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Life and death of Mykhailo Kravchuk, a brilliant mathematician


Mykhailo Kravchuk was among the most brilliant mathematicians of the first half of the 20th century. His contribution to mathematics would have been appreciated far more deeply and properly had he been born in an independent, and not a Soviet, Ukraine. His love for Ukraine proved to be his undoing. Instead of receiving the support he deserved for his scientific endeavors from the state, he, along with millions of others, was sent to a concentration camp to die.


Academician Mykhailo Kravchuk (1892–1942) made significant contributions to numerous branches of mathematics and the development of mathematical education in Ukraine. Kravchuk was the author of more than 180 scientific works, including 10 monographs, in a number of mathematics branches (algebra and number theory, theory of functions of real and complex variables, theory of differential and integral equations, mathematical statistics and probability theory, and history of mathematics). Of particular importance was his contribution to developing and establishing mathematical terminology in Ukrainian.

Among Kravchuk’s fundamental research fields were:

n theory of permutation matrices, quadratic and bilinear forms, theory of algebraic and transcendental equations;

n mathematical proof of the general method of moments and its application to the solution of ordinary linear differential equations, integral equations, equations of mathematical physics;

n introduction and use of polynomials associated with binomial distribution, now known in world mathematical literature as Kravchuk’s polynomials;

n analysis of complex issues in philosophy and mathematics history.

Kravchuk’s works played a significant role in the invention and development of the first electronic computer.

At the height of Stalin’s Great Terror, Kravchuk was arrested. He died in a gulag concentration camp in Magadan, the capital of the Kolyma region in Russia’s North East, in 1942.


Mykhailo Kravchuk was born into the family of a land surveyor on September 27, 1892 in the village of Chovnytsya in Volyn Region. Mykhailo’s father, Pylyp, was a graduate of the Petrovsko-Rozumovskaya Academy in Moscow. His mother, Frederika, was a polymath with a good knowledge of several foreign languages. In 1901, the Kravchuk family moved to the city of Lutsk where Mykhailo attended a gimnaziya (gymnasium, or high school of advanced studies) and graduated magna cum laude. Later, Kravchuk admitted that it was his father’s and uncle’s influence that steered him toward the study of sciences.

Kravchuk went to Kyiv where he matriculated at the University of St Volodymyr, Physics and Mathematics Department. He published his first mathematical paper while still a student. As a cum laude graduate, he was encouraged to stay at the university to continue post-graduate studies by Professor Dmytro Hrave, who considered Kravchuk one of his best students worthy of a scientific and teaching career.

In 1917, Kravchuk was awarded a master’s degree and promoted to the rank of privatdocent (From the German privatdozent — an unsalaried university lecturer or teacher remunerated by students’ fees).

The year was one of great political upheavals — the Russian Empire collapsed, with many of its fragments becoming independent. Ukraine was among the countries that emerged from the ruins of a disintegrated empire (the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires followed and disintegrated in their turn).

The government of the newly independent Ukraine was very cautious at first and took several months to officially proclaim independence. In the Civil War that followed and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in Petrograd (St Petersburg) in Russia, Ukraine failed to defend its independence and surrendered to the Bolsheviks’ superior forces. In 1922, Soviet Ukraine was coerced to “voluntarily join” the new state — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — which absorbed most of the territories that had formed the Russian Empire (except for Poland, Finland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania).

1917 and the years that followed were filled with great privations and hardships for Ukraine and Ukrainians. Nevertheless, schools of various levels continued to function and Kravchuk taught at gimnaziyas in Kyiv and at the newly created People’s University. In 1918 he was elected a member of the newly established Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. In the early 20s, Kravchuk, in addition to his teaching commitments, was engaged in working out mathematical terminology for the Ukrainian language. He joined a Ukrainian terminology commission that functioned within the framework of the Academy of Sciences.

Until then, the Ukrainian language had been notoriously repressed and outlawed. Starting in the 18th century, when Ukraine lost the last vestiges of any independence that it achieved during the Cossack Hetmanate around a century earlier, and became part of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, Russia’s tsarist government began decreeing the Ukrainian language out of existence. This deprived it of the ability to develop in most areas of learning and communication, including the rapidly growing spheres of science and technology.

Later, after the First World War, when Ukraine achieved a short-lived independence and before becoming Soviet Ukraine, the Bolsheviks, in power in Ukraine by 1920, allowed and even encouraged the development of Ukrainian, including scientific and other writings. Kravchuk thus found himself in the vanguard of language developers.


Marriage and hardship

Kravchuk married in 1918, and though he and his young wife Esfir at first managed to make ends meet, by the end of the 20s the situation in Kyiv, in which power changed hands several times a year, grew from bad to worse, and the Kravchuks decided to move to the countryside where they thought it would be easier to survive.

In 1920, Kravchuk landed a job as a teacher at a school in the village of Savartsi in Kyiv Region, where he later became principal. The active young principal organized amateur drama and painting groups, and took his students on a two-day walking trip to the grave of Ukraine’s great poet Taras Shevchenko in Kaniv, as there was no other transportation. One of this school’s students, Arkhyp Lyulka, later became a prominent scientist who designed new types of aviation engines. Lyulka has preserved a fond memory of Kravchuk, hanging his teacher’s portrait alongside Shevchenko’s in his room.

As soon as living conditions in Kyiv improved, the Kravchuks moved back. Kravchuk resumed his mathematical research and teaching mathematics, and in 1924 he earned a PhD. In 1925 he was promoted to professor. In 1927 Kravchuk was elected a member of mathematical societies in Germany, France and Italy, and in 1929 he was elected a full member of the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. Kravchuk continued to devote much time to developing mathematical terminology in Ukrainian. His social commitments and public engagements multiplied. He sat on various committees and participated in the work of various commissions, which must have robbed him of a lot of time. A typical feature of Soviet life at the time was engaging individuals in all kinds of public work as part of their civic duty as conscientious Soviet citizens.

In September 1928, Kravchuk was allowed to go to Italy to attend an international congress of mathematicians. By that time, private citizens, no matter what their social standing, had to produce weighty arguments to receive the approval of Soviet authorities to go abroad. In Italy, he found time to visit museums, take walks and even write scientific papers. He wanted to visit his native Volyn, which was part of Poland, on his way to or from that country, but could not obtain a visa for the visit.

Kravchuk was much more than a man of science — he had many interests, and his knowledge of foreign languages (French, German, Italian, Polish and Russian) made him truly “European.” He maintained friendly relations and correspondence with many European scientists and mathematicians. When the secret police came to arrest him and searched his house, in his desk they found a folder with the words “Foreign Correspondence” written on its cover. The folder’s contents were later used to implicate Kravchuk in “activities hostile to the USSR.”


The terror begins

The end of the 20s and early 30s saw the beginning of the period in Soviet history that would later be called the “Great Terror.”

In the late 20s, the Soviets began conducting agricultural collectivization, with disastrous consequences for that sector. Millions of people in the countryside were forced to join kolhospy, or collective farms. The hundreds of thousands who resisted were arrested or deported in freight trains to Russia’s far eastern regions with a great many dying on the way.

The agricultural experiment in Ukraine resulted in a massive famine that culminated in 1932–33, taking millions of lives. The secret police — the GPU, later renamed the NKVD — became the most dreaded force in the country; an instrument of totalitarian terror.

The so-called Ukrainian Renaissance of some years before, which saw the start of the revival of Ukrainian language and culture initiated by Lenin and his policies, quickly became a thing of the past under his successor Stalin, with untold numbers of literati, intellectuals and scientists arrested and accused of being “agents and spies of imperialist countries,” “committing acts of sabotage,” “expressing anti-Soviet sentiments,” “showing nationalistic leanings,” etc.

Kravchuk’s work creating Ukrainian mathematical and scientific terminology, his correspondence with foreigners, and his “Ukrainianness,” made him an obvious target for the NKVD. During this gruesome period, almost the entire body of Ukrainian intelligentsia was either placed in concentration camps where many of them died or were sentenced to death on trumped-up charges. Their greatest crime was their “Ukrainianness.”

In 1930, the first major show trial in a series of similar trials that would follow took place in Kharkiv. A group of Ukrainian intellectuals who had been arrested in 1929 were accused of belonging to the Spilka vyzvolennya Ukrayiny (Union for the Liberation of Ukraine) — an organization that was allegedly planning to overthrow the Soviet regime. In all likelihood, no such organization ever existed and was just a pretext to round up Ukrainian intellectuals and eradicate them.

Kravchuk was invited to speak at the trial in the capacity of “public prosecutor” but he declined, citing illness as the reason. That refusal was yet another piece of “evidence” of Kravchuk’s “questionable loyalty to the Soviet Motherland” and his involvement in “spying and counterrevolutionary activities.” For some reason, however, Kravchuk was not arrested until several years later.

Describing the atmosphere of the 1930s, Ukrainian historian Semen Pidhayny wrote that every citizen of Ukraine could expect to be arrested any time of day or night without any reason. The historian quotes a former NKVD official: “Being just a subscriber to such magazines as Ukraine or Literary Fair could provide enough grounds for being accused of ‘Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism,’ and consequently, for being arrested.”



In 1937, a number of broadsides aimed at the “Academician Kravchuk” appeared in the press. Among his accusers was Academician Dmytro Hrave, the one who years earlier considered Kravchuk one of his best students, but then radically changed his views. Looking to save their own lives, individuals often turned against each other during this period, although in most cases, they would later be arrested themselves and sentenced to imprisonment or death.

In a public speech, Hrave called Kravchuk a fascist and an enemy of the people. At academic faculty gatherings, including those at the Polytechnic and the Institute of Mathematics, Kravchuk was verbally attacked and branded an enemy of the Soviet people who was involved in counterrevolutionary activities, espionage and contacts with Polish renegades. These “Polish renegades” were the Ukrainian mathematicians M. Zarytsky and M. Tchaykovsky who lived in Halychyna (Galicia), which at the time was eastern Poland.

Among Kravchuk’s most vociferous accusers were some of his former colleagues and students. One of the “odious crimes” of which Kravchuk was accused was being a member of the Taras Shevchenko Scientific Society in Lviv, the capital of modern-day western Ukraine which at the time belonged to Poland, “a country hostile to the Soviet Union.”

While most of his accusers were likely terrified of not denouncing Kravchuk, there were a handful of courageous former students and disciples of Kravchuk who tried to defend him against the preposterous accusations — among them, P. Bondarenko, Y. Pohrebysky, O. Smohorzhevsky, and Yu. Sokolov.

In 1937, Kravchuk was arrested. At his trial in September 1938, which lasted only half an hour, Kravchuk was sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment and five years of exile with the disfranchisement of his “political rights.” Kravchuk requested to be given an opportunity to finish a mathematical paper he had begun.

Instead, the best mathematician of his time in Ukraine was put into a freight car with many other convicts and taken to Khabarovsk in eastern Russia from where he was forced under guard to go on foot to the far eastern city of Vladivostok. From there he was taken in a barge to Magadan in Russia’s far north. The journey lasted two weeks with many prisoners dying on the way. Once in a concentration camp in Magadan, Kravchuk was exposed to the deadly rigors of hard labor working in a gold mine. He died there in 1942, only a few years after being exiled.

One can’t help asking: What kind of a regime would put a great mathematical mind into a concentration camp to work in a mine and die, his only crime being his love of the Ukrainian language and culture? What kind of a regime would sentence anyone to death simply for being Ukrainian; simply for being who they were?


Kravchuk was not alone among the great many individuals of superior talent who were sent to concentration camps. Sergey Korolyov, the head Soviet rocket engineer and designer who would launch the first satellite and first man into space, was a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge in 1938. He was imprisoned for almost six years, including spending some months in a Siberian gulag.


Posthumous recognition

Kravchuk’s wife tried to find out what had happened to her husband, whose last letter she received from Magadan in 1942. In that letter he wrote that he had made an important mathematical discovery. His wife addressed many letters to the authorities in charge of such matters, asking them to inform her whether her husband was dead or alive, and whether, in case he had died, his precious manuscripts could be salvaged.

It is not known whether she received any answers to her inquiries, but in 1956, after Soviet Premier and Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced the Stalinist purges and terror, Esfir’s efforts brought some results. She was informed that the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union abolished her husband’s 1938 sentence “in view of the total absence of corpus delicti.”

A recent archive search produced a document about Kravchuk’s burial, which said in part: “Convict M. F. Kravchuk, personal case No. 238943, has been buried at a depth of 1.5 meters, his head to the west…”

Esfir Kravchuk died in 1957. Her husband was posthumously reinstituted as a member of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine only in 1992.

In the same year, the First Kravchuk International Conference was held at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. Since then, such conferences have become regular annual events. Three books of Kravchuk’s works were published in Kyiv, plus another book, Development of Kravchuk’s Mathematical Ideas, of scientific papers devoted to Kravchuk. Among the book’s contributors were mathematicians and scientists from the USA, Great Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, India, Ukraine and Belarus. A documentary film, Holhofa akademika Kravchuka (The Golgotha of Academician Kravchuk) was released and shown at the 10th conference devoted to Kravchuk. There is a monument to the great mathematician unveiled on May 20, 2003 at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute.

The belated tribute to Kravchuk is better than silence, of course. However, we will never know what this man could have contributed to mathematics, science, the world and humanity, if he, like thousands of other great talents and minds, had not been destroyed by a diabolical terror system that crushed individuals for simply being who they were, as Kravchuk was crushed — for being Ukrainian.

According to Ivan Kachanovsky, a US scientist of Ukrainian descent, some of Kravchuk’s mathematical studies and ideas were used in the development of the first electronic computer.


Based on an essay by Professor Nina VIRCHENKO,

a PhD in physics and mathematics, and an academician

of the Academy of Higher Education of Ukraine


M. Kravchuk and his family; from left to right:

Kravchuk’s son Yevhen, M. Kravchuk with

his daughter Natalya, and Kravchuk’s wife Esfir.

Odesa, 1935.


Participants of the first International Conference

devoted to Academician M. Kravchuk. Lutsk, 1992.


M. Kravchuk as a concentration camp inmate.


The last letter of M. Kravchuk to his wife’s brother

mailed from Magadan and dated February 11 1942.


An article in the newspaper Communist, titled

Akademyk Kravchuk reklamuye vorohiv

(Academician Kravchuk Promotes Enemies)

which was published on September 14 1937.


Monument to M. Kravchuk in the territory of the

National University of Kyiv Polytechnic Institute;

the inscription that quotes M. Kravchuk reads:

“My love — Ukraine and mathematics”.

The monument was unveiled on May 20 2003.


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