World Braille Day is on 4 January. On this day, at St Petersburg University, we commemorate Vladimir I. Zubov, mathematician and mechanic, founder of the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Control Processes, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Like Louis Braille, Vladimir Zubov was born sighted. Unlike the French educator, who lost his sight at the age of five, the future mathematician became blind at the age of 14 in an accidental ammunition explosion. Yet, truly outstanding personalities cannot be stopped by the obstacles that may break down other people.

Louis Braille constructed a system of tactile code inspired by the military cryptography of French Army Captain Charles Barbier de la Serre, who had invented a system of ‘night writing’ to read reports in the dark. Each letter in Barbier’s code was represented by two columns of dots and as many as twelve dots would be needed to represent one symbol. It was too complex to use in its original form, as you had to move your finger not only horizontally, but also vertically. Braille reduced the number of dot positions from 12 in 2 columns to 6 in 2 columns, which was easier to scan with the fingers.

The French educator used a code invented by the military for civilian purposes – to teach the blind and visually impaired. More than a century later, Vladimir Zubov, who mastered Braille, taught the sighted at the university and actively participated in the military research. Both Braille and Zubov gained recognition for their achievements – two space bodies were named in honour of the French educator and the Russian scientist – asteroid 9969 Braille and asteroid 10 022 Zubov.

In November 2018, the UN General Assembly decided to proclaim 4 January as World Braille Day in recognition that promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms in the context of access to written language is a critical prerequisite to the full realisation of human rights for blind and partially sighted people.


Born and raised in the Moscow region, Vladimir Zubov moved to Leningrad to attend a school for the blind and partially sighted and to continue his schooling. Here his talent was revealed: he became the winner of mathematical Olympiad for high school students. In 1949, he entered Leningrad State University (now  St Petersburg University). He graduated in four years, having successfully completed the five-year specialist degree programme. Two years after graduation, he defended his dissertation and was awarded a degree of Candidate of Physics and Mathematics, and five years later he became a Doctor of Physics and Mathematics.

Vladimir Zubov made a great contribution to the development of the qualitative theory of differential equations, the theory of rigid body motion, the optimal control theory, and the theory of electromagnetic fields. He led the development of a wide range of issues related to the theory of control systems, such as questions of motion stability, nonlinear oscillations in control systems, navigation and reliability of control devices, vibration theory, and quantisation of orbits. He published over 170 research papers, including 20 monographs and textbooks, three of which were translated into English and French. 20 doctoral dissertations and about 100 candidate’s theses were defended under his supervision.

It was due to Vladimir Zubov’s efforts that the following organisational units were established consecutively at the University: the Laboratory of Theory of Control Devices and Mechanisms; the Department of Control Theory; the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Control Processes; and the Research Institute of Computational Mathematics and Control Processes.

A specialised computer for people with visual impairments has been installed in the reading room of the M. Gorky Scientific Library of St Petersburg University, located at 7, 22nd Line, Vasilyevsky Island, St Petersburg. The computer is equipped with a Braille keyboard and headphones. The special software enables you to enlarge the image on the monitor, while a text-to-speech reader can turn printed material into spoken word: the Lenovo IdeaCentre C540 23-inch All-in-One Computer with the Focus 40 Blue keyboard –Portable Braille Display with Wireless Bluetooth connection.                

No one could tell us more about Vladimir Zubov than his teachers, classmates, associates and students. Their prose sketches were published in the collection ‘Vladimir Ivanovich Zubov in the memoirs of contemporaries’ (the collection is available to the general public).

Oleg Malafeyev, Doctor of Physics and Mathematics, Professor, Head of the Department at the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Control Processes at St Petersburg University:

‘Vladimir’s academic record for the sixth grade was full of Cs. The country was still at war and getting straight As at school was not the most important thing, but surviving despite starvation and cold was. Three years later, having already lost his sight, he took part in the Leningrad Math Olympiad for tenth graders and surprised members of the jury. He even raised their suspicion. The jury for the Olympiad included: Grigorii Fichtenholz; Isidor Natanson; Solomon Mikhlin; and other famous mathematicians. No sooner had all the ten test problems been read than Vladimir raised his hand and told the jury the complete solutions of the problems. He was offered extra tasks, which he also solved correctly straightaway.’

Rem Barantsev, Doctor of Physics and Mathematics, Professor of St Petersburg University:

‘In September 1949, some of the first-year students from the Mathematics and Mechanics Faculty at Leningrad State University were put in a large auditorium on the second floor in the left wing of the University building in the 10th Line, Vasilyevsky Island. My neighbours there were two blind students: Ivan Pasechnik and Vladimir Zubov. To my surprise, neither looked unhappy. They coped with everyday challenges without fuss, quickly punched the lecture notes and read them just as quickly, running their fingers along the lines. My sympathy quickly turned into respect... In the 4th year of study, he overtook everyone and graduated ahead of schedule. He then began his scientific career.’

Dmitrii Kuzmenkov, a reserve colonel, Candidate of Engineering, senior research associate:

‘From my first meeting with Vladimir Zubov, I was wondering how, being profoundly blind, he managed to live fully and independently? But then I realised that he has an extraordinary inner vision of the world around us. His lack of visual perception was compensated by heightened senses of touch and hearing and even echolocation. Vladimir had an extraordinary memory for the dynamics of time and current events. He could travel on his own by tram from the hall of residence to the Faculty and he freely navigated the Faculty building. He would go shopping alone or to a pharmacy, or to the dairy kitchen for milk and kefir.’

Lidiia Novozhilova, Candidate of Physics and Mathematics, Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Control Processes at St Petersburg University:

‘I remember a friend of mine asked him: “Vladimir Ivanovich! You are such a talented and versatile person. What would have become of you if you were sighted?” Zubov laughingly replied: “An ordinary street thug.”’

Ronald Nelepin, Doctor of Engineering, Professor of the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Control Processes at St Petersburg University:

‘In those years, it was not easy to establish a new faculty at the University. Many negotiations and consents were required. First, the consent by the regional committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), then the Resolution of the Central Committee of the CPSU and of the Council of Ministers. Meanwhile, the Dean of the Mathematics and Mechanics Faculty and the head of the science department of the regional committee of the CPSU opposed the idea. Then Kirill Kondratyev and Vladimir Zubov turned to the Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Pyotr Demichev, who supported them. It took much effort and several trips to Moscow to settle various issues. It also required a Resolution of the Political Bureau of the CPSU Central Committee. Finally, in 1969, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union Alexei Kosygin signed a Decree of the Soviet Government on the establishment of the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Control Processes. By the way, it was Academician Valentin Novozhilov who suggested that ‘Control Processes’ be added to the name of the Faculty.

In 1971, a Research Institute of Computational Mathematics and Control Processes at Leningrad State University was established by a government decree. Additionally, a Faculty for Advanced Retraining of Engineers in relevant fields was set up... Experts and researchers from the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Control Processes and the Research Institute of Computational Mathematics and Control Processes collaborated with nine of the defence ministries of the USSR (shipbuilding, aircraft construction, etc.) and with seven branches of the armed forces. Vladimir Zubov and his closest associates were research supervisors in the most important projects.’

Iurii Aleshkov, Doctor of Physics and Mathematics, Professor, Head of the Department at the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Control Processes at St Petersburg University:

‘The idea to set up a faculty of applied mathematics goes back to 1957, when Zubov began teaching a seminar on the theory of control processes. In 1962, at his initiative, at the Computing Centre of Leningrad State University, the Laboratory of Theory of Control Devices and Mechanisms was set up. 10 years later, in 1972, the Department of Control Theory was established. Vladimir Zubov was awarded the USSR State Prize for a series of research papers on the automatic control theory.

Zubov realised that the needs of industrial development, the outer space and ocean exploration required the establishment of an academic and research centre for applied mathematics and control processes....

He set the task of introducing computational applied mathematics both in related fields (mechanics, astronomy) and in the humanities. In carrying out these tasks, the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Control Processes grew and developed.’

Leon Petrosyan, Doctor of Physics and Mathematics, Professor, Dean of the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Control Processes at St Petersburg University:

‘Vladimir Zubov’s defence-related works were highly valued by general designers. Therefore, he was well known in the Section of Applied Problems of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union... So, it was decided to contact the leadership of the Section of Applied Problems of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow in order to receive commissions of research projects for the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Control Processes. The following week we left for Moscow. The whole trip took one day. At 11 o’clock we arrived at the Section of Applied Problems. Without delay we were received by the senior leadership of the Section. We were shown a card index with topics and offered to sign up for the projects that suggested the use of methods of applied mathematics. We signed up for 26 projects that were to be implemented by government decrees.’

Viktor Shishkin, Doctor of Science (Medicine), Head of the Department at the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Control Processes at St Petersburg University:

‘While visiting him at home, I saw a stream of visitors: students, associates, post-graduate students, professors and scientists from different parts of the country. To my knowledge, Vladimir never refused to receive a person and he would always do his best to support a visitor who needs help. Unlike some scientific leaders, he was not afraid of his colleagues’ professional advancement and he always supported their science aspirations. During the time I knew him, many of his associates worked on dissertations, defended them and became doctors of sciences and professors.

Like all people of such a high calibre, Vladimir Zubov, was a complex person. At times, he could be intransigent. He would always firmly defend his position, but at the same time he managed to create a positive and encouraging environment that promoted scientific research.’