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.

  • 4
    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. May 20, 2013 at 15:28
  • 3
    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, 2013 at 20:48
  • 11
    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, 2013 at 19:45
  • 7
    @Drux - Pointing out Perelman as evidence that jews were not discriminated against is like pointing to Frederick Douglas's achievements as evidence that blacks were not discriminated against in 19th century. Discrimination does not consist of rejecting a supergenius, but a normal person. Obviously someone who can prove Poincare's conjecture can solve "extra hard" entrance exam questions.
    – DVK
    May 24, 2013 at 20:56
  • 3
    @Roc Martí well the situation varied very much between the universities, indeed.
    – Anixx
    Jun 2, 2013 at 11:37

3 Answers 3


I can witness personally that such discrimination existed at Moscow State University. It was kind of an open secret: most people knew about it, but not discussed in public. If you are looking for personal accounts by prominent mathematicians and scientists who were rejected by Moscow State University, that's relatively easy to do just by googling.

Here's how it has been done. All top university had several entrance exams, including at least one oral. The admission pool was rather large, so the crowd of the prospective students was separated into a bunch of smaller groups, at least 20 groups for oral exams at Moscow State University, and each group had an exam in its own classroom. The professors assigned to take exams in particular classrooms have been instructed on the range of grades to assign. The group of "the right people" would get nearly automatic 5 (which is "A"), and the group of out-of-town Jews would get 3 (if they can withstand an hour of grilling over 50 questions all over the subject without a single mistake) or 2 (which is "F") if they make a single mistake or if they fail to write it down completely in the exam's protocol.

These were not isolated incidents, it was the university policy. Despite a large number of Jewish mathematicians working there admission for Jewish students was severely restricted.


Given the totalitarian nature of the SU, information on such a blatant ethnic discrimination was not officially confirmed (duh!) and spreading it, in fact, could land one in jail. This accounts for the lack of "official sources".

However, this was common knowledge among Jewish "abiturients" (as the contenders for college admission were called) and their friends, well documented by Alexander Shen, Tanya Khovanova, Valery Senderov (neither or them is a Jew) et al. Trying to deny it is akin to denying the October 23, 2014 partial solar eclipse: millions of people saw it, even if you cannot find a book mentioning it.

An interesting remark on the subject was made by Israel Gelfand in late 1980-ies, during his pre-seminar schmoozing. He said that, while the discrimination was initially directed against the Jews, it eventually was expanded to include all bright applicants. The reason was that to effect the policy, the admission committees had to be staffed with people willing to be unfair (give super-hard problems to specific individuals) to people they dislike (there was no lack of volunteer anti-Semites). Such people would tend to let their personal feelings affect their fairness across the board, not just towards the "official undesirables". Thus they would let their natural envy towards bright kids negatively affect their fairness. This is why even non-Jewish graduates of the best schools (e.g., 57) found it harder to gain admission.

PS. See also Andre Geim - Biographical


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. As such, an art of creating problems that were very difficult, yet could be solved with school techniques emerged.

The 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 1%. 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

  • 7
    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. May 21, 2013 at 7:50
  • 3
    @Felix Goldberg I re-wrote the answer.
    – Anixx
    May 21, 2013 at 10:10
  • 3
    There are numerous eyewitness accounts of such discrimination, most of whom are very much alive today. Discrimination was neither rare nor secret.
    – Michael
    Nov 5, 2014 at 0:42
  • 1
    in fact discrimination against Jews in the USSR was official policy as far back as the 1930s. There were plans to deport all Jews to Siberia to be rid of them in the Gulag, same as happened with many central Asian national groups. Only the death of Stalin prevented that plan from being put into action (rumours have it it was to have been activated on the day after he died).
    – jwenting
    Nov 5, 2014 at 7:44
  • 2
    @FelixGoldberg Annixx mindlessly defends everything that glorifies the USSR and especially Stalin and mindlessly attacks everything that's in the least critical of them.
    – jwenting
    Nov 5, 2014 at 11:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.