Kantorovich with his sister and his

mother, 1930s


Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich - mostly referred to in the book to as ‘Leonid Vitalevich’, to show respect in the Russian style - is the intellectual hero of Red Plenty.  In 1938, he discovered the piece of mathematics which would become the core of the attempt in the 1950s and 1960s to optimise the Soviet economy cybernetically.  Trying to get it applied became the cause of the rest of his life.  (He was still writing letters to the Politburo when he died in 1986.)  But he was a true polymath, the nearest Soviet equivalent to John Von Neumann, with interests stretching from the purest of pure maths through mathematical economics and game theory to hardware design.  In 1974, he became the only Soviet scholar ever to win the Nobel Prize for Economics.  A profoundly cautious man in some ways - he carefully avoided ever spelling out the political implications of his work - he was passionate, verging on reckless, in defence of mathematical integrity.  These are two very short translated extracts from the memorial collection of his papers, Leonid Vitalievich Kantorovich: Chelovek i Uchenii (V L Kantorovich, S S Kutateladze, Ya. I Fet, eds.; Novosibirsk: Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, vol. 1 2002, vol. 2 2004).  If you’re interested, you are strongly urged to pursue this book, and Kantorovich himself, through the links.


‘I recall one time, G S Rubinshtein and K A Bagrinovskii were giving a report at our joint seminar about some sort of modernized method of solving - I don’t really remember which task.  They were doing some calculations on the board.  It was usual at these seminars for Leonid Vitalevich to sleep sitting in the first row.  But however strange it may seem, he was always listening to everything and when the report was over, he would wake up and pose pithy and interesting questions, although it seemed as if he had been sleeping.  And on this occasion he was dozing away, when those giving the report got lost in their calculations.  Something was wrong with their proofs.  Other mathematicians in attendance rushed to their aid, they all crowded amiably around the board, and vying with other wrote and wiped, wrote and wiped, but were still unable to find the mistake.  Finally, Genadii Solomonovich [Rubinshtein] turned to Leonid Vitalevich in complete despair.  He woke up, got up, went over to the board and wiped everything off.  And then proceeded to write the proof.  He wrote on the board so amazingly, with the manner of one who had been doing so all his life, writing on the board as if on paper... 

Until that point many had said to me, “Why on earth do you keep telling everyone that Leonid Vitalevich is a genius?  Look, he can’t even express a coherent thought, he hesitates when he speaks, and you can’t understand what he means.”  “Let’s take a plan,” he would say and having gone to the board, would draw some figure (he would draw a polygon, having in mind a multitude of possible plans, but for a normal person this was not clear!) -- “and there you have it, the point.”  Outwardly, he seemed to speak incoherently, but if you were noting his speech to the word, then you would end up with concise, clear, absolutely competent speech, without repetitions, without the slightest offending word, expressed in such a way that it was ready for publication immediately...’


‘Against Leonid Vitalevich came out official Marxist science under K V Ostrovitianov, who was an indisputable authority - a political economist, an old Bolshevik with pre-revolutionary length of service, and moreover already the vice-president of the Academy, even though he hadn’t written any serious scientific works, only individual papers of a polemical nature.  As far as I know, he blocked the publication of Kantorovich’s book and as a matter of fact supported those who persecuted him.  In central newspapers there appeared all sorts of lampoons, hinting that this direction was influenced by bourgeois science, that as as it had not managed to push through bourgeois ideology directly, it was now being... introduced under the guise of mathematics - “false-science, in order to seem like science, adopts a mathematical guise.”  Although even Marx wrote that “science only becomes science, when it takes control of mathematics.”  I remember a terrible article in Communist.  Three years I think it was that the fight [to get him] the Lenin prize lasted, and in the end it was awarded in 1965.  It was a real war. 

Moreover, Leonid Vitalevich was always on the edge of this war, he was a very straight-forward man, not skilled in intrigues.  He didn’t know how to put groups together, how to incite anyone.  He was always straight, expressed his ideas directly and for this reason was easy prey for intriguers, who clung to his every word.  I shall recall a funny episode.  At that time the weaver Gaganova was in fashion, who had transferred from an advanced brigade to one that was lagging behind.  And in one of his speeches Leonid Vitalevich compared himself with Gaganova, as having crossed from an advanced science, mathematics, to one that was lagging behind, economics.  Oh and what a fuss! - “Kantorovich is having delusions of grandeur, comparing himself with Gaganova!”  And once Leonid Vitalevich even corrected me.  Sometime or other we were having a little drink and he raised a glass to economic science.  I said, let’s drink to mathematics.  “Oh no,” he said, “we should drink to the science that needs someone to drink to it.”

Translated by Simmi Gill, 2006



1970s (left)