).

There were quite a few of scholars and scientists in Ukraine who loved their native land dearly, who were great patriots and even took part in politics. But there were few of those who were as prominent in their fields as Kravchuk was, and had such a clear-cut stance as far as their pro-Ukrainian leanings were concerned. It is reflected even in the fact that most of his pioneering works have been written in Ukrainian, for Kravchuk considered it his civic duty to develop both science and language to express the scientific findings, thus raising the capacity of the Ukrainian language to a level at which it would be able to serve as a vehicle for expressing the most advanced scientific ideas rather than just sustain every-day conversations.

Ivan Kachanovsky, a Ukrainian researcher who works in the USA, informed the author of this article (later this information appeared in western publication) that two years ago he discovered evidence in the archives of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and in the archives of the State University of Iowa that the creator of the first electronic computer John Atanasov had used Kravchuk’s mathematical findings and even had Kravchuk’s work Use of the Means of Moments for Solving Differential and Integral Equations translated into English back in the late 1930s. In his letter to Kravchuk he wrote: “Your works dealing with solving differential equations have proved to be very useful in my own research. I’d like to have copies of all your works if it is possible…”

Kachanovsky is of the opinion that Kravchuk’s contribution is “particularly great in the fields of mathematics and exact sciences, and his ideas provided valuable insights which eventually led to the creation of the computer.” It is quite likely that Kravchuk never knew that his ideas prompted the creation of the computer since John Atanasov’s letters hardly reached Kravchuk at all — by that time he was under the secret service surveillance. In fact, those letters from America may have become an additional pretext for the Soviets to arrest him. It is known that one of the academicians of the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences also played a cowardly and treacherous role in Kravchuk’s demise. Kravchuk never hid his pro-Ukrainian position and it was an extremely dangerous thing to do in the atmosphere of terror of the 1930s. The bloodthirsty regime decided Kravchuk’s contribution to science did not outweigh his “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism” and he was doomed.

Kravchuk the man ceased to exist. But his ideas lived on, and some of them were applied to creating the first “electronic computing machine.” In fact, it was created when Stalin, “the father of all nations,” was still alive, and in his lifetime, cybernetics was referred to as “a false bourgeois pseudo-science” (the original expression was “yids’ invention” but for the general use it was “softened up”). And it was created in Kyiv, at the Institute of Electrical Engineering at the very end of the 1940s-early 1950s. The “electronic machine” was developed within the framework of nuclear weapons and rocketry programme supervised by the KGB head Lavrentiy Beria himself. The Soviets used the results not only of their own research but whatever information they could get through espionage. And paradoxically, some of Kravchuk’s ideas came back to his native country thanks to Soviet spies who gleaned information from whatever sources they could. What now looks like an absurdity — to destroy a scientific luminary and then obtain his ideas the hardest way possible from abroad though they were up for grabs free in his works published in this country — was a typical situation in the Soviet times. Such was the way the Soviet system worked.

After his arrest in 1938, his books were removed from the libraries and either destroyed or put in “spetskhran” — “special storage,” accessible only to a very limited number of people, with the secret police clearing. But Kravchuk’s ideas could not be removed from the heads of people who had known Kravchuk and his works. Besides, the KGB could not lay their hands on a certain number of scientific journals and books in private libraries. In other words, there were sources to be tapped and they were. Academician Lebedev and his team must have “clandestinely” used Kravchuk’s ideas (no open reference to his works was possible until 1956 when he and so many others like him were “rehabilitated”).

According to Professor Nina Virchenko, a researcher form the Kyiv Polytechnic, who studied Kravchuk’s scientific legacy, Kravchuk’s ideas were indeed used by the mathematicians and engineers involved in developing the first computers. “I do not have hard evidence of that but such mathematicians as Bondarenko, Hudymenko and others claimed that Hlushkov (the principle figure in the work on developing the computer) did use some of Kravchuk’s ideas expressed in his dissertation and in later works,” says Prof Virchenko.

It is also known that in more recent times, Academician Vadym Kyrylyuk also used some of Kravchuk’s ideas in his own work.

Among Kravchuk’s disciples and students we find such remarkable figures as Serhiy Korolyov, the Soviet rocket designer and main force behind the Soviet space programme, responsible for the first Sputnik (satellite) launched in October 1957 and the first manned space flight in April 1961, and Archyp Lyulka, the designer of aircraft engines. Lyulka’s friends recollect that in the study of his Moscow apartment he always had portraits of Taras Shevchenko and Mykhailo Kravchuk, hanging side by side on the wall (incidentally, Lyulka also remained known as “a Russian scientist”). There were hundreds of others who learned a lot from Kravchuk the scientist and Kravchuk the Ukrainian patriot. Many of them died in the Second World War; many died in the gulag camps. Those who survived remember that during cross-examinations, following his arrest, he refused to name any names and said that among his friends, acquaintances and students there were no “enemies of the Soviet people.” We do not know what kind of pressure was put on him in prison — very likely, tortures were used but no “incriminating evidence” was extorted from him. In other words, not only his ideas were made a good use of — his civil and national stance were no less edifying.

In independent Ukraine, Kravchuk’s name was brought back from oblivion. In 1922, memorial plaques were installed in his native place in Volyn and at the building in Kyiv where he lived and where he was arrested in 1938. The Kyiv Polytechnic holds regular conferences in his memory, devoted to his scientific legacy and to other related scientific and mathematical problems. In 2003, a monument to Kravchuk was unveiled at the Polytechnic campus.


By Serhiy Hrabovsky

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