The young historian Valentina Chikina became a winner of the competition held by the Russian Academy of Science for university students in the field of history. The gold medal was awarded for her work dedicated to studying the biography of her name sake: the traveller, scientist and artist Alexander Chikin.

What was in the life of Alexander Chikin that attracted you?

I became interested in the personality of Alexander Chikin when studying at the local history club “Petropol” of St Petersburg City Palace of Youth Creativity (Anichkov Palace). As part of the educational programme every student had to choose a topic of study. It was hard for me to decide on a certain topic, but I accidentally ran across an article on Chikin’s trip around Equatorial Africa published in the magazine “Around the world”, and the choice was made. I got so excited by my namesake, who turned out to be an extraordinary person, that I decided to write about him. So, the topic of the research paper we are talking about today was in fact chosen in November 2013. 

What new did you manage to find out about your namesake?

By the time I started my study, there had been just a couple of articles written about the life and work of Chikin including an obituary. The work appeared therefore to be both interesting and difficult. The main sources of information were the archives – federal, regional and museums. The very first source happened to be the personal record of Chikin that is kept in the Russian State Historical Archive. I studied it inside and out. It has the main biographical data such as when and where he was born, who his parents and godparents were, and what his school marks were.

Also, I managed to find the materials on the childhood and personal life of Chikin in the archives of the memorial estate house of the artist Peter Scherbov in Gatchina. In the Russian State Archive of literature and arts I found Chikin’s letters to his friends and wife. They proved to be a very interesting and valuable source, as they not only convey bare facts, but also his emotions and views. What is especially amazing is that only a couple of months after starting to work on the project, I could see the very photos from “Around the world” magazine in real life. Together with the travel reports they are kept in the Archives of the Russian Geographical Society in St Petersburg. These materials are remarkable, informative and valuable! In a way this investigation gave me my first job, because when I was in my second academic year at the University I started to work at the Archive of the Russian Geographical Society.

Apart from this, I had to spend time in other archives, for example, in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, the Archive of the Academy of Science, the Central State Archive for scientific-technical documentation, the central state archive of St Petersburg and even in the archive for registration of burials on the cemeteries of St Petersburg. I wandered about the Smolenskoye orthodox cemetery trying to find the grave of the hero of my study. Unfortunately, the grave of Chikin has not been identified so far. 

Are there any descendants, did you manage to talk to them?

As far as know, Chikin had two children, but, unfortunately, traces of their life disappear with the beginning of the World War II. Maybe one day I might find his descendants.

The artist and traveller then became famous among optics physicists and amateur astronomers. Such a major change of course in his life!

Chikin was engaged in science in the Russian society of world studies (the old term for astronomy) lovers that had been set up in 1909 in St Petersburg. He was one of its founders, and made reports on making scientific instruments in an amateurish manner. It was he who created the stamp of the society and the layout of the diploma that was given to members of the society in the beginning.

The interests of members of the society went far beyond astronomy. They strived to unite natural science lovers and support their projects and academic research. Also, the society considered it necessary to promote their works among the general public. In 1912 “The Proceedings of the Russian Society of world studies lovers” was started. It was later renamed “World studies”. Chikin took an active part in editing materials before printing.

Please tell us what were Chikin’s achievements in telescope construction?

Ever since he was a child, Chikin took an interest in astronomy and other natural sciences. Later, while working at the Society, he created his first parabolic mirror and founded a club of astronomy lovers within the Society. His talent and level of expertise were noticed by the heads of the state institute of optics, set up in 1918. A year later Chikin was offered to be manager of the first Russian laboratory of experimental optics. The self-taught physicist worked there all his life, and even created a school of specialists in the field of optics astronomy.    

Nowadays it is difficult to imagine a person without a school education entering a university, or an amateur making a career in science.  What was it that made it possible for Chikin to achieve such great results, in your opinion? Did his artistic education help him in telescope construction?

You know, I still cannot figure out how he took up a journey around Africa in 1888 without a decent income. Some of the historical riddles probably can never be solved.

He did not graduate from the Academy of Arts, but it was rather common back then. Many were not matriculated at colleges, they just attended lectures they were interested in. Graduating officially meant writing a qualification work. Chikin did not write it, so he was not considered a graduate. However, it was the Academy where he acquired the skills that later paid his bills. It was there that he met his best friend and business partner Peter Scherbov.

Artistic skills helped Chikin a lot in telescope construction; he made all the blueprints, drafts and sketches himself. His drawings are published in many magazines and newspapers.

Valentina, how did the idea of taking part in the competition occur to you?

I have been doing this research for six years and I have presented it at regional, all-Russian and international conferences, forums and competitions. During this time, I managed to write a full biography of Chikin, I put together a list of his illustrations and academic works, and I described his travels. I am really grateful to the staff of the archives, libraries, museums, the University, and Anichkov Palace, and the outside experts and academics who helped me work on my paper. Research is always a team work. In 2017, I won the competition of research papers, held by the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation as part of the forum “Science of the future is science of the young people” in the nomination “Humanities”. During 2018, I was improving my paper according to the feedback that I had received at the forum. In the autumn of 2018, I saw information about the competition of the Russian Academy of Science on the University website, and decided to give it a try. I was curious if my work would be appreciated in academic circles. It took a long time to receive the results of the competition. The papers had been submitted in September, and the results were published only in May. Honestly, I forgot that I had sent my paper to the competition. Having learned that I won, I was very glad. I was on the verge of defending my graduate qualification work on the same topic, and I am always a bit self-conscious and self-critical.

You pointed out that research is always team work. The success of a student’s paper depends both on a student and on their research supervisor. Who helped you?

While writing the paper, I had three research supervisors. Each of them helped me, corrected me, and guided the direction of my research according to the course of work. I think it was good for me. In Anichkov Palace my supervisor was Maria Osipova, who is still helping me. She knows all the nuances of the topic. She loves the character of the research as much as I do.

My first research supervisor at the University was Anna Sukhorukova. Thanks to her I began writing more articles. After two years I moved to a different supervisor, professor Mikhail Khodyakov. Having finished the second academic year, I delved into studying Chikin’s biography of the Soviet times and his work in the field of telescope construction. Mikhail Viktorovich helped me comprehend this period better and bring more historical context into my paper.

What could the hero of your research teach you?

What a person who lived at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries could teach us all is the ability to adjust to the course of life, never to despair, to live in the moment, to master new skills and professions, and to always try to figure out where their heart in. Alexander Chikin had these qualities.