Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The most prestigious universities in the USSR discriminated against Jewish applicants. Tanya Khovanova (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA) wrote:

This is a special collection of problems that were given to select applicants during oral entrance exams to the math department of Moscow State University. These problems were designed to prevent Jewish people and other undesirables from getting a passing grade. Among problems that were used by the department to blackball unwanted candidate students, these problems are distinguished by having a simple solution that is difficult to understand. Using problems with a simple solution protected the administration from extra complaints and appeals. This collection therefore has mathematical as well as historical value.

Source Jewish Problems

What value historians attribute to these accounts? I, personally, do never found quotes about these facts in history books. Do you? Please, give some primary reference, avoiding possibly Wikipedia.

share|improve this question
It's odd that you are particular about the presence of references in answers and yet, haven't bothered adding any to your question. Furthermore, HistorySE considers Wikipedia articles to be perfectly acceptable. They usually cite reliable references. –  coleopterist May 20 '13 at 15:28
How would questions with a "simple solution that is difficult to find" discriminate against Jews specifically? BTW, Grigori Perelman (he of Poincaré conjecture) is of Jewish descent and he studied in St. Petersburg. –  Drux May 20 '13 at 20:48
Actually, I have just flagged your comment. –  Felix Goldberg May 21 '13 at 5:08
@Drux the paper claims that difficult problems were given to Jews specifically. –  Anixx May 21 '13 at 9:27
Anecdotally, I can confirm it's true. When I chose which uni to apply, I was very friendly with a chap on the admissions committe to Moscow State University. He out and out told me to not bother applying to MSU that year, since all the few "jewish quota" positions were already filled by children from Party bigwigs; anyone else will be given harder and harder questions from a special list. Just for reference, at the time I was a top 10 finalist in Russian national math contest among my grade, and had my math entrance exam requirement waved off by MFTI (MIT equivalent) as a result. –  DVK May 24 '13 at 19:45

1 Answer 1

If such discrimination existed, it certainly would be secret. We can judge about it only from rumors.

The paper deals with filtering allegedly happened on a faculty of fundamental mathematics, where Chineese-Russian mathematician Alexander Hanyevich Shen (to whom the cited list is attributed) is working (I met him personally several times). Since he is a relatively young person, I suspect the list came to him via third hands.

An important feature of the Soviet enrollment system was that all proposed problems should be taught in the course of the school program. If somebody was asked a question outside of the school course, such exam could be easily appealed.

The alleged discrimination most likely arose as a policy, similar to "affirmative action" or "diversity programs" in the West.

For example, according to the Shen's paper, among the graduates of selected Moscow mathematical schools who applied to Mekhmat MSU in 1979, 47 were non-Jews while 40 were Jews (46%). This makes Jews the largest ethnic group to participate (of whom only 6 Jews and 40 non-Jews were enrolled). Further the article says that enrollment statistics from non-mathematical schools does not show ethnic discrimination.

Even after the filtering, the percentage of Jews in MSU and other universities far exceeded their percentage among the population which was about 4%. It was possibly seen as unsatisfactory by the proponents of the principle of the "equality of the result" as opposed to "equality of opportunities".

An interesting article by Mekhmat professor Ilyashenko furthers the allegation by a claim that the policy was not directed only against Jews, but against all talented and stronger pretenders. Especially it affected the graduates of the Moscow mathematical schools. In a given example, out of 100 graduates of Moscow mathematical school №57, only 3-4 could enroll MSU at best during the policy in force.

The policy as he claims, was justified by an idea to give a chance to students from "poor", "peasant" and "workers" families who showed much worse performance at expense of stronger ones. Since some teachers protested the policy, they were told "there are no bad students, there are bad teachers", a claim that even if somebody shows poor performance, it is not due to their natural skills, but due to insufficient teaching.

This was possibly supported by the story of Mikhail Lomonosov himself (after whom MSU was named). He being a peasant son made a way from the Russian North to St.Petersburg so to make a successful academic carrier.

Another justification was an idea that each student should be judged based not on universal standard, but depending on their individual skill level, that is, stronger students should be judged more strictly and should make more efforts to get the same marks as poor students, another variant of "affirmative action".

This led to the serious drop in the students' skills and abilities. As Ilyashenko tells, since the policy was implemented, the students who had all "satisfactory" (the lowest permitted to pass) marks became the majority while before the policy in force, such students were very rare. The university teachers were pressurized not to give "unsatisfactory" marks at all, so that the examiners had to justify each "unsatisfactory" before the administration, and created a special writing-book where they protocolled each "unsatisfactory" answer so to protect themselves against pressure.

By the way, there are similar accusations against the US universities as well, especially were accused the so-called "leadership" requirements which put social activity above academic skills, and allegedly were introduced to reduce the number of Jews in American universities.

P.S. The original paper by Shen: http://www.3038.org/press/shen.pdf

share|improve this answer
This answer is highly misleading, but at least it gives a reference to Shen's paper, which clearly shows there was rampant discrimination at MGU. You are also right to point out that this policy was, well not secret, but rather unacknowledged officially. The other elements of the answer are, alas, wrong. –  Felix Goldberg May 21 '13 at 7:50
@Felix Goldberg I re-wrote the answer. –  Anixx May 21 '13 at 10:10

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.