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Go to Foreigners in Russia / RT projects / Russiapedia / Prominent Russians / Business / The Demidov dynasty

Prominent Russians: The Demidov dynasty

Nikita Demidov Nikita Demidov

The Demidov family was a dynasty of Russian industrialists and landowners who, in the 18th and 19th centuries developed the Ural region, setting up iron foundries and arms factories and building whole cities around their ventures.

Acquaintance with Peter the Great

The founder of the Demidov dynasty, Nikita (April 5, 1656 — November 28, 1725), was born into a peasant family in the town of Tula. His father was a blacksmith, which largely determined Nikita’s future occupation. In order to avoid being recruited into the army, Nikita had to flee his hometown and make a living as a blacksmith.

Few details are known about how Nikita’s existence reached the attention of Peter the Great, but the Tsar’s interest in him was clearly the turning point of his life. Some historians say he won Peter’s favor by making a perfect copy of an intricately designed pistol from the armory of one of Central Europe’s most famous gunsmiths, one of Peter’s favorites.

The Tsar was impressed with the superb quality of Demidov's pistols; it was as if they had been imported from abroad but their cost of production was much cheaper than their foreign equivalent. Peter promised Demidov that if he ever seriously planned to engage in mass production of these weapons, he would have the Tsar’s support.

Successful business

Peter the Great was always on the lookout for talented people regardless of their titles. Dozens of prominent names emerged in Russia after being ennobled for their skills and service to the state. Demidov was among them.

Peter recognized the potential of the Siberian iron frontier to put Russia among the great powers. However, there were no factories to process the iron ore once it was mined. He needed people who were capable of organizing iron and steel processing on a mass scale in the Siberian wilderness.

Akinfiy Demidov Akinfy Demidov

Nikita Demidov and his eldest son, Akinfy, were among the few Russians in those days to have studied science in the West. With the encouragement and support of the Tsar, Nikita Demidov became the industrial genius behind the growth of Russia’s foundries. By the mid-18th century the country produced as much pig iron as the rest of continental Europe combined.

For several years Nikita Demidov worked in Tula. It is worth mentioning that Peter the Great introduced several decrees granting domestic entrepreneurs special privileges. They were allowed to take interest-free loans to start business, were exempted from taxes and duties on production for a long period and were absolved from recruitment into the army (this privilege applied to all members of the family).

Arms monopolists

Nikita built one of Russia's first metallurgical factories in Tula, producing the first Russian iron to rival English and Swedish iron in quality. He became the first ironmaster to use waterpower and, after buying up several other small foundries, he began to produce flintlock muskets that met the government’s specifications at a fraction of what it cost to import them from Europe.

With the beginning of the Great Northern War (1700-1721) between Russia and Sweden, government orders began to pour in and in less than a year Demidov had contracts for twenty thousand flintlock muskets. The Demidov factories became the main supplier to the Russian army, supplying cannons, pistols, swords and other munitions and producing them twice as fast and twice as cheap as their competitors, thus making a decisive contribution to the Russian victory.

Rebuilding the Nevyansk factory

Peter the Great was anxious to turn the failed foundry at Nevyansk, 97 kilometers north of Yekaterinburg, over to private hands in return for pledges of cheap iron and well-made cannons. In 1702 he offered the undertaking to Nikita. With more government orders than he could fill and the promise of a comfortable life in his native Tula, Nikita Demidov must have found Peter’s offer to move to the Siberian frontier a mixed blessing.

Nonetheless, he seized the chance, sensing the opportunity to build on a scale that he could never have achieved in Tula. The Nevyansk factory, founded by Peter I in 1701 to process iron, became the grandfather of all Ural plants and is one of the oldest metallurgical centers in the region.

Nikita and his son built an entire iron empire in Nevyansk and the ten thousand square miles surrounding it. Furthermore, they used the Chusovaya River to transport cast iron, copper and weapons by barges into the heart of European Russia.

The factory was walled in on three sides and looked like a real fortress. Inside were the factory buildings, the manor courtyard and a wooden church. Demidov's iron was of the highest quality in the world had its own trademark - two rampant sabers and the Demidov stamp.

The Demidovs also built a stone bell tower that is known as Nevyansk’s leaning tower. It is 57.5 meters high and leans 1.85 meters from its center. Historians are still divided about the exact purpose of the Nevyansk tower. Some say that Demidov used it as a "bank safe," while others believe it was either a watchtower or a bell tower or a prison or even a laboratory for conducting chemical tests and producing counterfeit money. Some historians think that the tower was supposed to embody the might of the Demidov family and serve as some sort of architectural symbol of their dynasty. Many myths and legends are connected with the tower. One myth tells about Akinfy Demidov’s counterfeit coins that actually contained a greater percentage of silver than government money. This is probably the only time in history when fake money was worth more than real money.

Iron empire

Between 1716 and 1725 Nikita built four new metallurgical works in the Urals. Demidov became an arms tycoon, employing thousands and earning, by the time of his death in 1725, some 100,000 rubles a year.

By the end of the 18th century the Demidov industrial empire included 55 plants and factories producing 40% of the total amount of iron and cast iron manufactured in Russia. Besides obligatory deliveries of weapons and ammunition (amounting to 20% of all production) the Demidov plants provided the Russian market with sheet iron and various metal ware such as mugs, jars, kettles and samovars.

Nikita Demidov had three sons: Akinfy (1678-1745), Grigory (killed by his son Ivan in 1728), and Nikita (died 1758).

In 1720, Peter the Great granted Nikita Demidov the title of prince as a reward for his services.

Demidov’s sons

1. Akinfy Demidov was the first son of Nikita Demidov. After the death of his father, Akinfy inherited the family business. His workers went up to the Altay Mountains and found rich deposits of silver; they learned to work malachite and other semi-precious Ural stones, turning them into wonderful decorations, vases and caskets.

Akinfy added eight steel works and arms factories between 1717 and 1735 and started mining development in the Urals and Western Siberia. For his services, Peter the Great granted Akinfy and his brothers hereditary nobility.

However, the Demidov family’s external well-being couldn’t solve internal family problems. Demidov’s sons were in bitter dispute over their father’s heritage after he left most of his fortune to his eldest son Akinfy. In his turn, Akinfy left his possessions to his son Nikita (1724—1789), who was born into Akinfy’s second marriage. Akinfy’s elder sons, Grigory (1715-1761) and Prokofy (1710—1786), sued their brother, finally earning the right to divide their father’s fortune equally amongst themselves.

Nikita Demidov Nikita Demidov

Nikita Demidov, the namesake of his grandfather, was fond of sciences and favored artists and scientists. He published a magazine called Traveling to Foreign Lands where he included many remarks and observations based on his travel experiences. He corresponded with Voltaire and in 1779 he founded an award for “success in mechanics.” He was engaged in philanthropic activities and became a benefactor of philanthropic organizations.

Nikita's other grandson from his eldest son, Prokofy, was reputed to have a kind heart and a very eccentric character. According to some accounts, in 1778 he organized a public feast wherein 500 people drank so much wine they died. A significant part of his inheritance was spent on charity donations. He established Moscow’s first foster home and St. Petersburg’s College of Commerce.

2. The fate of Nikita Senior's second son Grigory Demidov was the most unfortunate as he was murdered by his own son, Ivan, who feared that his father would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and leave all his fortune to the eldest child in the family – his sister Akulina. Ivan was executed for the murder. Akulina Demidova (married Danilova) successfully continued the family’s mining industry business.

3. The third of Nikita Demidov’s sons, Nikita Nikitich Demidov (born late 1680s-early 1690s - died 1758), was hot-tempered and workers at his factories often revolted. An expert in the mining industry, he successfully worked at the mining board, which regulated the work of the industry, and set up several iron processing factories. He was made State Advisor in recognition of his services. He had five sons but his family line eventually died out.

Subsequent generations

The formidable Demidov wealth was squandered by Nikolay, the grandson of Akinfy and son of Nikita Demidov (1773 - 1828). He inherited his father’s industrial empire at the age of 15 and began to spend money so recklessly that the government assigned wards to him. However, his wealth was recouped in September 1795 when he married Baroness Elizaveta Stroganova (Stroganoff), daughter of the wealthy merchant Aleksandr Stroganov.

Nikolay entered diplomatic service and the young couple moved to Paris, becoming ardent supporters of Napoleon I of France. However, rising Franco-Russian tensions forced his recall and they moved back to Russia via Italy, arriving in 1812 and joining the Russian forces to fight Napoleon.

With age, Demidov turned from a squanderer into a successful businessman. He modernized his plants and doubled his fortune. He gave his home over to many industries and public utility services, perfecting the exploitation of mines and raising his income to five million.

In 1813 Demidov donated several natural collections to the Moscow University to replace those lost during the war. He also financed the construction of four bridges in Saint Petersburg.

During the reign of Emperor Alexander I, Nikolay Demidov served as a Chamberlain, Commander of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem and a Secret Councilor. In 1819 he was appointed Russian Ambassador to the Court of Tuscany. In Florence, Nikolay Demidov acquired 42 hectares of land north of Florence from the Catholic Church and built the Villa di San Donato, from where he derived his European title of Prince San Donato.

Nikolay also initiated a series of schools, hospitals and public charities throughout Tuscany. In San Donato Nikolay established a theater, and an academy for foreign teachers to study languages, mathematics and physics. He also compiled an art collection that became famous throughout Europe.

Demidov legacy

Thanks to Nikita Demidov and his descendants, Russia became the leading pig iron producer in continental Europe, following the discovery of iron mines in the Ural Mountains and Siberia. In fact it produced as much as the rest of Europe combined.

The arms they produced and supplied to the Russian army largely determined the outcome of Peter the Great’s wars, securing Russia’s expanding borders and establishing its reputation in the West.

Nikita Demidov’s descendants successfully moved into exploitation of the mineral wealth of Russia, including precious and semiprecious metals, and even exported them to many European countries.

Coming from peasant origins, the Demidov family rose to unprecedented heights; they were second in wealth only to the Tsar, who granted them princehood for their contribution to the Russian Empire.

Moreover, they also made significant donations and investments in educational and cultural venues, as well as charities and were instrumental in shaping the new image of Russia started by Peter the Great.

Written by Yulia Bokova and Olga Prodan, RT

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