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The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia

Richard Pipes
Yale University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Karen Hunger Parshall
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Alexander Pell earned his Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins University in 1897. In his fortieth year, he was somewhat old to be taking a doctorate there, but age did not prevent him from immediately securing the headship of the Department of Mathematics at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. Pell remained in South Dakota until 1908, creating in 1907 and serving as the first Dean of the University's School of Engineering, participating in meetings of the American Mathematical Society, pursuing new ideas in differential geometry, and publishing the fruits of his researches in the pages of the Society's Transactions as well as in Hopkins's American Journal of Mathematics. In 1907, he also married his student, Anna Johnson, during her study tour in Göttingen. A year later, he took a position at the Armour Institute in Chicago when she began her graduate work in mathematics at the nearby University of Chicago. Alexander followed Anna once again in 1913 this time to Mt. Holyoke, where she got her first faculty position, and then again in 1918 to Bryn Mawr, where she chaired the Department of Mathematics. He died in Pennsylvania three years after their move there.

Sergei Degaev was born in Moscow in 1857. The son of a military physician, he was a member of the Russian upper middle class, attended a series of military, artillery, and engineering-oriented academies, and participated actively in the revolutionary group, the People's Will, which aimed to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. From 1879 and the founding of the People's Will to 1881 and the assassination of Alexander to 1884 and his flight from Russia, Degaev "played an intricate and equivocal game to keep at bay alike the police and the terrorists" (p. 88). Sergei Degaev and his Russian revolutionary wife, Liubov Nikolaevna Ivanova, took the names Alexander and Emma Pell upon their naturalizations as United States citizens on 21 September, 1891. They shared a new life in America until Emma's death in 1904.

With the touch of a master of the thriller, Harvard professor emeritus of Russian history, Richard Pipes, weaves together the fascinating story of intrigue, espionage, and counterespionage that characterized the young-adult life of Sergei Degaev and of which the friends and associates of the mature Alexander Pell had little clue. Although Pipes's documentation is often admittedly sketchy (owing to the paucity of available sources), he makes a compelling argument for his interpretation of Degaev's life and motivations. Pipes first traces Degaev's intimate involvement in and then betrayal of the revolutionary cause and next documents Degaev's subsequent undermining of the police in what was ultimately a successful effort to extricate himself from the complex web of deception into which he had fallen. With more plot twists and turns than a novel by Tom Clancy, Pipes's biography of Degaev/Pell is all the more remarkable because it is a work of nonfiction. It will certainly go far to dispel the myth that the life of the mathematician is, by definition, dull.

Karen Hunger Parshall ( is Professor of History and Mathematics at the University of Virginia. Among her books are The Emergence of the American Mathematical Research Community, 1876-1900, with David E. Rowe, and James Joseph Sylvester: Life and Work in Letters.

The table of contents is not available.