Mathematicians Protest Russia Hosting Major Conference


As Ukrainian researchers have feared for their lives and careers after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, mathematicians have been grappling over what to do about a prominent mathematical conference that was set to be held in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in July.

The International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) is “the largest and most significant conference on pure and applied mathematics as well as one of the world’s oldest scientific congresses,” according to the Web site of the 2022 conference. The meeting, which is run by the Germany-based International Mathematical Union (IMU), is held only once every four years. When the nine-day 2018 ICM was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it drew 10,506 attendees.

On Saturday conference organizers announced the event would be fully virtual and hosted outside of Russia this year. The executive committee of the meeting released a statement saying, “We strongly condemn the actions by Russia. Our deepest sympathy goes to our Ukrainian colleagues and the Ukrainian people. Given this situation, it is impossible for the IMU to host the ICM and the GA [general assembly] as traditional in-person events in Russia.”

The Fields Medal—one of the most prestigious honors in mathematics—is traditionally awarded at the event. According to the recent decision, this year’s prize ceremony and general assembly will be held in person but at an undecided location outside of Russia. 

A group of Russian mathematicians wrote an open letter signed by more than 350 people protesting the invasion. “Mathematics has always been one of the few areas of fundamental science in which Russia has maintained a leading world position. As confirmation of this, Russia was supposed to host the most prestigious mathematical conference in the world…,” they wrote. “In a situation where our country has become a military aggressor and, as a result, a rogue state, Russia’s leadership positions in world mathematics will be irretrievably lost.” Russian scientists and science journalists also wrote another open letter against the invasion that has been signed by nearly 7,000 people.

Long-Standing Concerns

Shortly after it was announced in 2018 that the 2022 meeting would be held in Russia, mathematicians began expressing their concerns. An open letter signed by more than 380 people called for a boycott. It cited human rights violations and Russia’s “aggression towards other countries,” including the 2014 Russian military invasion and annexation of Crimea. The letter also noted that the Russian government had been co-organizing and financing this year’s ICM.

Also in 2018 Ami Radunskaya, then president of the Association for Women in Mathematics, wrote a letter to the ICM’s organizing committee expressing “deep concern and displeasure at the selection of St. Petersburg”—especially regarding “Russia’s openly aggressive laws towards the LGBTQ community.” The letter asked that the committee consider changing locations or “publish information specifically addressing the particular dangers that LGBTQ mathematicians who wish to attend the meeting will face.”

In a 2021 letter to the editor published in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, mathematician Ilya Kapovich of the City University of New York’s Hunter College wrote about the “need to guard against the possibility that the Russian government intends to use the ICM as a major propaganda vehicle.” Kapovich also pointed out that the “level of involvement by prominent government figures in the ICM organization is unprecedented in the ICM history.”

Recent Responses

The group Boycott ICM 2022 in Russia reported that several math societies—including ones in Sweden, Poland, Lithuania, Norway and Finland—spoke out against the congress being held in Russia. Boycott ICM 2022 in Russia also collected signatures from 122 invited speakers expressing their concerns about the meeting’s location.

On February 22 the American Mathematical Society’s (AMS’s) president Ruth Charney stated that it “has no plans to send representatives to a meeting in St. Petersburg. We urge the International Mathematical Union not to hold the ICM in Russia in July 2022.” The AMS suspended its travel grant program for helping researchers attend the meeting.

The London Mathematical Society, Canadian Mathematical Society, Italian Mathematical Union, Australian Mathematical Society, European Mathematical Society and mathematical institute of the French National Center for Scientific Research released similar statements.

Many mathematicians welcomed the IMU’s decision not to hold the ICM in Russia, though some questioned why it took so long to change course. In an online statement, the group of Ukrainian mathematicians who had been organizing the boycott said, “We welcome the decision of the IMU to pull the International Congress of Mathematicians from Russia. Unfortunately, this right call was not made before the full scale invasion of the Russian troops to our country.”

Editor’s Note (3/3/22): This story was updated after posting to add the description of open letters from Russian mathematicians, scientists and science journalists.


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