Was there more to her story? Of course I am somewhat hampered by lack of access to the Russian literature, but it turns out there are quite a few resources in translation, as well as scholarly work. All the same, we have to read Varvara Sokolova into the spaces of the house and the gaps in the narratives which centre around her husband. Seeing her is a work of feminist enquiry.
Old Believers in Borovsk
a reputation as a town of truck farmers and traders, whose drunken fistfights and belief in witchcraft made them the laughingstock of the neighboring towns.
|The town of Borovsk (image from Wikipedia)|
It was time to marry, and I married without love, hoping that such a wife would not turn me around, would work, and would not prevent me from doing the same. This hope was justified. Such a friend could not drain my strength: firstly, she did not attract me, and secondly, she herself was indifferent and unemotional. So she retained strength and ability to mental activity until she was old. I attached only practical value to marriage. We went to marry for four miles, on foot, did not dress up, did not let anyone into the church. Then returned - and no one knew anything about our marriage. On the wedding day, I bought a lathe from a neighbor and cut glass for electric cars.
In my house, electric lightning flashed, thunders rang, bells rang, paper dolls danced ... Visitors admired and marveled at the electric octopus, which grabbed everyone with its feet by its nose or fingers, and then it got hair stood on end and sparks popped up from any part of the body. As if alive, he wandered from room to room, following the air currents, rising and falling.
The Kaluga years
His children knew when this door was closed, nobody could go upstairs to bother him. He was very strict with his children, but became much softer with the grandchildren.
|The Tsiolkovsky 'log cabin' in Kaluga. |
Image courtesy of https://www.artstation.com/artwork/e0AQKZ
|Varvara, Eduard and Maria's family. Image courtesy of Science Photo Library.|
Her death forces us to remember the private and family life of the Tsiolkovskys, which is very informative. Much depended on his personal life, including so much of his scientific work. His family home was also his study, office, laboratory and workshop' (Shubin 2016: 233).
She was concerned with domestic matters and daily chores, while at the same time her husband lived in outer space among the stars (Shubin 2016:234)
A dispassionate life
Tsiolkovskii’s private life was grey and monotonous. He described his choice of wife, Varvara Evgrafovna Sokolova, the daughter of a priest, as ‘unfortunate’ (neudachno) and their offspring as ‘deplorable’ (pechal’nye). The children were sick and two sons committed suicide. Tsiolkovskii fled from the depressing confinement, the feeling of humiliation and material worries into his world of inventions and creations and into the dreams of flying and eternal human happiness. On the other hand, he was indifferent towards his family, as long as they did not disturb his work. In his youth, he already regarded himself as a genius (‘I am such a great man as has never been before, nor will ever be’). (Hagemeister 2008:28)Tsiolkovsky had an ideal of married life, but reality did not align with it through the unfortunate fact that women are human and men are too:
The biblical ‘legend’ of the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary was also interpreted by Tsiolkovskii as an ‘ideal of the future woman, who will provide children, but will not be subject to animal passions’ (Hagemeister 2011:31).
Was it good: marriage life without love? Is marriage just enough respect? Who gave himself to higher goals is good for that. But he sacrifices his happiness and even the happiness of the family. I did not understand the latter then. But then it showed up. From such marriages, children are not healthy, successful and joyful, and all my life I lamented the tragic fate of children.
I put the blessing of the family and loved ones on the forefront. All for high. I did not drink, did not smoke, did not spend a single extra penny on myself: for example, on clothes. I was always almost starving, poorly dressed. I moderated mysefl in everything to the last degree. My family also suffered with me ... I was often annoyed and maybe made the life of others difficult, nervous.
In this passage, he acknowledges that the austere and passionless marriage he embraced was not a recipe for either his happiness, or that of Varvara and the children. I don't think we should be expecting a coherent or consistent view, though; and perhaps we can't also assume that Varvara experienced anything in the way Eduard imagined.
Despite his apparent belief that sexual passion sapped the intellect, Tsiolkovsky clearly was not willing to forgo the experience. Contraception was not an option in 19th century Russia. The ages of the Tsiolkovsky children indicate that the couple had an active sex life from the time of their marriage in 1880 for at least sixteen years afterwards. Tsiolkovsky pretended that neither he nor Varvara were interested, but clearly at least one of them was. We don't know what Varvara thought, but Tsiolkovsky's inner conflicts must have been another aspect of her complex tasks of household and laboratory management, along with the sick and depressed children. It was a hard life indeed.
How much of Tsiolkovsky's views about relationships and sex were shaped by his Cosmism? Tsiolkovsky was already a Cosmist by the time he arrived in Borovsk, having been influenced by Nikolai Federov who worked in the library where Tsiolkovsky spent most of his time in Moscow. Fedorov had an idea about 'positive chastity', which was 'the redirection of sexual energy towards the restoration of life to the dead' (Hagemeister 1997:193). The seven Tsiolkovsky children are firm evidence that Tsiolkovsky did not embrace this idea to the extent that Federov disciple Alexander Gorsky, who did not consummate his marriage, did.
But my aim here is not to get bogged down in Russian cosmism; I'm only interested in it to the degree Tsiolkovsky's beliefs affected Varvara's life. Clearly there is much more to be explored here.
Eyes in the Sky
Hardly any information can be found on her. My interest wasn’t so much to reconstruct her real life, but rather to create a fictional life for her. To introduce her as an authority, an eye witness, an explorer, adventurer and pioneer. To let her act out the hypothetical theories of her husband, who no doubt relied on his wife’s labour in some way or another while creating his visions. People who see Eyes in the Sky often assume that Varvara’s narrative is based on existing diaries or interviews, no matter how far fetched, fictional and body-horrific her experiences in my piece are.
She explains further:
The fact that women carried out endless calculations at the beginning of the 20th century, but were never included in the fantasy of an actual space journey, became so problematic for me that I started designing my own female space pioneer. In this work the wife of the 'Kosmist' and space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Varvara, is the first person to travel into space, where she leave behind her eyes.
|Still from Eyes in the Sky by Anna Hoetjes, 2018.|
As a feminist space scholar, my job is to interrogate the deeper story behind commonly accepted accounts. This is only a start: if only Lyubov's memoir were translated! I'd also like to re-read Tsiolkovsky's works to find more traces of Varvara. No doubt I have got much wrong in this account. All the same, the first step has been taken simply by centring Varvara in the story. Taking inspiration from Anna Hoetjes' work, I imagine evenings when Varvara escaped outside the house to gaze at the stars and dream her own dreams.