Elena Ivanovna Kasimirchak-Polonskaya: studying God’s planets

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Elena Polonskaya (1902-1992) is a fascinating woman: she was a renowned astronomer who lost her job in the Communist regime, was accused of espionage due to her missionary activities, put into prison for several months, but later re-instated as university professor. And finally, she became a nun in the Russian-Orthodox Church and taught bible studies and other theological topics. She has an asteroid named after her, but she does not yet have a Wikipedia article in English. Here is her biography.

Elena Ivanovna Polonskaya was born on 21 November 1902 in Selets, in the Volyn province in today’s Ukraine to parents from the Russian nobility. She studied astronomy at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the Lviv University. In 1923, she participated in the first meeting of the Russian Christian Student Movement in Czechia. From 1926 to 1928 she was an active member of this movement and its leader for Poland and Belarus. She acted as editor of the religious political journal “At the Borderline”. She participated in apologetic summer courses in Paris founded by Archpriest Sergei Bulgakov, her spiritual father.

In 1932, she became assistant at the Astronomical Observatory in Warsaw. In 1934, she defended her Ph.D. thesis „On the planetocentric motion of comets“ in Warsaw. In 1936, she married Leon Kazimierczak, an ichtyologist at Warsaw University, and in May 1937, their son Sergei (named after Sergei Bulgakov) was born. During World War II, she worked as Senior Scientist at the Department of Astronomy in Lviv and moved to Warsaw in 1944. During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, she became separated from her husband who was brought to a camp near Vienna as war prisoner. In 1945, she made a very bold and crucial decision for her later life: As an Orthodox, she decided to return to Russia, although totalitarian Soviet Union at that time. She first lived in Cherson (in today’s Ukraine) where her son died of meningitis in July 1948. She never saw her husband again, since he was not allowed to enter the USSR.

Elena then moved to Leningrad and became a member of the scientific staff at the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy at the USSR Academy of Science.  In 1950, she received the degree of Candidate of Sciences. She became a teacher in the Leningrad Pedagogical Instutute called after M. N. Pokrovski. In 1951, she was released from her job during a Soviet purge against “enemies of the state”, under the pretext of budget cuts. In 1952, she was arrested on a train from Cherson to Leningrad, and detained for several months, charged with espionage and detention, most likely for her missionary activities (she was told that she was betrayed by a priest). After several months of investigation, she was released from prison for lack of evidence. Once released, she found out that her mother had died in the meantime. She then found work as a professor of higher mathematics at the Pedagogical Institute of Odessa.

Finally, in 1956 she could return to Leningrad, to the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy, Academy of Sciences of the USSR, and to her research in the field of comet motions. She appreciated the emergence of electronic computing technology in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, recognizing early on the possibilities for atronomy. In 1964, she became a member of the International Astronomical Union and in 1968, she received the A. Brednichin Prize of the Academy of Sciences of URSS, for a “large series of works in the period 1961 – 1968, devoted to development of numerical theories of short-period comets, problems of evolution of their orbits in the scale of centuries, and research on planets passing each other at short distances”. From 1967 – 1985, she played an active role in the organization of astronomical symposia, on a national and an international level.

In 1970, Elena became an active member Society for Soviet-Polish Friendship and in 1972, an Honorary Member of the USSR Institute of Blind People; in particular, she participated in the publication of works in mathematics and programming in Braille script. In the years after 1970, she organized in her home two secret circles for working with young people and adults, reading the gospels and lecturing on apologetics, patristics, history of church and various other theological topics. Some of the members of these circles have later entered the clergy.

In the 1980ies, she took religious vows and became a nun choosing the path of “monasticism in the world.” She worked on the biblical studies and the history of the Russian Church, writing original works and translations. She was fluent in Polish, French and German. In her last years, she almost completely lost her eyesight but, having an excellent memory, she gave a series of lectures on the life and work of Archpriest Sergey Bulgakov. She died on 30 August 1992 and was buried at the Astronomers’ Cemetery of the Pulkovo Observatory in St. Petersburg.

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Sources:
In my blog post These 20 women scientists didn’t see a conflict between science and faith , I wrote that I had yet to find an Orthodox female scientist, and Sr. Teresa Obolevitch provided Elena’s name.  But there is yet no Wikipedia article in English. My father was so kind to translate the Russian Wikipedia article into English. Some information comes from the article in Catalan that is based on the Ukrainian Wikipedia article. And since February 2020, there is also a German Wikipedia article, based on the Russian article. Some details were found on the website of the Orthodox St. Tikhon Theological Institute, entry for Елена (Казимирчак-Полонская Елена Ивановна)

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