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Prominent Russians: Savva Mamontov

October 15, 1841 – April 6, 1918
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Savva Mamontov was the founder and builder of the largest railway in Russia. He also laid the foundation of the largest wagon-building factory in suburban Mytishchi, just outside Moscow. Almost half the railroads of the European part of Russia are the result of his strivings. The scope of his business is impressive.

Mamontov had interests in the iron ore extraction and the iron casting industries. The Donetsk coal basin in the south of modern day Ukraine, where he unfolded his far-reaching projects, was referred to as “Mamontov’s Panama.” He opened five commercial and industrial colleges in different parts of the Russian Empire. He was an Acting and Honorary Member of the Society of Lovers of Commercial Knowledge and a City Duma deputy. He was also the author of the book “Railways in Russia.”


Savva Mamontov’s father, Ivan Mamontov, came from a very old merchant family. By the time Savva was born, he was involved in revenue farming. This was a system of tax collection, in which the government, for a certain price, readdressed the right to collect the aforementioned taxes to private individuals, so-called tax farmers. Thus, Ivan Mamontov collected taxes from wine makers. He had a large family: a wife and nine children, of which Savva

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was the fourth. Savva Mamontov was born in the town of Yalutorovsk, in western Siberia. Eight years later the Mamontov family moved to Moscow. The head of the family rented a luxurious mansion in the heart of Moscow. The Mamontovs began to throw receptions, with a great many influential people among the guests. At first, the wealthy farmer of revenues was viewed by many as a man with a suspicious and black look of jealous animosity. However, overtime, he won himself a place of honor in Moscow mercantile circles. He gained clout in the city’s administration and even ran for the post of city mayor.

The style of the Mamontov children's upbringing changed radically in Moscow. In Siberia, the young had been entrusted to the care of well-meaning yet illiterate nannies; in Moscow the best tutors taught the young Mamontovs European manners and foreign languages. Savva Mamontov received an elementary education. Later, in 1855, together with his cousins Viktor and Valerian, he was sent to study in St. Petersburg, the Russian capital at the time, at the Institute of Civil Engineer Corps. This decision was not accidental. At that particular time the two brothers, Ivan and Nikolay Mamontov, decided to set up an oil trading company. For this, they needed educated, qualified people to continue their businesses.

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Savva was not an overly diligent student, prompting his father to voice his indignation over his son's poor progress in the following letter:

“I grant you my parental blessing and besiege you, I implore to set aside idle thoughts and pursuits, make an effort in your studies, and through good marks, snow me that you can be an obedient and dutiful son, in following your father's express orders.”

Such fatherly instructions did not immediately have their effect. Years passed, before the easily carried away, giddy Savva hit upon an acceptable "life formula," combining serious business activities and artistic, non-commercial needs and desires.

Business activity

In 1852 Savva, at his father's insistence, plunged into the family business. By that time he had completed his studies at Moscow University, emerging with a certificate in law. He had a passion for the theater, took fencing lessons and had not the slightest desire to engage in business. However, he suffered from pangs of conscience. Savva's father helped his son work on improving himself. He resorted to extreme measures, informing Savva that he would have to set off for Baku (modern Azerbaijan) on oil business matters. After the charms of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the dusty, small, sun-baked Baku, where he had neither friends, nor acquaintances, produced a daunting impression on Savva.  At his father's insistence, he was appointed as a simple office employee under the director of the Baku branch of the oil company. Three weeks later, in a letter to his father, Savva begged to be granted permission to return to Moscow. But faced with the implacable will and firm, resolute character of his father, Savva resigned himself to his fate, and became immersed in business and trade concerns. He grasped the basics of his new occupation surprisingly quickly and before he could help it, he was deeply interested in it. He started to show business acumen, quick decision-making, a shrewd mind and a propensity for trade dealing.

Savva spent approximately a year in Baku and, according to his own admission, “returned to Moscow as an acknowledged trader.” His father introduced him to the financial aspects of the family business, and now spoke to him as a legal heir and partner. A year later Savva was entrusted with overseeing the central, Moscow-based branch of the company.

However, Savva fell seriously ill. He miraculously recovered but doctors still recommended that his father send him abroad. Ivan Mamontov sent Savva to Italy, to recuperate, and to get first-hand information regarding the silk trade. The north of Italy, Lombardy, was the heart of the silk industry. The capital of the region was Milan and it was the largest center of the silk trade.

However, Milan was also an acknowledged center of the arts, particularly opera. Several months spent in the city were very instructive for the young Mamontov. At that precise period he became enamored of the opera. He attended the very best productions at Milan's La Scala, listened to the leading soloists and started taking singing lessons. The communicative, easy-going and high-spirited Savva very soon made the acquaintance of many Russian singers studying in Italy. He began to learn opera parts with them, and after achieving quite impressive results in the vocal art, received an invitation to perform at one of Milan's secondary theaters.

However, his theater debut was not to be. Savva's father, discovering his son's new weakness, speedily summoned him back to Moscow.
Savva came home a man in love. In Milan he had made the acquaintance of the daughter of a well-known Moscow merchant, the prominent silk trader, Grigory Sapozhnikov. The girl's name was Elizaveta. She became his wife. 

Savva's  father was greatly pleased by his son's choice. Although the young bride was 17, by the standards of the time she was an educated and well-read girl, with a music education to boot, who played the piano quite fluently. The wedding took place in the spring of 1855. After the wedding trip to Italy the young couple returned to Moscow to reside in a mansion in the center of the city, presented to them by Ivan Mamontov. This mansion was destined to become one of the most interesting centers of artistic life not only in Moscow, but, possibly, all of Russia. In the home of the newlywed Mamontovs one could always hear music. Among the most frequent guests to their house were students and teachers of the Moscow Conservatory, as well as musicians of the leading theaters.

Opera productions

Soon Savva Mamontov decided to infringe on the monopoly of the Russian Imperial theatres that chiefly staged Italian operas. Thus he took up the production of Russian operas, first, at his own home, and later at the Moscow Private Opera, which he founded. This was a risky and audacious undertaking. Its essence laid not so much in simply founding an opera theater, but rather in creating something entirely new. Without a doubt, Savva Mamontov's aesthetic concept was innovative. He conceived the daring notion of bringing together on stage the singer, the actor, the artist, the musician and the chorus. In other words, what he strove for was to make the audience perceive the production not as a concert in historic costumes, but as a uniform artistic production, a work of art in the true sense of the word.

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Mamontov became the heart and soul of the growing opera theater. He took an active part in the formation of the opera troupe, inviting talented, yet unknown singers. The premiere of the opera “The Mermaid ” by Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky in 1885 is regarded as the birthday of the Moscow Private Opera.

Patron of the beautiful

However, it is almost impossible to give full credit to what this man did for Russian culture.

Russian merchants have traditionally been known for their charitable ways, which took on a whole new dimension during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Without exaggerating we can say that Russian culture would never have really developed had it not been for the support lent by these big-hearted businessmen. The rich early-20th century industrialist Savva Mamontov was one such patron of the beautiful.

Like Maecenas, the munificent Roman statesman and patron of letters, Savva Mamontov always helped artists and poets. At his country estate of Abramtsevo he organized an artistic club attended by almost every leading Russian painter, sculptor and architect. The main reason why Savva Mamontov was so much respected by the Russian artistic community, however, was that he was a good singer himself (he studied singing in Italy and composed music). He was also a fine sculptor and wrote his own poems and plays. His artistic efforts culminated in the opening of the Russian Opera Theater, which gave a tremendous boost to the advancement of Russian music.

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The theater performed exclusively Russian operas and it was there that many compositions by Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Mikhail Glinka[e6]  and others had their premiers and later won international recognition. “Mamontov was a most striking personality in Moscow. He was a sincere friend and patron of all that was talented, emerging in the sphere of literature, art and music. He decided to involve in his new undertaking – his opera productions – his artist friends, including Serov, Vrubel and Korovin. Mamontov’s influence on Russian opera theater was akin to the impact that Stanislavsky had on world art,” wrote Rachmaninov. The composer worked at Mamontov’s Private Opera for a year. But in that time he became “opera-struck.” Soon this resulted in the birth of his two operas “Miserly Knight” and “Francesca da Rimini.”

Discovering talents

In fact, to Savva Mamontov we owe the discovery of the unique talent of Fyodor Chaliapin. The first time Mamontov heard Chaliapin's singing was in the winter of 1984. He was immensely impressed by the then unknown singer. Two years later Mamontov invited the young bass to join the Private Opera's performances during the All-Russian Industrial exhibition in the city of Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga River. The exposition opened with Mikhail Glinka's opera “Life for the Tsar,” which had become a real triumph for the young Fyodor Chaliapin. The enthusiastic audience kept calling him out over and over again. Mamontov not only discovered Chaliapin but he also helped him become a great stage personality. A talented man, Mamontov could communicate with artists on their level rather than as a wealthy, bored gentleman, dabbling in art for the sake of diversion. Strictly speaking, he was neither patron, nor collector, nor sponsor. Personal wealth never really meant much to Savva Mamontov. Money cannot revive culture if it knows nothing about culture. Mamontov was simply an artist and an industrialist.

Mamontov “provoked” the emergence of whole trends in Russian art. There was a church on his estate of Abramtsevo and he invited young artists to participate in doing the murals there – thus starting a new wave in the evolution of icon art. Konstantin Stanislavsky, the legendary Russian director said of him, “Mamontov is my teacher of aesthetics.”

Abramtsevo estate

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In 1870 the Mamontov couple acquired the Abramtsevo estate not far from Moscow. Soon, it became one of the centers of the Russian cultural elite.
In Abramtsevo, as in Moscow, artists who stayed as guests created some of their best works there. The Mamontovs themselves frequently sat for the various artists. Their portraits can be seen in different museums.

Savva Mamontov was never an art collector, yet the artists would give him so many of their works that a splendid collection of canvases of the Russian masters grew on its own. These were works of top quality.

Weighty financier

With all his artistic interests and charity work, Savva Mamontov did not overlook the family business. Having accumulated the weighty experience of a financier and administrator in the sphere of building and running railroads, in 1875 Savva Mamontov took on the position of head of the railroad building company in the Donetsk coal basin. This railroad linked the Donetsk coal

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basin with the port town of Mariupol on the Azov Sea. Besides railroad building, Savva Mamontov was involved in metallurgy and machine-building. He owned, for quite a long while, the First Russian Locomotive Works, plus several metallurgical plants, one of which was situated in Mytishchi , just outside Moscow. This plant, which started as a common sawmill, gradually evolved into a large enterprise, building rail carriages. Savva Mamontov used to say, “It’s impermissible for a country like Russia not to be able to turn out rail carriages and wagons of its own. It would be a good thing if we started building steam engines, otherwise, one has to go abroad for almost everything.”

His contemporaries invariably made mention of Savva Mamontov’s incredible capacity for work. Even at breakfast in his own household, as a rule, there were not only family members, but workers or engineers as well.

People who worked at Mamontov's company recalled Savva had the unique ability to infuse everyone around with his enthusiasm. However, Mamontov's vivid, successful lifestyle and his wealth also stirred up a wave of ill feelings among his envious opponents. At the beginning of the 1890s, Savva reached beyond the boundaries of his familiar railroad activities and launched a grand-scale economic venture. The idea was to set up a conglomerate of inter-connected industrial and transportion industrial giants.

Court inquiry against Savva Mamontov

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At the advice of the Minister of Finance Sergey Vitte, in his great venture, Savva took his business to the Director of the Petersburg International Commercial Bank Rotstein. He took a vast loan at the bank, selling 1650 shares. The venture fell through due to intrigues of the top officials, among them a number of envious ill-wishers, eager to see the end of Savva Mamontov. In short, the bank dealers found themselves the happy owners of the main stock of the shares of the Moscow-Yaroslavl-Archangelsk railroad and Savva Mamontov's promissory bills.

In 1899 a court inquiry was launched against Savva Mamontov, on his having allegedly misappropriated the funds of the above-mentioned railroad. For the period of the court proceedings all of Savva's property was sealed, while Savva himself was put in prison. Moreover, he was led there on foot across the entire city, under convoy. He was placed in a solitary confinement cell for a number of months. As a result Savva Mamontov was ruined and his business reputation destroyed. Savva was utterly devastated. His relatives tried to save him, offering the court the initially demanded bail. However, when the money was brought, the court suddenly raised the sum to five million rubles, an astronomical sum for those times. Savva's relatives and friends simply couldn’t raise the required sum of money.

The uproar in the press, the torrent of abuse and groundless accusations leveled at Savva, had their effect. Some of the people that he had helped and who he regarded as friends suddenly forgot about him. Mamontov felt the pain of this betrayal very acutely. However, not everyone showed such feeble spirit. For example, Konstantin Stanislavsky wrote to Mamontov in prison: “There is a multitude of people who are constantly thinking of you, taking pride in your show of spiritual perseverance. You must believe in our very best, sincere feelings towards you.”

The last years

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After five months of confinement, the medical commission concluded that Savva Mamontov was suffering from an illness of the lungs and heart. After this, the Investigators Office was forced to substitute prison with house arrest. Savva took up residence in one of his more modest houses in the center of Moscow. The police kept an eye on his every move.

At the end of 1900 Mamontov was released, and duly settled in his Abramtsevo estate. He lived the last days of his life there busying himself with ceramics and pottery. He died in 1918. The family business was inherited by his five children.

Written by Tatyana Klevantseva for RT

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