Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya is a little-known heroine of 20th century mathematics who died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 44.
She was a mathematician who founded the "Jewish People's University" to help talented young Jews who had been prevented from studying mathematics due to the anti-Semitic policies of the Soviet government.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Jewish students in the Soviet Union were routinely denied admission to advanced study in many institutions of higher education. In mathematics, one of the best places for advanced study in mathematics was---and still is---the department of mathematics and mechanics (called "Mekh-Mat") at Moscow State University.
Before Perestroika, Jewish students applying to Mekh-Mat were routinely subjected to unfair examination practices, such as "killer questions" that required far too much time to solve or had no correct answer. Even those who managed to clear these hurdles could still be kept out by a poor grade on the compulsory essay on Russian literature with the stock phrase "the theme was not sufficiently developed".
Bella Subbotovskaya had studied at Mekh-Mat in the 1950s during a period when the anti-Semitic policies had not yet been instituted. She had fallen in love with mathematics at a young age, and she also had a great affinity for music and played several instruments. After writing important papers in the area of mathematical logic, she worked at various technical research institutes doing programming tasks and numerical computations. When in 1978 she found out about the dismal situation for Jewish students trying to enter Mekh-Mat, she decided to do something herself.
Subbotovskaya, with the help of several other mathematicians, founded the "Jewish People's University" where students turned away from Mekh-Mat could continue their mathematical studies. This underground university, which ran from 1978 until 1982, featured lectures by outstanding local mathematicians. Although Subbotovskaya herself did not teach, Szpiro calls her the "guiding spirit" of the university. She handled all of the arrangements and scheduling for this complex enterprise. At first the lectures were held in her apartment, but when the number of students outgrew that space they moved to various locations around Moscow.
But the Jewish People's University did not last long. "Even though it had no political intent whatsoever," Szpiro writes, "it defied the Soviet system on a grand scale." After being summoned twice to the headquarters of the KGB, the feared Soviet secret service agency, Subbotovskaya was killed in a hit-and-run accident in a Moscow street. The exact circumstances of her death have never been uncovered. After she died, the activities of the Jewish People's University came to an end.
George Szpiro dramatic article in the November 2007 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society provides a window on a different era and paints a poignant portrait of a courageous heroine of twentieth century mathematics.