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‘I’d rather lose my life than my freedom’ A mathematician from Ukraine died by suicide in Moscow after trying and failing to escape from Russia.

Source: Meduza

On March 20, mathematician Konstantin Olmezov died by suicide in Moscow. Originally from Donetsk, Olmezov moved to Russia to pursue a career as a mathematician. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Olmezov tried to leave the country, but was arrested and sentenced to administrative detention; after being released, he died by suicide. In his suicide note, he wrote, “For me, not being free is worth than death.”

“Hello. My name is Konstantin Olmezov. I’m writing this note with a sound mind and a solid memory, and if you’re reading it, I’ll probably never write again.”

That’s the beginning of a series of posts on the Telegram channel “Konstantin and Letters.” 26-year-old graduate student Konstantin Olmezov used to use it to publish his poetry, but at nine in the morning on March 20, he posted his suicide note.

That same day, several of Olmezov’s friends received emails with the same message. According to his supervisor, mathematician Ilya Shkredov, the only thing that differed was the “preamble.”

“‘I sent you this message because I trust you,’” the email read, according to Shkredov. “‘It’s not personal, but I’d like the letter to be distributed to those who are interested, to my relatives, and on social media, in case it’s blocked or erased.’”

Shkredov received the letter at 1:01 pm. He believes it was sent automatically after a short delay, like the Telegram post. “I started to cry,” he said.

He tried to get in touch with Olmezov to stop him from going through with the suicide, but Olmezov didn’t pick up the phone. Neither did the office of the dorm where Olmezov lived. “Finally I got in touch with the Discrete Mathematics Department,” said Shkredov. “They told me it was too late. They’d been there [at the dorm] since eight in the morning.”

“He was always rushing around, but his poetry was restrained”

Konstantin Olmezov was born and raised in Donetsk. He graduated from Donetsk National Technical University, where he studied programming. He also liked to write poetry and act in plays.

Konstantin Olmezov on Donetsk (from his suicide note):

I really do love Donetsk, though it’s a strange kind of love. Despite my disgusting childhood, it’s still the city where I wrote my first program, wrote my first poem, first appeared on stage, earned my first paycheck. A city whose every bench and every bend of the path in every park is imbued with some rhyme, some puzzle I solved there, names, faces, pleasant and terrible events. Every nook of every path.”

“Donetsk had a very active poetry scene before the war — all of the young writers and artists knew each other,” said Olmezov’s longtime friend Artyom Samoilenko. “When people from Donetsk talk about the start of the war,” he added, “we mean 2014.”

Since then, Samoilenko and Olmezov had largely lost touch. “It scattered us pretty far apart,” he said. He remembers Olmezov as a “short, curly-haired guy, disheveled in every sense.”

“Completely unrestrained, always walking somewhere as if he was being swept around, as if someone were prodding him forward,” said Samoilenko. “Meanwhile, his poetry was the opposite: restrained and distant. He really liked fractals; they’re mathematical pictures expressed in formulas. I’m pretty sure he even had a poem about fractals.”

In 2016, after graduating from university, Konstantin Olmezov moved to Kyiv.

Konstantin Olmezov on Kyiv (from his suicide note):

“I really do love Kyiv — the city where I first had an independent life, first experienced hunger and loneliness, first fell truly in love, and wrote my best poetry. There was a period in Kyiv when I was writing two poems a day for three days, more than I ever had. Every bridge over the Rusanivka Canal, every tree in the forest behind the Lisova metro station, every bench in Victory Park, they’re all imbued with their pain and their love.”

When he moved to Kyiv, Olmezov brought his love of theater with him. Artyom Samoilenko recalled how he and Olmezov once acted in an amateur production of The Master and Margarita. Olmezov was cast as MC George Bengalsky.

At the theater, which was “made up mostly of refugees from Donetsk,” Olmezov met a local named Boris. “He was a very kind, modest, sincere, deep person. He had a whole universe in his soul and in his eyes,” said Boris. They acted together in Eugene Onegin, with Olmezov playing Lensky.

Онегин. Трейлер. Театр 13
Theater 13

In 2018, Konstantin Olmezov moved from Kyiv to Moscow to pursue an academic career.

Konstantin Olmezov on Moscow (from his suicide note):

“I really do love Moscow — the city where I first “stood on my own two feet,” where I became economically independent, where I proved my first and only theorems, and where I first truly believed in myself. The city of Tsaritsyno Palace!”

Olmezov’s friends said his move to Russia was no surprise. “Russia has strong technical schools,” said Artyom Samoilenko. “I don’t know his exact position, but it seems to me that research and art were always his top priorities.”

He also made sure not to lose touch with Ukraine and Kyiv; sometimes, he would take trips back to the city to take part in poetry readings, according to Boris.

It was at one of those readings that Boris saw Konstantin for the last time. “We chatted for a bit,” he said. “He told me he was doing mathematical research in your country. If he lived there, it wasn’t just because. It means he had a reason for it.”

Additive combinatorics and love

“Hello, Ilya Dmitriyevich! I’m not a Fermatist, I’m not a Riemannian, I’m not Ramanujan [famous mathematicians], and this email doesn’t include any evidence of any brilliant hypotheses — I’m just someone who’s not a mathematician but wants to become one.” That’s how Omezov introduced himself to Russian mathematician Ilya Shkredov in April 2018.

He then said he dreamed of studying additive combinatorics and arithmetic combinatorics, and that’s why he was reaching out to the field’s “top specialist” for advice: where should he apply?

“I get requests like that fairly often,” said Shkredov. In his view, the reason additive combinatorics attracts young people is simple: “It’s so beautiful — terribly beautiful! The problems [in the field] involve simple expressions, but with very complex solutions. It constantly amazes you. It’s a field where a lot is still unknown — a lot of secrets and a lot more to be done.”

Shkredov later realized that Olmezov also admired the beauty of additive combinatorics.

From Konstantin Olmezov’s suicide note:

“I came to Russia in 2018 to pursue research. I came because I’d fallen in love with a topic that wasn’t represented in Ukraine: additive combinatorics. I truly fell in love, I was crazy about it — the way people fall in love with people. I spent entire nights and days with it. I wasn’t the most diligent with my love, my academic achievements are very modest, but that’s no surprise — my track record with traditional love is even worse.”

For the next two years, Olmezov studied with Shkredov in a master’s program. After that, he joined the Discrete Mathematics Department at the Institute. He soon started working as an assistant and a lab tech.

“For some reason, he seemed very adult, though he was actually very young. I immediately started to include him in some really serious projects,” said Shkredov. He referred to Olmezov as “very talented.”

According to Shkredov, Olmezov did a lot of work at his own initiative, writing three academic articles before he was required to — “quite enough for a doctoral thesis.” Not only did Olmezov thoroughly understand the method Shkredov had developed, he developed it further. “He was immersed in the problem for a year or two before ultimately succeeding,” said Shkredov. “He really opened the math community’s eyes to this issue, and it was of great service to me. I now use his methods myself.”

“After that, he solved another few problems, but at the next stage, for the last year or two, he wasn’t having as much success,” Shkredov continued. “Maybe that was part of it. But in the research world, that happens sometimes. Anyone can have difficulty on a given step — it doesn’t matter if you’re a student, a graduate student, or a professor. I tried to help him. Before New Year’s, we were talking about what he could do next.”

According to Shkredov, the two were planning to write a book about additive combinatorics together. “And we probably would have written it,” he said.

‘It was my last weapon’

On February 26, the third day of the war, Konstantin Olmezov tried to get out of Russia. “It was partly a stupid act, but only to the extend that it was poorly thought through. “I don’t regret it, I just regret not doing it on the 23rd, when there was already every reason. I was leaving to protect my country [Ukraine], to protect it from those who wanted to take it from me.”

Olmezov was planning to leave Russia by bus, but he was arrested while boarding. Two days later, he was sentenced to 15 days in prison for disorderly conduct after allegedly disturbing the public order in the bus station. Olmezov himself believed the real reason for his arrest was different.

“The reason, I think, was my stupid mouth and the one person with whom I thoughtlessly shared my plans,” Olmezov wrote in his suicide note. “When they arrested me, I assumed I had lost my freedom forever, and I told the FSB everything I thought about what was going on. It was stupid, but it couldn’t have gone any other way. It was the last thing I could hit them with, and I hit them as hard as I could.”

It wasn’t until a bit later that Ilya Shkredov learned of Olmezov’s arrest; he heard it from his department. “I immediately started looking for him,” said Shkredov. “We couldn’t find him anywhere, though we dug through everything, we called all of the special detention facilities. We thought he was at the Sakharova detention center, but he was at [Matrosskaya Tishina detention center at] Sokolniki.”

“When he was released, he didn’t understand a thing. He’d been isolated for 15 days and he didn’t understand what was going on in the country, how far everything had gone,” said Shredov.

He decided to give Olmezov some time, and for the next two days, he left him alone, searching for a spot in universities abroad for Olmezov in the meantime. Soon enough, he managed to arrange an invitation for Olmezov to the Australian Academy of Science.

I told him, “Konstantin, you need to leave,” said Shkredov. By then, he had more of a grasp on what was happening, and he agreed. He was happy about it. I got the impression that he saw a way out. We discussed how this would be a good thing for his academic career.”

According to Shkredov, the Australian institution helped Olmezov prepare all of the documents necessary for leaving the country. They even gave him money from his grant to pay for a flight to Turkey.

“He was afraid of border control. We tried to calm him down, we told him about other cases where people were allowed to cross the border after administrative arrests. He wasn’t officially prohibited from leaving,” said Shkredov. “We agreed that he would write or call from Istanbul. The last time he called, he was getting the ticket and asking about the airport. He didn’t have a lot of experience traveling abroad, so there was a lot he didn’t know. That’s when we parted: Saturday [March 19].”

To reassure Olmezov, they found him a lawyer, Dmitry Zakhvatov. “We agreed that it wouldn’t make any sense to escort him to the airport. That he would try to get through border control by himself, and if there were any problems, I would come,” Zakhvatov said on Telegram. “We agreed to be in touch.”

On the evening of March 20, Zakhvatov told Meduza, Konstantin Olmezov was supposed to fly to Turkey. But by then he was already dead.

Olmezov wrote in his suicide note that he began thinking about suicide after his administrative arrest. In the detention center, he “made no less than 10 suicide attempts using seven different methods.” “The only thing I dreamed of, sitting there, was to be released so I would have the chance to make one last attempt, with a better chance of success (and I still don’t understand why they ended up releasing me),” wrote Olmezov.

“For me, not being free is worse than death,” he wrote. “There are only two ways to fight against a lack of freedom: rebellion and refusal. Rebellion is when you’ve lived your whole life freely, and then they lock you up, so you start freely choosing what book to read while you’re locked up. The only way I know how to fight is refusal — refusal to be in the unfree situation itself. If someone prevents me from choosing how and where to live, I prefer simply not to live.”

***

“Sociopsychological support service specialists spoke with Konstantin immediately after his release from administrative arrest,” the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology’s press service told Meduza. “His psychological state did not raise concerns, and he strongly assured us that he didn’t need psychological support.”

Meduza was unable to find out when and where Konstantin Olmezov’s funeral will be held. His family has already come to Moscow, and the Institute assured Meduza that the family will receive psychological and logistical support.

“Kostya is gone,” his mother wrote on social media on March 20. “We went to Moscow to pick him up. We won’t be in touch until tomorrow. Find the channel Konstantin and Letters on Telegram. Read everything there.”

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Story by Kristina Safonova

Translation by Sam Breazeale