Interview: Albert Shiryaev on the First Bernoulli World Congress


The World Congresses of the Bernoulli Society, now occurring in an established sequence every four years and in successive locations all over the globe, form a major recurrent event in the calendar of our community of mathematical statistics and probability. For such an important event, it is natural to ask “how did it all begin”. The answer is, the famous Tashkent World Congress of 1986. We are fortunate now to be able to learn more about our question via an interview with Albert Shiryaev, conducted by Vladimir Vatutin. Shiryaev was one of the two vice-chairmen of the Soviet Organizing Committee (while Vatutin served on the local organizing committee in Moscow), and this interview paints a vivid and personal picture of all the hard work and remarkable events going on behind the scenes of this quite extraordinary event.

Wilfrid Kendall

President of the Bernoulli Society



V.V.: How did the idea arise to have the First World Bernoulli Congress?

Shiryaev: The idea was in the air for a while, but the main step was takenby Sagdu Khasanovich Sirazhdinov, a student of Romanovskii and Kolmogorov. Once he participated in a conference somewhere in Europe where a possibility of a big Bernoulli event was discussed. Sirazhdinov suggested Tashkent as a place for such an event. His promise was no small matter: Sirazhdinov was the Chairman of the Higher Council of the Uzbek SSR for several years.

Of course, such an event had to be included in the plans of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (AN of the USSR). However, the authorities of the Steklov Mathematical Institute and the Department of Mathematics of the AN of the USSR were not happy with this: they thought it might be too big an event, and all sorts of problems might arise. Still, I had a great desire to conduct the Congress in the USSR. So, I visited the Department for the International Cooperation of the AN of the USSR and described the situation. At the time when I approached the authorities, the program of the AN of the USSR for 1986 was almost complete: two big international scientific conferences were planned. To our happiness, the organizers of one of them had not yet prepared the needed documents and there was a possibility that they might fail to do this in time. So, we (I and Boris Stechkin) took the necessary steps as soon as possible, while the biologists indeed failed to prepare the needed documents. Thus, we got the crucial YES from the AN USSR. Soon the respective documents arrived at the Steklov Mathematical Institute. Since it was an order “from above” we (Prokhorov and I) were invited to the director who told us that we should prepare the congress. However, we were warned “if any trouble happens then…” Based on this order, we started the preparation of the congress.

V.V.: Who headed the International Organizing Committee, the Program Committee of the Congress and Local Organizing Committee and how were the duties distributed?

Shiryaev: The Chairman of the International Organizing Committee was Paul Revesz (Hungary), the Program Committee was headed by Klaus Krickeberg (France), the Honorary Chairman of the Soviet Organizing Committee was Andrey Nikolaevich Kolmogorov, the Chairman was Yurii Vasilyevich Prokhorov and the two vice-chairmen were me (in Moscow) and Sagdu Khasanovich Sirazhdinov (in Tashkent).

I should emphasize the efficiency with which Krickeberg performed his duties. It would have been difficult to arrange such a big program without his efforts.

The duties of the Moscow part of the Soviet Organizing Committee were to keep in contact with the International Organizing Committee, to provide visa support for foreign participants and tourist firms, to meet the arriving participants in Sheremetyevo International Airport and to arrange the transfer Moscow-Tashkent-Moscow. The local organizing committee in Tashkent was on duty for hotel accommodation, cultural program, facilities for the Congress lectures and a book exhibition. Among the members of the Tashkent local committee, I would particularly like to mention Rano Mukhamedhanova, who worked very hard to resolve various technical problems.

I arrived in Tashkent three weeks before the congress. We soon understood that there were problems with accommodation. Even those hotels that promised to accommodate the participants of the congress informed us that they had reduced the number of available rooms. In fact, at that time Gorbachev had started his struggle with corruption in Uzbekistan (the so-called Gdlyan-Ivanov deal) and a great number of the investigators in charge arrived in Tashkent and occupied the rooms. So, it was necessary to resolve this problem.

As sometimes happens, a random event helped us. I returned to the hotel, or, to be more precise, to the residence in which I stayed with my son who was thirteen at that time (this was a residence of the Government of Uzbekistan and there were only three guests: I, my son and cosmonaut Dzhanibekov). It was a late evening and I saw that my son pointed out something in the sky to a well-dressed man. I should point out that my son had a great interest in astronomy and knew a great deal about stars and planets. The man invited us to his nearby dacha and asked me what I was doing in Uzbekistan. I explained to him emotionally the situation with accommodation and spoke of how the congress would be an important and prestigious event for Uzbekistan and the USSR. The man replied, “OK, I think that I am able to help you. Please, come to me tomorrow”. I asked him: “Where to?” He pointed at two silent men who had been following us all the time: “These two men will explain.” It turned out that this was Usmankhodjavev – the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan at that time!

The next morning all our problems with the accommodation were resolved: we were given the residence of Brezhnev in Uzbekistan and a very comfortable hotel “Shelkovichnaya”. Moreover, we were supplied with 40 black “Volga” cars, very prestigious Soviet cars. These cars (with drivers!) were attached to the members of the International, Program, and Local Committees as well as to the members of the Executive Committee of the Bernoulli Society. I remember that Bickel’s wife, who used such a car several times, told me that she never in her life had a car with a personal driver!

 Shiryaev and Prokhorov

Albert Shiryaev (left) and Yurii Prokhorov (right) at a social event during the Congress

V.V.: What kind of financial support did you get from the AN of the USSR?

Shiryaev: Since the congress was included in the plan of the Academy, the academy supplied the main financial contribution to support the congress. For many foreign scientists, the Academy covered accommodation and living expenses. For the members of the Executive Committee of the Bernoulli society, the flight Moscow-Tashkent-Moscow was covered. Of course, it was necessary to pay for the congress facilities (lecture rooms, places for the organizing committee and so on). All the money was concentrated in Sirazhdinov’s hands. In fact, even the academy money arose from several different sources (exchange programs with Socialist countries, bilateral agreements with Western countries and so on). Note also that there was NO registration fee for the participants of the congress.

V.V.: Here, I would like to make several remarks of my own. I was a member of the Local Organizing Committee in Moscow. My duties were to provide for the transfer of foreign participants from Moscow to Tashkent; in particular, to provide for transfer from Sheremetyevo airport to Domodedovo airport. We had two comfortable buses (Hungarian “Ikarus”) and ten “Volga” cars. To simplify the transfer process, we arranged in Sheremetyevo a special registration desk with tickets for those scientists whose flight Moscow–Tashkent - Moscow was covered by the Academy. I was sitting in the Steklov institute and kept contacts with people in Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo. Suddenly, I got a call from Sheremetyevo from people working at the registration desk who informed me that a woman with name Elizabeth Scott claimed that she should pick up a ticket here but there was NO ticket for her! Now Elizabeth Scott, who was the President of Bernoulli Society in 1983-1984, was one of the main forces behind the organization of the first World Congress of the Bernoulli Society in Tashkent. And, of course, her flight Moscow-Tashkent-Moscow was covered by the Academy. I described the situation to Sazonov and we arranged for Elizabeth an excursion around Moscow, provided her with an overnight stay and the next day she safely arrived to Tashkent. There we finally resolved the question: why we had no ticket for Elizabeth Scott. Recall that it was a pre-internet era.

Being well organized, Elizabeth booked in advance a ticket from Los Angeles to Tashkent through Moscow and sent a letter to Vyacheslav Sazonov containing this information (recall that an ordinary mail from the USA to the USSR took at that time and even now a month if not more). Practically at the same time, Sazonov got a confirmation that the Academy of Sciences of the USSR provided financial support for leading foreign scientists (including the flights Moscow-Tashkent-Moscow). Of course, Elizabeth Scott had got such a support. And Sazonov, in turn, sent a letter to Betty informing her about this nice event.

The outcome of the story is predictable in hindsight: Betty cancelled her booking Moscow-Tashkent-Moscow and Sazonov, relying on the letter from Elizabeth, did the same with Betty’s ticket provided by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

There were other problems with the participants from abroad. Some participants had a big time-gap between their arrival to Moscow and departure to Tashkent. Thus, they should spend a lot of time in Domodedovo. Of course, it would be nice to use this option to see something in Moscow or in its vicinities. However, the authorities did not want to have a large group of foreigners walking around without observation. To resolve this problem, we suggested to arrange, for those who wished, an intermediate stop in a small city Gorky Leninskie nearby of Domodedovo and to visit Lenin’s museum there. As far as I remember, nobody was against it.

So, let us return to the interview. Do you remember problems of political nature related to the congress?

Shiryaev: Yes, we had difficulties related to Mark Freidlin and Abram Kagan. They were the so-called “refuseniks”, i.e., had no permission to leave the USSR. It was a great problem before the congress to obtain a permission to invite them as participants and speakers. We finally resolved this. However, some leading probabilists of the Bernoulli Society decided to send a letter to Gorbachev supporting the desire of Freidlin and Kagan to leave the country. I had many discussions with those who wanted to send such a letter telling them the following: “Look, there are 52 weeks in a year. Why do you wish to send the letter during the congress? Can’t you wait at least one week?” Finally, my arguments convinced them to wait a little bit. As far as I know, such a letter was sent to Gorbachev several days after the end of the congress. In fact, the permission for Freidlin and Kagan to leave the USSR was signed at that time and we did not know that this was the case. Thus, the letter played no role.

V.V.: Had the participants of the congress problems with getting visas?

Shiryaev: In general, no. However, Paul Erdös was unable to come. I do not remember precisely why, but it seems that some documents were not arranged in time. Who was guilty I do not know.

V.V.: Let us pass now directly to the congress.

Shiryaev: An important issue was: who should give the forum talk opening the congress? Krickeberg suggested Dobrushin. I was not a member of the Program Committee; I was a member of other committees, but still took part in the discussion at some meeting. I told them: “OK. Khinchin is not with us, Doob is not here, but Kolmogorov is! So, let Kolmogorov be the first speaker.” The arguments against my suggestion were: “Kolmogorov is sick”. It was true but I pointed out that somebody else might give Kolmogorov’s talk, for instance, Uspenskii. After some discussion, the members of the Program Committee accepted my suggestion. In fact, Kolmogorov wrote a letter to the participants of the congress (Editor’s note: the letter is appended after the end of the interview). His “Greetings” were recorded in Moscow by Tikhomirov and me. And the forum talk by Kolmogorov and Uspenskii was given by Uspenskii. I remember that I helped Uspenskii to give this talk by changing the slides of the talk in the overhead projector. Uspenskii asked me after the talk: “Was it OK?”. I remember my answer “I thought that it would be worse.”

V.V.: What about the technical support of the conference?

Shiryaev: We had several computers, as far as I remember, PC 286. In addition, to simplify contacts between Prokhorov and other members of the Moscow team, we obtained permission from the officials to use walkie-talkies. One should remember that there were no mobile telephones at that time. However, the devices were not used properly.

V.V.: Another personal remark. As far as I remember, one walkie-talkie was given in Tashkent to Ronald Graham. Could you imagine the reaction of the people in metro in Tashkent when Graham used it in a train? A foreigner speaking in English on a walkie-talkie was immediately taken under observation. So, the next day the walkie-talkie was taken from him.

How many scientists participated in the congress?

Shiryaev: It was a very large event. There were about 400 participants from abroad and more than 600 participants from the USSR. (Detailed information about Scientific Program of the congress: sections, talks and so on may be found in Theory of Probability and its Applications, 1987, 32:2, 199-200 and 384–385).

Speciale envelope

Special Envelope Issued by the USSR Postal Services, Commemorating the First World Congress

V.V.: How was the congress covered by the media?

Shiryaev: Information about the Congress appeared in a local newspaper. Besides, to mark the occasion of the First Bernoulli Congress the Post of the USSRissued a numismatic envelope with a picture of Bernoulli commemorating this event. The participants of the Congress had a chance to stamp such an envelope at the 8th of September, 1986 and to convert it into the first day cover.

V.V.: What can you say about the book exhibition?

Shiryaev: The Soviet Organizing Committee decided to have a book exhibition during the congress. The aim of the exhibition was two-fold. First, to present the books of the Soviet authors, and second, to see the new books in probability issued in the West. Since the AN of the USSR got 30000 rubles in hard currency (about $50000 US in the prices of 1986) to buy new books in probability, we collected, much in advance before the congress, information about the Western books in probability and statistics that would be desirable to buy and asked the respective publishing houses to present them at the exhibition. However, because of Chernobyl the money was taken back. So, we were unable to buy the books. To find a solution to the problem, it was decided that the publishing houses should not pay for their exhibition stands in Tashkent and, after the exhibition, give all the books free of charge to the Academy of Sciences of the Uzbek SSR. And so it was done. The exhibition was under the motto “Probability and Statistics: books in the service of science, peace and progress” and presented more than 1800 books. The Soviet part of the exhibition included, along with recent books some rare old books in probability. For instance, Bunyakovskii’s book “Foundation of mathematical probability theory” issued in St. Petersburg in 1846.

Yurii Prokhorov Browsing Books

Yurii Prokhorov Browsing Books at the Congress Book Exhibition

V.V.: Please, tell us a few words about the cultural program of the congress.

Shiryaev: We had a bus excursion to Samarkand and an excursion to Bukhara by airplane (only for foreigners). Of course, there were some excursions around Tashkent and its vicinities for the participants and accompanying persons (to the nearby mountains, a ceramic factory and some other places). We also had several concerts in the Tashkent House of Cinema.

I should add one more thing. Initially, we wrote a recommendation for the participants to be careful with fruits: to wash them and not to buy them at arbitrary places. However, some people ignored our recommendations: fruit in Tashkent was so cheap that it was difficult to resist temptation. Thus, some people had stomach problems. Of course, we were not guilty.

V.V.: May you say some words about the closing ceremony and the evaluation the congress by the authorities after its end.

The congress was closed by Chris Heyde, the President of the Bernoulli Society at that time. He said that the congress and the exhibition were well organized and that he expected that the congress to be an example to be followed by the future congresses.

Concerning the reaction of authorites: the director of our institute Vladimirov, while summarizing the activities of the Steklov institute at the end of the year 1986, noted: “The institute conducted an important international conference in braid theory” (I think that the total number of participants of the conference hardly exceeded 100) and then, only after an additional question added “ and the Bernoulli Congress...”

V.V.: May be in conclusion it would not be bad to mention the members of the Department of Probability and Mathematical Statistics of the Steklov Mathematical instutute who performed technical jobs before and during the congress?

Shiryaev: I wish not to mention a particular name. All the members of the Department made a contribution to the success of the congress. It was a difficult deal and I am proud that we did it!

A.N. Kolmogorov’s Letter Greeting the Participants

Dear ladies and gentlemen! Allow me to welcome you today to the opening of the congress.

It is significant to me that the Society that has taken the name Bernoulli, a Society uniting specialists in just one field of mathematics – probability theory and mathematical statistics – has succeeded in organizing a conference of its fellow members so representative that it is comparable to international mathematics congresses. But if one thinks about it, then one can find an explanation for this seemingly paradox phenomenon.

James Bernoulli, one of the eminent members of the Bernoulli family, has entered the pages of the history of science by virtue of his many achievements. But two of his credits should be mentioned especially. He is the father of the science of probability theory having obtained the first serious result known everywhere as Bernoulli´s theorem. But apart from this, it should not be forgotten that he was essentially also the father of combinatorial analysis. He used the elements of this discipline to prove his theorem but he delved into the field of combinatorial analysis considerably further discovering in particular the remarkable sequence of numbers which now bear his name. These numbers are encountered continually in scientific investigations right down to our time.

We all feel that one of the basic requirements of mathematics that is evident at present is the investigation of very complex systems. And this complexity on one hand is very closely related to randomness and on the other – it necessitates in some measure an extension of combinatorial analysis itself. All this gives hope that as time passes the Bernoulli Society will increase its influence more and more in the mathematical world. I wish the participants of the Congress all of the very best.”

From: Theory Probab. Appl., Vol. 32, No.2, p. 200, translated from Russian Journal by Bernard Seckler.

© Bernoulli Society