Sunday, January 17, 2021

Between the house and the stars: the life of Varvara Sokolova who married Konstantin Tsiolkovsky


One day I realised that I had been writing a lot about Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, but it had never occurred to me wonder about his wife or partner. Was she involved in his work? What was her life like?

Most of the sources in English merely mention that he married Varvara Yevgrafovna Sokolova (or Sokolovaya). He met her in the town of Borovsk, 70 miles south of Moscow, where he was a teacher. Varvara is described as the daughter of a local preacher or priest (eg French and Burgess 2007: 21). They got married in Borovsk in 1880 (French and Burgess 2007:21). The number of children reported from their marriage varies from two to seven. This is pretty much all you'll see in most English language sources. 

More frequently, Varvara Sokolova is not mentioned at all or is written out of the story altogether. In the 1957 film 'The Road to the Stars', Tsiolkovsky is represented as a bachelor. He sleeps alone in a single bed. This is an ancient trope where women are associated with the flesh and the weakness of the body, and hence are inimical to rationality and the work of the mind. 

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

Varvara Sokolova was born in 1857 and lived in the town of Borovsk in Kaluga province, with her father Evgraf Nikolayevich Sokolov.  Her mother had died and she had no siblings. Probably, after leaving school, Sokolova kept house for her father. They lived by the Protva river. According to Anatoly Zak, Borovsk was a provincial backwater, with 
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.  
It was also a stronghold of Old Believers, and Varvara's father was an Old Believer priest (Shubin 2016:25). These were people who rejected the changes made by the Patriarch Nikon to the rituals and liturgy of the Orthodox Church in the mid-1600s, and continued to practice the old rites. While Old Believers were initially persecuted, Catherine the Great passed an Act in 1762 allowing them to practice freely, although they could not work in the civil service until 1905 when Tsar Nicholas II introduced an Act of religious freedom. 

It's likely that a priest did not earn much. To supplement their income, the Sokolovs rented out rooms in their house on the river. 

The town of Borovsk (image from Wikipedia)

Varvara completed high school, but does not seem to have trained for any profession. At 22, she was living with her father when Tsiolkovsky (also born in 1857) arrived in 1880 to take up a teaching post. He needed somewhere to live and he wanted to be by the river. 

Aleksandr Romanovich Belyaev, a science fiction writer know as 'Russia's Jules Verne',  recorded interviews with Varvara later in her life. She described the young man who would propose to her and the day of the wedding  (Shubin 2016: 234):

This is Tsiolkovsky's account of the marriage:

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.
Tsiolkovsky promised Varvara a life full of hard work with few social pleasures. He refused a dowry, saying his earnings would be enough for them to live on. Soon after marrying, they moved from Varvara's father's house to their own place in Borovsk. It cannot have been a boring life. The young married couple may not have held parties, but visitors regularly came to the house to look at Tsiolkovsky's toys and experiments, which brought him a level of notoriety. According to Tsiolkovsky, 
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.
Presumably Varvara saw her father regularly and perhaps she attended church. In 1881, she gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Lyubov, meaning 'love'. This may have represented the intensity of feeling that this tiny being evoked in them, as it does not seem to have been a symbol of their marriage. Lyubov was two years old when her brother Ignaty was born in 1883. Two more sons followed, Alexander in 1885 and Ivan in 1888. Eight years after their marriage, Varvara was managing a household with a laboratory and four children, and with several house moves in between as well.

The Kaluga years 

In 1892, Tsiolkovsky took up a new teaching position in the provincial capital city of Kaluga (French and Burgess 2007:21).  In one of their early houses in Kaluga, Tsiolkovsky built one of the first wind tunnels in Russia in 1897 for aerodynamic experiments (Gorbushin and Volobuyev 2014). The scientific installations in all of the Tsiolkovsky households must have provided a backdrop for the children to dream and imagine, and a project for Varvara to manage as she went about the day's duties of cleaning, cooking, washing and child rearing.

After initially living in town, Eduard and Varvara took a log house on the outskirts of the city in 1905. After this there were no more house moves; the family stayed in the same house until 1933.

According to Anatoly Zak at Russian Space Web, the house was a two story wooden cottage which was purchased in 1905. It has a small garden. Inside, it had white walls and simple wooden furniture.  A large chimney on the ground floor was covered in traditional decorated Russian tiles. From the hallway, there was a steep staircase (later dubbed the 'space stairway' by visiting cosmonauts). It led to a trapdoor. On the other side was his workroom and laboratory. Elena Timoshenkova, a granddaughter of Tsiolkovsky and Varvara, told Zak that 
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

Life continued to be austere, as Tsiolkovsky spent all his money on furthering his research. As Belyaev says, 'The amount of his income that he dedicated to his experiments was a sacrifice he made on behalf of heaven' (Shubin 2016:235). In one account, Tsiolkovsky divided his salary in half, giving Varvara one half for the children and household and keeping the rest to finance his experiments. As the number of children grew, making ends meet must have been a challenge for Varvara.

Three more children followed in Kaluga: Leontiy in 1892, Maria in 1894, Anna in 1897. Now there were seven children (but we don't know about miscarriages, stillbirths or other children who did not survive).  Lyubov was 11 when they moved to Kaluga, and 16 by the time Anna was born. In different ways, it seems all the children were co-opted into being spectators, helpers and servants in their father's pursuit of the stars. The children all attended local schools. When Lyubov completed school, she studied to become a teacher like her father. She also acted as her father's secretary. An unknown source  describes Varvara and Lyubov as 'his first and faithful helpers'. 

Leontiy lived for just a year. He was the first child in the family to die, in August 1893, on his birthday it seems. Ivan and Anna were also 'sickly', a commonly-used term for children who were constantly ill and did not thrive.  This could mean respiratory illnesses, or even tuberculosis. 

Tsiolkovsky was very pleased by Ignaty who was interested in maths and physics. Lyubov, in her memoirs, says that Ignaty was very aware of how the family was struggling financially, and started to earn money when he was 16. Ignaty worked every summer as a tutor to save enough money to support his own university studies. While at university in Moscow in 1902, he committed suicide by taking potassium cyanide. He sent the remainder of the money to his father, who gave it to Lyubov so she could continue her studies to become a teacher. Tsiolkovsky blamed himself for the death (Costin 2020) but there is no record of how Varvara felt about the death of a second child.

Ivan had some chronic condition from childhood. He completed school, and studied accounting, but his illness made him incapable of work. Instead, according to Lyubov, he helped Varvara with the household chores; perhaps this was the first time the children's labour was diverted to help her rather than their father. But Ivan also became his father's lackey along with Lyubov. He ran errands to the post office and the printers, proof-read, and helped with experiments. Tsiolkovsky wrote that he 'was an active and meek employee of my family' (Kostin 2020). 

As the eldest, Lyubov was immediately drawn into her father's work, becoming an assistant and secretary. She was no doormat, though. In 1911, when she was 30, she was arrested for revolutionary activities. Her memoirs must have much more detail, but clearly she was released and able to return to her family. 

In a letter to Maria, Anna gave a snapshot of daily life in the Kaluga house in the spring of 1914. 'In our house, as always after dinner, silence. Dad sleeps in the dining room. Mum in the middle room by a window embroiders on a hoop'. In 1915, she wrote "Dad reads, Mum is standing by a couch in the middle [room] and talking to me, textbooks are open on the table around me, we just had dinner' (Kostin 2020). It was a quiet, domestic scene, even as events hurtled towards revolution and civil war.

The Russian Revolution, from the abolition of the monarchy in 1917 to the establishment of the Soviet republic in 1923, brought more hardship to the family. The disruption of food production and distribution caused by the Revolution led to widespread hunger culminating in the famine of 1921-1922. Ivan died in 1919 of food poisoning from bad sauerkraut. 

The tragedies continued. There was not enough money for Alexander to go to university so he studied to become a teacher. He married, moved to the Ukraine, and committed suicide in 1923 (Costin 2020). Anna had married a Communist party member in 1920, but became ill with tuberculosis and died at the age of 24. 

Maria became a teacher, married, and went to live in a village near Kaluga. During the civil war, she and her husband sent assistance to Tsiolkovsky and Varvara. In 1929, Maria and her family moved in with her parents to help them. She took over the financial and household management, as well as raising her six children (Kostin 2020). The house was filled with children again, but this time Varvara was not bearing most of the burden herself. A photo which is sometimes presented as Tsiolkovsky with Varvara and the children is more likely to be Maria and her six children, taken during this period..

Varvara, Eduard and Maria's family. Image courtesy of Science Photo Library.

Tsiolkovsky and Varvara lived in the wooden house until 1933, when they were given a newly repaired house by the Kaluga Soviet (Maksimov 2007:327). Maria moved to the new house too with Lyubov to manage the finances, visitors and enquiries. 

After Tsiolkovsky's death in 1935 at the age of 78, Varvara was awarded a substantial government pension. Perhaps now she had money to spend on herself for the first time in her married life.  But the shades of war were gathering over Europe. Varvara died in 1940 (Shubin 2016:233) so she missed the invasion of Kaluga. The Soviet army were forced to retreat and Kaluga fell to the Nazis on October 13 1941. Less than three months later they were expelled, but not before burning many houses in their retreat. Fortunately, the Tsiolkovsky house on the edge of town survived.

Representing Varvara

In the biographical information, there seems to be an investment in Varvara being a simple Russian housewife with few interests. Belyaev notes that she had completed high school, but expressed herself in 'elementary' language. He further says Tsiolkovsky's work was 'interesting to her, a novelty' (Shubin 2016: 235). Perhaps there are other interpretations to be derived, however. In Belyaev's quotes, cited in Shubin 2016, Varvara seems much more perceptive and humorous (see below). Belyaev also says that the entire family was included in Tsiolkovsky's space aspirations, and he discussed his research with Varvara (Shubin 2016: 235). She offered advice and was clearly engaged with his work, much more than a mere domestic servant.

In a eulogy for Tsiolkovsky written by Belyaev five years after and in the year of Varvara's death,  Varvara is described as his 'faithful companion' as if she were a dog. Belyaev said, 
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).
This is a nice acknowledgement that the 'lone genius' did not exist in a vacuum; despite the privations of their life, Tsiolkovsky's capacity to create was supported by the hard work of Varvara and the devotion of the children. The family portrait (above) shows Vavara as careworn and dour, a diminutive figure swamped by husband and grandchildren. Her life is unremarkable for a woman of her time, expected to subordinate her identity to the needs of others.  

The contrast between male and female, Heaven and Earth, and body and mind were also appealing to commentators on their life. As Belyaev said, 
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)
Any intellectual contribution that Varvara may have made is elided in the element of drama provided by this contrast. But perhaps we can see her influence at places in his work. In one of his discussions about life in a microgravity space habitat, he mentions that women's skirts might be impractical as they would float up; and he talks about how awful conditions in the latrines would be. Perhaps these snippets came from dinner time conversations, Varvara offering her thoughts with the wry humour we see in her oral history with Belyaev. If so, Tsiolkovsky was impressed enough with her insights to include them in his book.

A dispassionate life

Although Tsiolkovsky was determined not to be distracted by sex and passion, most of the sources I have cited above lead one to believe that there was still much love and respect in the family. A different story is told by Michael Hagemeister:
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). 
The sources for this are 'Tsiolkovsky's autobiographical recordings, held in the archive of the Academy of Sciences, as well as a personality study, written in 1937 by the famous neurologist Samuil Blinkov' (Hagemeister 2011: 36). More of the autobiography is quoted here
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

Varvara is not silent or forgotten. The artist Anna Hoetjes made a film installation in 2018 for which Varvara was the narrator. In an interview, Hoetjes said:
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. 


Costin, A.V. 2020 Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky. A Short Biography.

French, Francis and Colin Burgess 2007 Into that silent sea: trailblazers of the space era 1961-1965. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press

Gainor, Chris 2008 To a Distant Day. The Rocket Pioneers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press

Gorbushin, Anton and Valery S. Volobuyev 2014 The first aerodynamic balances in Russia. AIAA

Hagemeister, Michael 2011 The Conquest of Space and the Bliss of the Atoms: Konstantin Tsiolkovskii. In  Eva Maurer, Julia Richers, Monica Rüthers and Carmen Scheide (eds) Soviet Space Culture. Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies. Palgrave MacMillan pp 26-41

Hagemeister, Michael 1997 Russian Cosmism in the 1920s and today. In Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, ed. The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture., pp 185-202.  Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press

Maksimov, A.J. 2007 150th anniversary of K.E. Tsiolkovsky. Founder of Cosmonautics. Thermophysics and Aeromechanics 14(3): 317-328

Shubin, Daniel H. 2016 Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky. The Pioneering Rocket Scientist and His Cosmic Philosophy. New York: Algora Publishing