[NB Vasiliev]

Kolya Vassiliev (centre) with his two close colleagues, AB Sossinsky (left) and NN Konstantinov (right) at Sossinsky's Moscow apartment in 1994.

Obituary: NB Vassiliev (1940-1998)

Nikolai Borisovich Vassiliev, Kolya to his numerous friends, died of a brain tumor in a Moscow hospital on May 28, 1998. By profession, Kolya was a research mathematician (he worked practically all his life in I.M. Gelfand's famous biology and mathematics laboratory at Moscow University), but he will be best remembered as one of the best olympiad problem solvers and problem composers of all time.

As a problem solver, he was second to none in his generation. Even when he was in his forties and fifties, the speed, depth and elegance of his solutions placed him at least at an equal level with the best performers in the next generations -- Dima Fomin of Saint Petersburg, Sergei Konyagin and Sasha Razborov of Moscow, Maxim Kontsevich of Moscow and Paris, Andy Liu of Edmonton. Yet, strangely enough, Kolya Vassiliev had no official achievements in math problem solving contests; in fact, he never actually participated in any. His interest in problem solving (and indeed more generally in mathematics) arose rather late and, in a sense, accidentally, when he was about to graduate from high school, a specialized school for future musicians. Until then, his main interest had been music, and his intention was to enter the Moscow Conservatory in order to study the piano and/or the theory of music. However, he had medical problems with the joints of his fingers, which hampered the prospects of a career as a concert pianist. He began to lose interest in the theory of music because of ``the huge amount of boring details'' it involved, and so Kolya finally abandoned the idea of a career in music just before graduation. He then began preparing for the entrance exams to Moscow University, which included written and oral tests in mathematics, a subject that he had previously neglected. It was his good fortune to be advised by an excellent mathematics teacher, I.Kh. Sivashinski, who discerned Kolya's exceptional mathematical talent and convinced him to apply for the Mechanics and Mathematics Faculty of Moscow University, where his talent blossomed.

Kolya's love of music was never suppressed by his mathematical activities: he was an excellent amateur pianist, an assiduous concert goer, and, most important, the artistic and aesthetic aspect of his personality permeated his work as a composer, compiler, and style editor of mathematics olympiad problems. There is no doubt that Kvant magazine and the Tournament of Towns were extremely fortunate to profit, for decades, from the fact that their problem sections were headed by a person combining the depth of a high class research mathematician with the brilliant aesthetic character of a composer of music. For Kolya himself, the most rewarding period of his activity as a chooser and editor of problems was 1967--1979 (which may be called the golden era of Russian olympiads), when he presided the Methodological Commission of the All-Union Olympiad of the USSR, either de jure or de facto.

The choice of problems and of their final formulation, both in Kvant and in the Tournament of Towns, was always the result of considerable (sometimes heated) discussion. We feel that Nikolai Vassiliev's credo in these matters was best expressed in one of these discussions: when one of us asked him why he was so vehemently against the inclusion of a certain problem, Kolya answered: "How does a composer decide whether to make a new melody available to the public or to throw it into the waste basket? He assesses if the melody will be true gift, if it will give joy to the listener. If not, it is best to forget about it. I choose mathematics problems in the same way."

Kolya Vassiliev was always a mild, soft-spoken, unassuming person, never raising his voice in anger or irritation, never complaining about the vicissitudes of the life of an underpaid scientist in Moscow. To be in his company in or around the university, or to visit his large bedroom-living room, crowded with overflowing bookshelves, two pianos and ancient furniture, with its striking view of the Kremlin, was always a pleasure and a meaningful intellectual experience.

On all important issues, he was a person who stood firmly for high ethical principles, whether this was to his personal advantage or not. In his work ethics concerning mathematics problems, he was inflexible, and would not rest until the best problems were chosen and their best formulations and solutions had been worked out. In this activity he in fact created a specific style in contest problem formulation: the problems must be natural and attractive, they should involve a minimum of professional mathematical jargon and logical formalization, and yet be unambiguous and rigorously stated. This style has now become the prevailing tradition in many places, but we should not forget that Nikolai Vassiliev, more than anyone else, was its creator.

Besides the style, there is also the substance, what a person leaves behind after he is gone from this world. In that respect, Nikolai Vassiliev's legacy is exceptional: besides the numerous problems authored and solved personally, there are those that he selected and edited for Kvant magazine (over a thousand!), for the Tournament of Towns, for the Moscow Math Olympiad and for the All-Union Olympiad; he is the co-author of five olympiad problem books. Kolya was the person who convinced us that the Tournament of Towns should become international and played a leading role in implementing this idea, not an easy task when Soviet Russia was still behind the iron curtain. He is also, in a sense, the main author of the subject-matter of the three previous volumes in the Tournament of Towns series, as well as of the present volume.

A.A. Egorov, N.N. Konstantinov, A.B. Sossinsky
September 1998