Born Novocherkassk, Russia, 13 January 1889
Died Moscow, (Russia), 12 March 1972
After the Bolshevik Revolution, Vasilii Fesenkov, a astrophysicist of the older generation, was the leading planetologist and scholar in meteoritics of the pre-spaceflight era, one of only a few academicians (Soviet Academy of Sciences) in the field of astronomy (from 1935), and an outstanding and enthusiastic promoter of Soviet astronomy.
Fesenkov was a 1911 graduate of Kharkov University. (After the disintegration of the USSR, it came into the possession of the Republic of the Ukraine.) One of his teachers was Gustav Struve . In 1912–1914, he received internships at the Paris, Meudon, and Nice observatories. Twenty-eight years old at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, soon thereafter Fesenkov organized in Moscow the first State Astrophysical Institute (1923), which he headed until its reorganization (en masse with two other bodies) into the Shternberg State Astronomical Institute [GAISh]. During the bloody years of Stalin’s Great Terror, while the Pulkovo Observatory lost its entire leadership, Fesenkov was protecting GAISh. After the beginning of the Great Patriotic War (Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in the course of World War II), he launched the Institute of Astronomy and Physics in the city of Alma Ata (now Almaty in the Republic of Kazakhstan), creating a safe haven for a number of astronomers to maintain their research during wartime. After the war, Fesenkov’s institute continued to preserve its scientific significance, and the founder remained its director until 1964.
Fesenkov was very active within the Committee on Meteorites, Soviet Academy of Sciences, and for decades after 1945 was its chairman. He founded the main scientific journal on astronomy in Russian, the Astronomical Journal of the USSR, and for four decades remained its editor-in-chief.
In Soviet times, contrary to many other high-ranking administrators, Fesenkov was hailed as a humane and trustworthy person. A defender of scientific interests of astronomy, he was often eager to help people in trouble.
Starting in 1907, as a student at Kharkov, Fesenkov was inspired by objects found and processes observed within the Solar System. Throughout his entire life, he remained devoted to astrophysical investigations of various aspects of the Solar System, including both the problem of its origin and the emergence of life. Much of his research involved the cosmogony of interplanetary dust and gas.
Fesenkov arranged numerous expeditions for observation of solar eclipses and other astronomical phenomena both within the territory of the USSR and abroad. Being a professor of Moscow University, he nurtured and raised a group of devoted Soviet astrophysicists. Fesenkov never added his signature to the works of his young disciples.
Fesenkov did not make pronounced breakthroughs in astronomy; however, for the time, his results were essential, and many colleagues recalled that his overall positive impact on the climate of Soviet astronomy and its dynamics was very significant. Craters on both the Moon and Mars have been named for him.