©1998, Joan Saberhagen

A Summary of The Letters of Sofia Vasilevna Kovalevskaia

as translated by Joan Saberhagen from the 1961 edition of S. Ia. Shtraikh's VOSPOMINANIIA I PIS'MA (ViP)


Eighty-eight letters will form the backbone of the book. The letters are concerned with three areas of SVK's life: mathematics, literature, and politics. The letters show SVK's participation in these areas as well as her role as a conduit between European and Russian ideas in each of these areas. It is difficult to classify a letter as falling into one of the three main categories as SVK often addresses more than one area in the same letter. A narrative which will include excerpts from additional letters authored by SVK and her friends is planned as connecting tissue for the story these 88 letters tell.


BEFORE SVK's MARRIAGE (Letters 1-12, Mar 1867 - Sep 1868):

Letters addressed to her cousin S. Adelung, her future husband V.O. Kovalevskii (VOK), her sister Anyuta (AVK), her mother.

This section of letters covers the period from the end of Anyuta's romantic involvement with Dostoevskii (March 1867) until SVK's fictitious marriage (Sept 1868). This section picks up SVK's biography approximately at the time SVK's novella RECOLLECTIONS OF CHILDHOOD leaves off.

The young, eighteen year old, SVK, is handling many volatile situations.

She cultivates her deep interest in the natural sciences. She arranges a fictitious marriage. She maintains her strong attachment to Anyuta under difficult circumstances. She keeps her relationship to her father and mother more or less in tact while defying their wishes.

SVK enthusiastically relates her work with her first microscope.##SVK is translating Darwin from English for her fiancee.She speaks of studying chemistry and math. Friends mentioned will become leaders in science, the women's movement and political movements. Warm feelings between SVK and her fictitious husband to be Vladimir O. Kovalevskii (VOK) are evident.##Search for husband for Anyuta goes on. SVK is studying math. She wants to study in Heidelberg. ##SVK looks forward to new life of study.##SVK fears she will not strength for life of self denial. She is studying math, physiology, and chemistry. She works on translations from English. She looks forward to her future life.## Brief note to her mother.##SVK discusses efforts for Anyuta's future. SVK describes the ability of math to carry her away from everyday problems.##SVK assures her sister all will work out for both of them.##SVK expresses concern for her servants and local peasants. She's been involved with their medical care.##SVK is studying the structure of the eye. She and her father are not on good terms. She speaks of wanting to become a doctor. She's working on translations from English and from German. She encourages VOK to study math.##A fictitious marriage between Anyuta and the physiologist Sechenov is being considered.##SVK describes her Petersburg apartment. She is meeting with Sechenov's group and with a prominent literary editor. Her math lessons are continuing. She will need to take the gymnasium exam in preparation for going abroad. She describes the plans to attend lectures. The letters show SVK has been well prepared in languages, history, literature and other areas of a cultivated lady of higher society. She has been provided with scientific and mathematical tutors. She is strongly self motivated in mathematics and science.

These letters are approximately 7115 words long.


SCHOOL IN PETERSBURG (Letters 13-16 Sep 1868 - Mar 1869)

Letters addressed to SVK's sister Anyuta and SVK's friend Iulia Lermontova.

SVK describes how a crude letter got father to agree to her marriage and assures Anyuta things will go easier for her. SVK describes in detail the hall where she attended her first lecture. She meets the famous biologist Mechnikov. She and VOK are getting along very well.##SVK dreams of studying abroad. She will need a midwifery certificate to attend anatomy lectures. She will need to pass a gymnasium exam before going abroad. She wants to devote more time to physics and math. She is concerned about finding a fictitious husband for Anyuta. SVK describes VOK's brother Aleksandr.##SVK establishes a friendship with Iulia Lermontova. Iulia is about to attend prep courses in Moscow now open to women. SVK notes there are already eight women studying in Zurich. SVK invites Iulia to come abroad with her.##SVK and Iulia will meet in Moscow where SVK will try to convince Iulia's family to allow her to study abroad. There have been riots at Petersburg Medical Academy. As a result women are being driven from the Academy.

The word count is approximately 5910.


SCHOOL ABROAD (Letters 17-19 Apr 1869 - Oct 1874)

Letters to Iulia, VOK, Iulia's mother.

The letters cover the period of time from SVK's first going abroad to after she has received her doctorate.

SVK describes in detail to her friend Iulia attempts at gaining admission to lectures in Vienna and Heidelberg. In Heidelberg, SVK studies under the great men of science, Helmholtz, Bunsen, and Kirchhoff. SVK advises her friend to brush-up on her German. ##SVK's writes to VOK on the fate of their friend Zhanna, who has escaped from Russia and is now living with SVK. SVK shows lack of understanding of the reactions of Zhanna's family to her escape. SVK and VOK are living in separate cities pursuing their education.##On returning to Petersburg, doctorate in hand for both SVK and Iulia, SVK writes Iulia's family. Iulia is meeting important people in Petersburg including the chemist Mendeleev who has taken an interest in Iulia's career.

The total word count is approximately 2032.


RETURN TO RUSSIA AFTER DOCTORATE (Letters 20-22, Jul 1875 - Feb 1876)

Letters to VOK, VOK's brother Aleksandr Kovalevskii (AOK)

SVK writes a touching letter to VOK pleading with him (in verse) to join her at the family country home. ##Unable to find suitable academic positions, SVK explains to VOK's brother how they came to the decision to put their efforts into some speculative business ventures. The letter details SVK's thinking on this matter as they are asking Aleksandr for a loan. ##SVK continues her friendship with Iulia and cares for Iulia during a trying illness.

The word count is approximately 2292.



Letters to F.Dostoevskii and to his wife.

SVK maintained a friendly correspondence with Dostoevskii from the time of her sister's romantic involvement with him. In these friendly letters, SVK requests a favor of Dostoevskii. regarding her friend Goncharova. (The story of Goncharova serves as the basis of SVK's novella NIHILIST GIRL. The novella gives more details of SVK's life during her lapse from math work.) SVK relates a story idea of hers to Dost. She passes on an installment of Anna Karenina and presents Dostoevskii with a collection of books published by VOK. The last letter is a condolence letter to Dostoevskii's widow.


MORE ON BUSINESS ENDEAVORS (Letters 27,29-31 Apr 1877 - Oct 1880)

Letters to AOK.

In these letters to VOK's brother, Aleksandr, SVK relates progress on apartment houses they are building and passes on word regarding Sechenov and his discoveries in chemistry.## SVK details the problems with the apts and bath houses she and VOK own. She is insisting VOK consult with a 'nerve' doctor. VOK adds a note that he is looking for some kind of position in business, perhaps with a steamship company. ##VOK is getting a position at Moscow U. as a docent. Both continue to pursue business. SVK registered to take magisterium exam to give her access to upper level teaching positions, she withdrew her application so as not to prejudice VOK's prospects at Moscow U. where there are many who disapprove of women in education. VOK is frequently out of town on business. SVK decides to go to Berlin to brush-up her math skills with Weierstrass. ##SVK again tries to take the magisterium exam, and this time is refused permission to even take the exam. SVK expresses her frustration as she is very well prepared at this time, local mathematicians have praised her work. She has a paper almost ready to present as a magisterium dissertation. She's off to Berlin.

Word count is approximately 2543.


REENTRY INTO MATHEMATICS (Letter 33-42, Mar 1881 - Beginning 1883)

Letters to her cousin S. Adelung, the mathematician Mittag-Leffler, VOK, AOK, the socialist G. Folmar, and an unknown addressee.

The letters are addressed to a variety of her friends and family: her cousin S. Adelung, the mathematician Mittag-Leffler, VOK's brother, VOK, Folmar, and an unknown addressee.

SVK sends her cousin autographs from famous scientists and authors. SVK is again returning to Berlin to work with Weierstrass. She's taking her daughter with her. ##SVK communicates with Mittag-Leffler regarding his efforts to find her a docent position at one of the Scandinavian universities. ##SVK warns Mittag-Leffler that by supporting her, he may be endangering his academic position. She would accept a position of docent. ##SVK and VOK are clearly on very cold terms. She tries to setup some kind meeting with him. She's in Marienbad with the Weierstrasses and relates a meeting with OK-A Novikova, an intriguing political figure and friend of powerful politicians including the Englishman, Gladstone, and the Russian, Koni. ##With the unknown addressee SVK discusses her work on refract of light and her fascination with the problem of the revolution of a solid about a fixed point. ##SVK writes to her brother-in-law from Paris. She requests his aid in caring for her daughter. She tells him she is preparing for some kind of position in academics, which she will need to support herself and her child. She is preparing herself for this by working on math projects. ##SVK writes to the political, Folmar, on her observations of the Russian emigre community in Paris. ##SVK writes Folmar explaining her own political position. She speaks briefly of her Commune Years in Paris of 1871. She is lured by the practicality and widely understood nature of political work, as opposed to her own work in science. ##SVK writes her brother-in-law,A.V. Kovalevskii, that she plans on sending her daughter to him for the winter. SVK needs to visit Stockholm to be sure it will be an acceptable place for her and her daughter, should she be offered a position there. She has been elected to the Paris math society. Business dealings are not going well. The management of their apartment and bath houses seems to be in the hands of SVK's brother.##SVK relates to Folmar her precarious position in society. She can deal with the implications of her position while in Paris, but fears for her position in Stockholm.

The approximate word count is 3840.



The letters are addressed to her two brothers-in-law -- AO Kovalevskii, her late husbands brother, and V Jaclard, her sister's husband. Letters are also sent to the mathematician Mittag-Leffler, a literary journal editor Iur'ev, two politicals -- Maria Mendel'son and P. Lavrov, the wife of the astronomer Gyldén, and an unidentified mathematician friend/romantic interest referred to as Math X.

SVK is in Paris, she plans on going to Berlin to meet with the great mathematician who was her mentor, Weierstrass. She hopes to go to Stockholm the coming winter. Her daughter is being cared for by Alexandr's family. SVK is very tired. SVK finishes one of two math papers she's working on. She accepts position in Stockholm. She will spend time in Berlin observing math docents and practicing delivering papers. SVK goes through her husbands papers and officially clears his name of scandal. She takes charge of his geological collection. SVK has sold one literary article to a Russian journal and is working on another, a biographical piece on the English novelist, George Eliot. She also complete a piece of research on differential equations which she plans to present to her students in Stockholm. SVK talks of her daughter. SVK describes the differences in the intellectual climates of the two Swedish universities, Upsala and Stockholm. SVK comments on the political climate of Sweden. SVK comments on prominent authors in Sweden, mentioning Strindberg, Ibsen, and others. She suggest doing an article for a Russian journal on the Swedish literary scene. SVK is causing a stir at the conservative Upsala university where she has many enemies. SVK will have 12 students attending her lectures, every student of higher math at the univ. will take her course. She's uneasy about giving her first lecture. SVK describes Stockholm. She's been well received by Stockholm people. SVK requests Lavrov send her information on the Russian movement so she can explain it to her Swedish friends who appear sympathetic. SVK laments the political climate in Russia as she experienced it on her last visit. She's worried about fate of the Russian writer Chernyshevskii. To her Polish friend Mendel'son, SVK gives her thoughts on anarchism and requests copies of a radical journal. She assesses the political climate of Sweden for Mendel'son and emphasizes her own strong sympathy with the Poles. SVK sees her new position as opening a path for women. She's starting a new math work which she believes has great potential for winning her a lasting place in math. SVK estimates this work will take 5 years. After completing this work, SVK would like to give in to her Gypsy nature and turn over her mathematical position to another woman. SVK laments the lack of a romantic interest in her life. ## SVK is appointed staff professor. She describes the university internal politics and dealings that were necessary for her appointment. Her students have presented her with a gift.##SVK defends her decision to leave her daughter in Russia for another year to her friend, Gyldén, in Stockholm. SVK is publicly censured for her decision to be separated from her daughter, but puts her daughters welfare first. SVK asks her friend to locate a suitable apartment where SVK will later be able to bring her daughter. SVK asks that the astronomer, Gyldén, look over a manuscript she's prepared on the rings of Saturn.##SVK has an admirer in Berlin, but declines his invitation to an operetta as she must work on math for a Weierstrass meeting.## SVK tells her brother-in-law Aleksandr of her appointment to staff professor. She will now have a secure income. Her biography and photo are appearing in papers all over Europe. She is working on two math papers she hopes will appear very soon.

Approximate word count is 8492.



Letters are to her sister Anyuta, her friend and manager of her Russian business affairs Lamanskii, her brother-in-law and political activist Jaclard, the Polish revolutionary Maria Mendel'son, her friend and chemist Iulia Lermontova, Mathematician X, the author A. Ch. Leffler, the wife of the astronomer Gyldén, her daughter Fufa, her cousin S. Adelung.

SVK asks her sister to visit Stockholm. She describes the city.##SVK has been living with the Lefflers while her apt is prepared. Life is chaotic, but she's sent a math work to the typesetters. She offers financial help to her brother who she hears is in financial trouble because of debts. VOK's scientific engravings are being sent to her from Russia, as is her library of books. She is submitting an article to a Russian literary journal.##SVK has been touring Norway. She's visited school for peasants setup by a Norwegian socialist. She worries about the fate of her political friends in Warsaw and in Germany. She plans on returning to Stockholm with her daughter.##SVK responds to Iulia's insistence that they can not live together. SVK describes the office she has setup for herself in the new apartment. She inquirers about an article she is expecting to appear in Russian literary journal.##SVK complains that daily affairs keep interrupting her work on Abelian functions.##SVK has taken on lectures in mechanics as well as mathematics. She is holding down two professorships. This situation should go on no more than two years.##SVK tries to discourage her friend Mendel'son from illegally entering Russia to do political work.##SVK charmingly declines an invitation for an outing by describing her haunting by a scholarly German grandfather on her mother's side and a Gypsy grandmother on her father's side who are fighting over control of SVK.##SVK has been invited to a court ball. She now enjoys horseback riding and skating. She expects one of her math works will soon be published.##SVK does a little self analysis. She is on her way to a conference in England. She is becoming bored with Stockholm.##SVK visits her terminally ill sister. SVK is very depressed.##SVK asks her daughter how she liked her Christmas presents. SVK was with her sister and missed Christmas with her daughter. SVK tries to reassure her daughter that her aunt is well cared for.##SVK asks her cousin for titles of children's books she has written. SVK describes the play she has just completed. SVK's main work is math. She hopes to finish her latest mathematical work in spring. SVK expresses concern her daughter is losing some of her Russian language skills.## SVK's friend Nordenskjold is planning an expedition to Greenland. SVK regrets he's going.

Approximate word count is 4989,



Letters are to the sociologist MM Kovalevskii (MMK); the author A.Ch.Leffler; the mathematician Chebyshev; Mathematician X; a distant relative who is governor of Saratov -- AI Kosich; her friend Iu. Lermontova; the Secretary of the Petersburg Academy of Sciences -- KS Veselovskii; SVK's daughter called Fufa; Lamanskii; the literary critic and historian AN Pypin; the corresponding secretary of the journal Northern Messenger -- BB Glinskii; the author -- AS Shabelskaia (AS Montvid); the mathematician Mittag-Leffler.

SVK learns her friend the explorer Nordenskjold is planning an expedition to Greenland.##MM Kovalevskii arrives in Stockholm.##SVK tells of her new romantic interest, MMK. ##SVK takes leave of her university position for the winter. Chebyshev is sending her articles for the mathematical journal ACTA where SVK is an editor. She has received the prestigeous mathematical prize --Prix Borden. See frequently sees Hermite and Bertrand and mentions that Poincare and Appelle have received the mathematical prize awarded by King Oscar of Sweden.##She is starting a new piece of research in mechanics. Family news exchanges.##SVK reads MMK's lecture to be published in Sweden. She relates some petty politics of emigre circle in Paris relating to the Russian writer, Shchedrin.##A position for SVK in Russia is hinted at. SVK expresses concern her political standing will adversely affect her in Russia, she feels safe in Sweden.##SVK elected corresponding member of Petersburg Academy of Sciences. She sees this as step to full membership.##SVK encourages her life time friend Iulia Lermontova. SVK wants Iula to spend more time in Sweden.##SVK's formal acceptance of election to Petersburg Academy of Science##SVK expects her memoir RECOLLECTIONS will soon appear in a Russian journal. Notes on a mutual friend.##SVK is traveling through Germany, Switzerland and Italy with MMK. She muses about her position with MMK.##SVK is doing no studying this summer. She misses her daughter who spends summers in Russia with Lermontova.##SVK requests copies of two Russian literary journals. She asks for copies of reviews of her RECOLLECTIONS. She has written a piece on the peasant university she visited in Sweden.##SVK is up to her ears in work. She's gotten some fan mail for RECOLLECTIONS. She plans on writing a sequel on her student years to be finished in a few months. Because of her personal life [ her tempestuous affair with MMK], she can make no certain travel plans.##SVK discusses her literary works (RECOLLECTIONS, NIHILIST GIRL, THE NIHILIST) and their translation into various Euro languages. She expresses concern for her friends dangerous political position. SVK mentions her acceptance speech before the Petersburg Academy of Science [she has been elected as a Corresponding Member].##SVK reviews the Scandinavian literary scene recommending the writers: Edgren, Strindberg, and Ahlgren. Strindberg and Ahlgren would be good to translate into Russian. SVK suggests she write a series of articles on Swedish literature for a Russian journal.##SVK writes a beautifully insightful and poetic short piece on her ability to work in both mathematics and literature.##SVK asks about her acquaintance Chekhov. She's gotten good reviews on RECOLLECTIONS. She comments on censorship of her piece.##Short note to her friend Math X.##SVK is ill and asks Mittag-Leffler to send a doctor to her [this was her final illness].

Approximate word count is 6567.