Ukrainian Sergei Korolev the day he was returned to Moscow prison after one year in GULAG. In 21 years – on April 12, 1961 – he will launch the first human into space


The man who would open space to humankind, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, was born on 12 January 1907 (30 Dec 1906 old calendar), in Zhitomir, Ukraine. His mother Maria Mykolayivna Moskalenko, was a Ukrainian from Nizhyn. His father Pavel Korolev had originally come to Zhytomyr from Mogilev (Belarus) to be a teacher of the Russian language. Three years after his birth the couple separated, and Sergei never saw his father again – he was told by his mother that his father had died, and only later learned that Pavel lived until 1929 and even wrote to Maria requesting a meeting with his son. Sergei Korolev grew up in Nizhyn, under the care of his maternal grandparents Mykola Moskalenko and Maria Moskalenko (Fursa), a daughter of a local Cossack. In short, Sergei grew up in fully Ukrainian environment with the influence of Ukrainian Cossacks traditions.

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In 1915, his mother got divorce and in 1916 married Grigory Balanin, an electrical engineer with German education, who was attending Kyiv Polytechnic university at the time. Grigory proved a good influence on Sergei. In 1917, the family had to move to Odesa where Grigory received the job with the regional railway.
Odeas became the place where Sergei’s interest in aeronautical engineering started getting momentum. In 1923, he joined the Society of Aviation and Aerial Navigation of Ukraine and the Crimea (OAVUK). He had his first flying lesson and flied as a passenger numerous times during that period of time also.

To devlop his interest, in 1924 Segei Korolev entered Kyiv Polytechnic Institute because it had an aviation branch. In Kyiv, he lived with his uncle on mother’s side Yuri and earned money to pay for his courses by doing various jobs. At the courses, he met and became attracted to his female classmate, Xenia Vincentini, who would later become his first wife.

While entering Kyiv institute, Sergei Korolev filled in the Application Form (below). It is filled in perfect Ukrainian language and Sergei Korolev states his nationality as Ukrainian.

Application to Kiev Polytechnic Institute filled by Sergei Korolev in Ukrainian language.
Line #3 “nationality” filled in – Ukrainian

Having completed his 2nd year in Kyiv, in July 1926, Sergei Korolev was accepted into the Bauman Moscow State Technical University. His diploma advisor there was Andrei Tupolev.

By 1930 Korolev became a lead engineer on the Tupolev TB-3 heavy bomber.

In 1931, together with Friedrich Zander, a space travel enthusiast, he participated in the creation of the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GIRD). In 1933, the group accomplished their first launch of a liquid-fueled rocket, which was called GIRD-X.

At that stage, the Soviet military became interested in the work of the group and began providing some funding.

In 1933, it was decided by the government to merge GIRD with the Gas Dynamics Laboratory (GDL) in Leningrad. Thus, the Jet Propulsion Research Institute (RNII) was created with Korolev becoming the Deputy Chief of the institute. He led the development of cruise missiles and a manned rocket-powered glider. Another great Ukrainian spacecraft engineer – Valentin Glushko was on his team as well.


On 27 June 1938, during the Great Purge, NKVD agents broke into Korolev’s apartment and arrested him as a spy.

Having been severely beaten and with his jaw broken, Korolev was forced to admit to crimes of treason and sabotage which he had not committed. The jaw most likely was broken in that instance when Sergei Korolev asked for a glass of water and the interrogator smashed the jug in his face.

That day, according to NKVD officer’s Interrogation Report, Sergei Korolev suddenly became “Russian”.

Korolev was sentenced to 10 years’ of hard labor at the Kolyma gold mine, the most notorious of all Gulag prison camps.

One year later though, at the end of 1939, he was sent back to Moscow. During that one year, he had already sustained injuries and had lost most of his teeth because of the camp’s brutal conditions. When he reached Moscow, his sentence was reduced to eight years, which he did not have to serve in a labor camp. Instead, there was another sort of prison.

Korolev was still very fortunate to have even survived because his other RNII colleagues had been already executed by the time. That is how the Soviet rocket program was set back and fell behind the German one.

On 5 January 1966, Korolev was admitted to a hospital for what was supposed to be a routine surgery. But during the operation, on 14 January, he suddenly started to bleed. Doctors tried to provide intubation to allow him to breathe freely, but as they discovered, his jaw that was broken during the interrogation did not heal properly and impeded the installation of the breathing tube. He never regained consciousness and died, aged 59, later that day.

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