“Ask him to marry one of us? You’re crazy,” said Inez.
“It’s the perfect solution”, replied Sonya’s sister Anna. “A lot of people are doing it. Women can’t study in Russia. At least the aristocracy can’t. It’s considered improper,” as she rolled her eyes. “But married women can travel.”
“Don’t you see? If one of us gets married, we can both travel to a foreign university to study. When we get there he can go his own way. Strictly a marriage of convenience!”
So the conversation might have gone, in the winter of 1867 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Anna Krukovsky, her sister Sonya, and their friend Inez wanted to be a part of the new revolution among Russia’s young people. They wanted to see freedom, progress, and a rise in the standard of education for women in their country. In the 1860s and 70s, quite a few young Russian women among the aristocracy were leaving their parents homes to study. They did this by marrying young men of like mind, going abroad to study, and then going their separate ways.
Sonya, born in January of 1850 in Russia, was the daughter of Vasily Korvin-Krukovsky and Yelizaveta Shubert both well educated members of the Russian aristocracy. But, they, like most of us, were products of their own time. This dictated that girls were educated in the home and only in certain subjects. Sonya was raised, primarily, by a nursery maids and governesses. The first governess that she recalls in her fictionalized autobiography of her childhood, The Sister’s Rajevsky, was the “abominable French woman.” This woman was sent away when it was discovered that Anna could barely read. She was replaced by a Russian woman who had been living in England and had completely absorbed the English way of life. She brought a much needed discipline into the household. Under this new governess, Sonya discovered her affinity for science and mathematics. Her uncle, Pyotr Vasilievich Krukovsky , spoke about mathematics and it is said that the walls of her bedroom were papered with pages from a book on differential and integral calculus. Even though she didn’t have the background to understand it at the time, mathematics captured Sonya’s imagination. What she learned, however, was strictly controlled in the household. It had to be “proper” for a young woman.
Anna had a flair for literature and had defied the conventions by sending a couple of her stories to St. Petersburg to the attention of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. They had been published and she had been paid. Unfortunately, her father was the first to go through the post on the day her payment arrived, addressed to the housekeeper. He insisted that the housekeeper open it in front of him and explain. Anna was caught. Her father felt betrayed and humiliated, and for a time refused to speak to Anna.
The girls began to work on their mother and eventually were able to convince their parents to hear one of the stories. This resulted in a slight relaxing of restrictions. Anna was allowed to correspond with Dostoyevsky, and they were allowed to order books on various topics. Due to the influence of one of her father’s friends, a tutor was retained to teach Sonya science and mathematics, although, her father still considered it to be an “unusual and unfeminine” area of study. Sonya flourished, but soon reached the extent of what her tutor could teach her. When Sonya began to hint at her desire to go abroad to study her father drew the line and refused to even consider it.
It was after this, during a winter in St. Petersburg, that the girls began their plotting. The girls first approached a young man of the aristocracy with their proposal. He was a young professor at the university and surely would understand. He politely refused, but was sympathetic to their cause and didn’t expose them. This rejection didn’t stifle the girls’ enthusiasm for the idea. There don’t seem to be any romantic ideals attached to the idea. In their minds the proposal was strictly a matter of practicality and therefore the girls didn’t take the rejection personally.
While in their village Palibino, they had made the acquaintance of a young student. The son of the vicar, Vladimir Kovalevsky was a serious young man who studied archeology and geology at the university and wanted to continue his studies in Germany. He had a disagreement with his father over a number of things, including his involvement with the young people in the new movement in St. Petersburg. Because of this, he had moved out of his home, and into a small rented room in the city. In discussing their circle of friends, they decided that Vladimir might be a likely candidate for their plan.
There were many opportunities for the young people to socialize under supervision, so the girls were able to get to know Vladimir. They decided that he would be perfect for their marriage scheme. The three of them approached him at a casual gathering in a friend’s house. To their surprise, he agreed, with one change in the plan. He wanted to marry Sonya.
Although Sonya had often felt unloved, all indications are that the Krukovsky parents loved their children though they may have been somewhat removed. They had been persuaded to allow Anna to write for publication and Sonya to study “unfeminine” subjects, but they were in many ways very conventional. Vladimir was young, but of good birth with a promising career ahead of him, so he would probably have been accepted as a match for Anna. She was 23 at the time, an age where she was a little old to be unmarried. However, Sonya was only 17 and of course the expectation was that the older daughter should be married first. Their father flatly refused to consider the match.
The girls were so determined that Sonya decided to force her father’s hand. One evening when the household was busy preparing for a dinner party and both of the girl’s parents had gone out in the afternoon, Sonya dressed for dinner and slipped out of the house without being seen. She went to Vladimir’s room where he was waiting for her. They waited anxiously for footsteps in the hallway, knowing it wouldn’t take long. Sonya had left a note for her parents. She asked them to forgive her, but to understand that this was what she wanted. She knew that it would be humiliating for them, and that being found alone with Vladimir would require their marriage.
At home, Sonya’s parents had arrived late as expected. When the guests had assembled and the table was set, they noticed that Sonya was missing. Anna told them that she had gone out, and there was a note on her dressing table. After reading the note, their father said nothing, but left the house. When he returned he introduced Sonya’s fiancé to the guests.
The marriage proceeded as planned. The young couple lived in St. Petersburg for six months until Vladimir finished his studies, then moved on to Heidelberg, Germany. Here Sonya was able to study with celebrated mathematicians and scientists of the day. Anna and Inez both eventually joined them. They were able to travel and meet many well-known people, authors as well as scientists.
In her biography of Sonya, Anna Carlotta Leffler describes Sonya as a person who demanded a lot from her close friends and acquaintances. She tended to be jealous of other people and the things in their lives, even of her husband’s work. She says of Sonya that “Her own individuality was far too pronounced to allow her to live in harmony with others.” Sonya threw herself wholeheartedly into new activities such as dancing and horseback riding and gave this same devotion to writing literature and her study of mathematics. This devotion allowed her to become the first woman to be a member of the Russian Academy of Science and the first European woman to become a full professor at a university. This appointment was privately funded at the University of Sweden in 1884.
Although it began as a marriage of convenience with separate living arrangements, Sonya and Vladimir developed a close relationship. They would often walk and talk all day. Eventually, Anna moved to Paris and Inez moved on, leaving the couple alone. They shared great intelligence and devotion to their work. Later, they shared great devotion to their daughter, Foufi. Unfortunately, their life together was short. Vladimir died, Foufi was left with friends in St. Petersburg, and Sonya was alone. She would spend most of the rest of her life this way. To her friends, she seemed to always be searching for something. Perhaps for the acceptance and love that she didn’t feel as a child, and didn’t find in a marriage of convenience.
Sonya Kovalevsky; a biography, and Sisters Rajevsky; being an account of her life by Sonya Kovalevsky by Anna Carlotta Leffler
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen
Notable Women in Mathematics edited by Charlene Morrow and Teri Perl