Sofia KovalevskayaMacTutor Index

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Teen Years

The opportunities open to young Russian women during this period were somewhat limited by the fact that unless they were married they could not work, study or live outwith the family home without the permission of their fathers. As Sofia reached an age where she became more anxious than ever to leave in the pursuit of education, her sister Anuita began to feel a similar desire to leave home in order to study the art of writing. She even sent samples of her work at this time to the great Fedor Dostoevsky, who was impressed enough to send her an encouraging reply and to publish one of her stories in his journal, Epoch. This was to be the beginning of a lifelong relationship between the novelist and the two sisters. Sofia and Anuita increasingly began to see marriage as the only way of achieving their goal, and became deeply interested in the Russian nihilist movement whose followers believed in equality, freedom of marriage and divorce, and the right to further education for all. These beliefs led some of the female followers of this movement to enter into fictitious marriages with their male counterparts. The idea behind this being that as married women they would be allowed to leave the family home and even go abroad where the now married couple could lead separate lives if they so wished. This led the sisters to attempt to find such a partnership for Anuita which would in turn allow Sofia to leave under her guardianship. It soon became clear that Sofia would be the easier of the two to find a partner for as she had the more obvious ability of the two. It was due to this fact that at the age of eighteen, Sofia found herself married to publisher and palaeontologist Vladimir Kovalevsky and living in St. Petersburg.

The marriage was destined to end unhappily almost from the beginning due to the fact that both parties entered into it with very different expectations. Vladimir, who most agree was in love with Sofia from the outset of their union, hoped that love and intimacy would follow their marriage. Sofia on the other hand had a much more hollow view of the concept of their partnership. Sofia's friend, Elizabeth Litvinova, would later write that she felt the General could have been persuaded to allow her to go abroad without resorting to marriage. Given the misery which Vladimir and Sofia would later cause one another, it is certainly a pity that this did not come to pass. In the early months of her marriage however, Sofia was thrilled to enjoy both the freedoms and respect afforded to a married woman.

At this time she continued to receive tuition from Strannoliubsky who took a great interest in her future, as well as lessons in chemistry, physiology and anatomy due to her desire to become a physician. She soon realised that this was not the correct path for her however as she found anatomy incredibly dull, and instead decided to focus on her mathematics, writing to Anuita that,

I have become convinced that one cannot learn everything and one life is barely sufficient to accomplish what I can in my chosen field.9

In 1869 Sofia, Vladimir and Anuita would leave St. Petersburg and end up in Heidelberg with Sofia having been told in Vienna that she could attend physics lectures but none in mathematics. Here she was able to attend physics lectures with Gustav Kirchhoff, physiology lectures with Hermann von Helmholtz, and mathematics lectures with Paul Du Bois-Reymond and Leo Königsberger. Sofia was allowed to attend these classes only because the individual lecturers concerned gave their permission. With this precedent having been set, Sofia's good friend Julia Lermontova was also allowed to attend lectures, and thanks to some persuasion by Sofia she was even allowed into the laboratory of the woman-hating Bunsen. During these early stages of their marriage, Sofia and Vladimir travelled a great deal and met many interesting people including George Eliot. Within a relatively short time Charles Darwin would consider Vladimir to be the outstanding Russian in the field of evolutionary science.


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Leigh Ellison May 2002