Cornell Library digitizes historic collection of Eugene Dynkin interviews

Cornell University Library has acquired a collection of interviews of mathematicians conducted over many years by Eugene Dynkin, Cornell’s Emeritus A. R. Bullis Professor of Mathematics.

Dynkin worked with the Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) and Digital Scholarship Services to organize and digitize his revolutionary conversations, many of which are interviews with Russian mathematicians. They are now available online at

The interviews, which Dynkin recorded for more than half a century, serve as a rich source of information not only about mathematics but history as well, providing insight into academic life under a repressive Soviet regime. The collection contains nearly 150 audio and video recordings, plus biographical information about each mathematician and some photographs.

“Professor Dynkin made extremely important contributions to mathematics, starting at a very young age, and in a wide range of different areas,” said Laurent Saloff-Coste, chair of Cornell’s Department of Mathematics. “As an important figure of the mathematics community, Professor Dynkin has had direct contacts with a great many mathematicians all around the world. The collection of Dynkin’s interviews is probably unique in all of the sciences and unlikely to be ever replicated.”

Throughout his career, Dynkin recorded conversations with mathematicians all over the world as a way to broaden their contact with others in the field.

Dynkin was born in Leningrad in 1924. He received a PhD in 1948 from Moscow State University, where he continued for many years as a member of the faculty in the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics. Informal contact with Western colleagues was impossible during the Stalin era. “Western mathematical journals in the library were stamped ‘Restricted Access. Only for Official Use’,” he said. “Even after Stalin’s death, like most Soviet mathematicians, I was not permitted to travel to Western countries. However, I was able to record a few conversations with foreign visitors to Moscow.”

Dynkin and his wife immigrated to the United States in 1976. At Soviet customs, he said, the authorities examined their belongings for two days, checking “every page of every book,” because taking abroad any manuscript or audio recording needed the approval of an expert committee. It was impossible to arrange in the short time given for him to exit, so Dynkin transferred his interviews from cassettes to small reels and left them with his friends. They later gave the reels to traveling American or Canadian colleagues to bring back to Dynkin in Ithaca, where he had become a professor at Cornell.

There, he continued his interviews with mathematicians in the United States, Canada, France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, India, and many other countries—although the Russian part of his collection was restricted to conversations with émigrés. With the end of the Cold War, renewed contact with Russian colleagues became possible, giving Dynkin the opportunity to interview former colleagues.

During the interviews, mathematicians discuss their family history, other famous members of the field and current research. Most of the interviews were taped in his home or in hotel rooms at conferences, but in a few cases, he recorded in restaurants, cars and even a boat. Although mathematics is the central focus of most of the interviews, a few contain hidden gems of mathematicians singing folk-songs, performing operatic arias and playing musical instruments.

“My original intention was simply to digitize… I wanted it to be preserved, and I planned to deposit it at the Mathematics Library,” Dynkin said. But after Steven Rockey, head of the Math Library, suggested the collection might be more valuable, Dynkin agreed the collection should be put online to provide wider access.

Listen…and help

Through the American Mathematical Society, some funds were made available for the translation of the Russian-language interviews to make them accessible to the international community, but many more still need to be addressed before the site can assemble a complete English-language archive.

RMC is seeking assistance to continue the process of making the collection accessible to researchers. Anyone who listens to the interviews can help by submitting lists of the topics they cover to, or contact RMC online for more information.

“We’re thrilled to be able to put this valuable collection online for the world to see, and we hope that others will help us continue to make it more complete and accessible,” said University Archivist Elaine Engst. “First-person oral histories obviously have great research value, but they also do a wonderful job of personalizing history for future generations of students and scholars.”

Eugene Dynkin in 2003

Photo: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections/Cornell University Library