On January 13, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused Andrii Yermak, the Ukrainian president's chief of staff, of falsifying history.
Her gripe? Yermak stated on Telegram that the former Soviet rocket scientist and spacecraft designer Sergei Korolev was a Ukrainian.
“Recently, the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, A. Yermak, made a clumsy attempt to ascribe to his country the glory of the genius of the Soviet rocket and space industry, world-famous scientist Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. ...
“The only thing that connects him with Ukraine is his place of birth."
That is misleading.
In fact, Korolev's family traced its ancestry in Ukraine back to the 17th century. Korolev considered himself a Ukrainian, spoke Ukrainian as his native language and loved Ukrainian songs. Until he was 19, Korolev lived, studied and designed aircraft in Ukraine.
Zakharova’s comment, however, fits squarely within Russian attempts to deny Ukrainian legitimacy as part of its ongoing war. It’s also reminiscent of efforts in Soviet-era Russia to de-legitimize and repress different ethnic groups to fabricate a unified Soviet identity.
The ethnic backgrounds of famous Soviet scientists were not publicized during the Soviet period from 1932 to 1991, nor have they been in President Vladimir Putin's Russia.
We know a lot about Korolev thanks to a three-volume biography written by his daughter Natalia. Titled “S.P. Korolev. Father,” it was published in 2007 in Moscow. The books reveal many details of his life and include relevant documents.
Korolev was born in 1907 in the Russian Empire’s Zhytomyr region, which is now part of Ukraine. His father was of Russian and Belarusian origin. His mother was the daughter of a wealthy Ukrainian merchant with Zaporizhian Cossack, Greek and Polish roots.
Three years after Sergei Korolev was born, his parents divorced, and he never saw his father again. Korolev lived in the city of Nizhyn, Ukraine. According to Natalia Koroleva’s biography, he was brought up in a Ukrainian cultural environment:
“Our family on the father's side originates from Ukraine. Several generations of our ancestors since the 17th century lived in Nizhyn. My father spent his childhood here in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.”
From 1917 to 1924, Korolev lived with his family in Odesa, Ukraine, where he graduated from secondary school and then received training as a carpenter. In 1923, he joined the Society of Aviation and Aerial Navigation of Ukraine and Crimea, where he designed his first glider.
In 1924, he applied to the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute (KPI). On his application, Korolev indicated his nationality was Ukrainian:
“In the KPI, the applicant was asked to fill out a questionnaire ... Sergey Pavlovich Korolev, born December 30, 1906, Ukrainian, single, member of the Rabotpros union, ticket No. 13966, social status - teacher (added - lecturer).”
By the time he was 18, Korolev spoke several languages besides Ukrainian – Russian, German and English. But he considered Ukrainian to be his native tongue:
“The questionnaire filled out by my father in Ukrainian on October 27, 1925, indicating the number of the student ID and the record book, has been preserved. On the questionnaire, he writes that his native language is Ukrainian.”
Korolev lived in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1926, when he left the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute and moved to Moscow. In the Soviet capital he continued his education in aircraft mechanics at the Bauman Moscow Higher Technical School.
Although he departed Ukraine, he did not stop using the Ukrainian language. In 1934, when he was 27, the Kharkiv, Ukraine, newspaper "Tekhnika" published an article by him titled, “Rocket planes will fly over the USSR." The article was written in Ukrainian.
According to his daughter, he never lost his love for the Ukrainian language and culture:
“He has always loved Ukraine. He liked melodious Ukrainian speech, sincere Ukrainian songs. He always had the warmest memories of the part of his life lived in these areas. After all, here he took his first steps on earth and in the sky, here his first love was born, here he determined the path he followed all his life.”
Korolev lived mostly in Moscow until the end of his life.
In 1938, Korolev, then a member of the Reactive Research Institute, was arrested and falsely charged with trying to sabotage the Soviet rocket program. During his arrest, which came amid a series of political purges under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, his passport was confiscated; it lists his nationality as Ukrainian.
Korolev was sent to a forced-labor camp in Siberia, where he was mistreated and lost his teeth due to scurvy, according to a 2021 retrospective in the magazine The Engineer.
After the Second World War, however, Stalin made rocket science a national priority. Korolev appealed his case and was re-sentenced to a sharashka, a research laboratory operating within the Soviet forced-labor system. There, he designed rocket boosters under threat of execution.
Korolev grew to become a key figure in human space exploration, guiding the Soviet Union to an early advantage over the United States in missile and space programs.
Under Korolev’s direct leadership, the Soviets in 1957 launched the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite, Sputnik, and sent the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, four years later. (They also sent the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into orbit in 1963.)
Gagarin’s name became known to almost everyone, but only a few with access to Soviet state secrets knew the identity of Korolev. In official Soviet documents, he was simply called "Chief Designer,” purportedly to protect him from U.S. assassination attempts.
Can Sergei Korolev be called a Soviet scientist? Yes, given that both Ukraine and Moscow were then part of the Soviet Union and he lived and worked in the Russian capital.
Can we also call him a Ukrainian engineer? Yes, since he was Ukrainian by place of birth, ethnic origin, native language, early education and – critically – self-identification.
Zakharova’s dismissive reference to his birthplace diminishes his Ukrainian identity.
A paragraph from Natalia Koroleva’s biography of her father offers a direct rebuttal:
"It is pleasant to realize that, despite the many years that have passed and political upheavals, father's name lives on in the memory of the Ukrainian people, who are proud of him as their national hero."