It is 1867 and winter in Ryazan, a city on the banks of the Oka River in Central Russia. Konstantin is ten years old. His days are full of dreams of flight - to Moscow, even to the silent stars. But then, one day, he catches cold in the freezing woods near his home and his own world becomes silent. Left deaf by scarlet fever, his outlook is desperate. Only his fascination with a newly mechanised age and his astonishing visions of humanity's future seem to offer him any sort of hope.
Konstantin, Tom Bullough's brilliant, inspirational novel, tells the extraordinary story, based on a real-life character, of the first man to reveal how travel into space might be possible. It is a story of man, nature, and the limitless power of the imagination.
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Kostya hurried down the bank towards the frozen Oka, fine and light in his heavy
sheepskin coat as a sparrow in its winter plumage. On the river, the tracks of the
woodsmen cut north through the even snow, steering a line towards the pine logs strewn
along the shore beneath the forest. Kostya ran and slid on the exposed ice. From the
darkness of the birch trees he emerged in the December sunlight, one arm extended for
balance, the soup can blazing between his shirt and his coat, and nowhere beneath the ice-
blue sky could he see any movement beside his own long, wavering shadow.
The snow on the north bank had formed a crust since it was last trampled by horses and
men in bast shoes, and the boy moved quickly and easily up the slope. He climbed among
white-capped logs in their hundreds, which would, in the spring, be carried east with the
broken ice, seething and roaring the 350 versts to the sawmills at Nizhny Novgorod, but
for now were as frozen as the forest behind them. Their tracks in the deep snow were
broad, hard and sparkling, cutting between the bare, scrubby lilacs and the gangling ash
trees – converging on a door in the wall of the pines.
That winter, as everyone in Ryazan knew, felling had been prohibited within five versts
of the river. Even for a grown-up it was an hour’s walk to the woodcutters’ clearing, and
Kostya arrived in the forest almost at a trot, following the plumes of his breath. In the
gloom of the great, snow-laden trees, the cold was sharper than ever against his pink,
rounded cheeks, his determined, down-turning mouth, the black Tatar eyes that had come to
him from his mother. He held the soup can firmly to his skinny stomach, and he looked up
only once, when the Sun cut a line through the tangled branches and turned their snow into
a torrent of light.
It was perhaps a verst, perhaps two, before Kostya came to a bright red streak in the
track in front of him. He stopped, touched it with his old felt boot and found that it was
sticky. The streak was startling against the uniform whiteness. It stretched and wove away
from him, complicated by clods of fur, arching in the prints of the horses, and as Kostya
lifted his head he found himself facing a tall, scruffy dog – its thick coat glinting with
icicles, its colour such that it need only to have retreated a few paces to have vanished
among the white-grey trunks.
On the narrow track beneath the shadow-hung trees, Kostya heard the tremor of his
heart, the gasp of his breathing, the hush as a cascade of snow slipped from the treetops,
but beneath these fragile noises he heard nothing: the great, indifferent silence of the
forest. Distantly, he wondered why this dog had strayed so far from Korostovo, the village
where it surely lived. Through the smell of cabbage soup, he smelt its hard, animal stink.
He saw the half-eaten hare beneath its wide, webbed claws. He saw its pyramid ears, its
muscular shoulders, the knife-like teeth between its thin black lips.
He saw the silence in its fire-coloured eyes.
The swathe cut by the men from Korostovo lay parallel with the Oka: a great, gaping
space of broken trees and open sky where women in headscarves and children in well-patched
rags were gathering branches beneath the few deformed or unwanted pines, the limes and
rowans that stood exposed in the winter sunlight. The smoke rose straight from the
woodsmen’s fires, like the ghosts of the trees they had felled. In the mouth of the track,
Kostya stood small and shivering, the peak of his blue woollen cap low above his eyes. To
the south, the men were working steadily, the cold air loud with their axes. He watched
them cut a notch above the root of each tree, and a higher notch on the opposite side. He
watched them hammer in the wedge as the treetop started to waver, and as the branches met
the ground in a screaming, splintering crash he saw them fall upon the trunk – working
with brisk, practised movements, slicing the bark along its length, skinning it like an
Several minutes passed and several women paused in their work to point and call to
Kostya before the foreman came striding from the shallow shadow to the south. Eduard
Ignatyevich was a broad, dark figure with a black-grey beard, a long black coat and a
black felt cap that covered his cropped black hair. Even with a bracking hammer swinging
from his big, gloved hand he looked as much like a priest as a forester.
‘Konstantin?’ He took his spectacles from his pocket and hooked the arms over his ears.
‘What are you doing here?’
Kostya produced the soup can from his coat. He held it up to him with trembling hands,
the steam coiling faintly from the lid.
‘Konstantin,’ his father repeated. His eyelids flickered, but his voice remained low,
methodically Polish. ‘Let me explain to you something very important, which I have
explained to you in the past but you have clearly failed to understand. In the town, a man
is a mind. That is to say, in the town he is an intellectual being. With a house, a fire
and a reliable source of food, he is able to rise above his surroundings, to forget his
physical self and devote himself to mental pursuits. Without the town, we would have no
books, no telegraph, no railway. Because in the forest, a man is simply an animal with
neither fur nor claws. Alone in the forest in the winter, he may consider himself to be in
terrible danger. Do I make myself clear?’
Eduard Ignatyevich opened his tin cigarette case, lit a match and released a cloud of
smoke, which shone in the light of the low Sun prowling through the southerly treetops.
Kostya blinked to stop himself crying. He gave a little nod and his father put a hand to
his back and propelled him towards a nearby bonfire where a pine tree stood like a
visiting mourner – a rotten lip near the top of its trunk where it had once been struck by
‘As you know,’ he continued, ‘the zemstvo has decided that there will be no more
felling in Ryazan after the end of this week. As a result, I have a great deal of work to
do. So, I would like you please to make a bed of embers and warm up your soup can, and
then when it is hot I would like you to drink it.’
‘But –’ said Kostya.
‘But, Father, I brought it for you!’
‘Konstantin,’ said Eduard Ignatyevich, and his voice acquired the faintest edge. ‘Do
you take me for an idiot? Do you think that I come to the forest every day with inadequate
‘But . . . But, Mama said she was worried that you would have to work until after dark
again. She said it’s the most coldest winter she can remember, and she said you would get
His father turned at a shout from one of the woodsmen.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘whatever your mother might have told you, I am quite sure that she
had no intention that you should come all the way out here. Indeed, if she knows about it,
I imagine she is losing her mind with worry. The situation is quite simple. You are
shivering, which indicates that you are trying to remain warm. It is important that you do
not catch a chill, therefore you are to drink the soup, stay by the fire and wait for me
Even with the heat from the bonfire, a skin of ice had already covered the small oval
lenses of his spectacles.