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Prominent Russians: Vasily Tatishchev

April 26, 1686 – July 26, 1750

Vasily Tatishchev was a prominent Russian statesman and ethnographer, best remembered as the author of the first full-scale Russian history.

Feeling that Russian historiography had been neglected and largely ignored by scientists, he deemed it necessary to publish several legal monuments of great interest, such as "Russkaya Pravda" and the Law Code of 1550 along side the historical works that brought him fame. 

Early years

Vasily Tatishchev was born on April 26, 1686 in his father’s manor in the Pskov province of Russia. Although his family was of great antiquity, they were not well-to-do.

In 1704, at the age of 18, Vasily entered military service but at the same time studied at the Moscow School of Artillery and Engineering. His professor there was Jacob Bruce, a Russian statesman, military leader and scientist of self-proclaimed Scottish descent (Clan Bruce), one of the associates of Peter the Great.

Career beginnings

In 1705 Tatishchev participated in the Battle of Narva - the second Russian siege of Swedish Narva during the Great North War of 1700-1721 that resulted in the capture of the town by Russia. As the troops were stationed in Poland for some time, Tatishchev decided it was a good enough reason to take up Polish.

The Battle of Narva wasn’t the only battle Tatishchev took part in; he also fought in the Battle of Poltava, the decisive victory of Peter I over the Swedish Empire during the Great North War, and in the Prussian campaign.

In 1713 Vasily went abroad for a year to perfect his education. He visited and lived for short periods of time in Berlin, Dresden and Breslau. This trip gave Vasily the opportunity to perfect his German along with other disciplines he was studying. In 1717 in Danzig Tatishchev, by the order of Peter the Great, conducted negotiations for the acquisition of an ancient icon believed to have been performed by Saint Methodius. The Tsar decided to entrust the task to Tatishchev as he believed in his outstanding knowledge of history and relied on him greatly. The negotiations were a failure but Tatishchev managed to gather quite an impressive collection of books abroad, which he brought with him when he finally returned to Russia. His collection now included works in mathematics, military sciences, geography and history.

In 1718 after Tatishchev returned home from another trip abroad, he started serving under Bruce’s command. A year later Bruce approached Peter I with a proposal – he thought it was necessary to draw up a detailed description of the Russian geography and dared to say that Tatishchev would make an ideal candidate for the job. This proposal served as a starting point for the creation of the first large-scale book on the history of Russia. 

Tatishchev was sent to the Urals to work, but failed to immediately present the plan of the future monumental work to the Tsar. However, for some reason, it didn’t make Peter angry, and he simply reminded the historian to present it later.

Tatishchev soon understood the book would be dedicated not so much to geography, as to history. In a letter to his friend he wrote quite proudly that “the Tsar himself asked me to compose a solid geography book.”

The Urals

In 1720 a new mission took Tatishchev away from his historical work – he was sent to the Siberian provinces to find appropriate locations to build ironworks. Vasily didn’t know this part of the country well. He settled at the Uktuss works, where he founded the Mining Office that was later renamed the Siberian High Mining Command.

Tatishchev’s first trip to the Urals turned out to be very fruitful indeed. He literally founded Yekaterinburg which is now the main industrial and cultural center of the Urals Federal District, and chose an appropriate site for the future copper-smelting plant not far from the Egoshiha village, today the city of Perm. He also opened two primary schools near the plants, two more where young men were taught mining engineering and composed special regulations on ecology that were supposed to help save the forest, if followed properly.

Tatishchev’s application to work was rewarded in 1724 when he was made counselor to the Berg-Collegium, a regulatory body of the mining industry. Soon after the appointment he was sent to Sweden on diplomatic and mining business. Tatishchev stayed in Sweden for a year and a half, from December 1724 to April 1726, giving the mining plants a going-over, collecting a handful of drafts and schemes, hiring a lapidary expert who would later take the lapidary industry in Yekaterinburg to new, unexpected heights and getting acquainted with the local scientists.

Upon returning to Russia, Tatishchev complied a report based on his studies and discoveries. In 1727 it became clear he would not be sent back to the Urals. Vasily was appointed a member of the Monetary Division, which officially headed all the mints.

Памятник Татищеву в Тольятти The Tatishchev monument in Togliatti, Russia

Political activities

In this position Tatishchev witnessed the great political changes taking place the country, including the change of power. Anna Ioannovna, the daughter of Ivan V of Russia and niece of Peter the Great, became the new Empress of Russia.

As a person not alien to politics, Tatishchev believed that Anna Ioannovna, who now ruled Russia - a huge country - needed some help. He proposed to set up a Senate that would include 21 men and an Assembly of 100 men. He also proposed regulations to alleviate the position of some of the society layers. But the household troops turned out to be flatly against such innovations, and all Tatishchev’s projects and ideas were rejected. Still, the new government favored Tatishchev, and he was immediately appointed chief judge at the Monetary Division.

After the appointment, Tatishchev started work on improving the Russian coinage system.

The next year, 1731, was marred by a misunderstanding between Tatishchev and Biron, a Baltic German Duke of Courland and Semigallia, regent of the Russian Empire, and Anna Ioannovna’s favorite. The conflict ended with Tatishchev in court, accused of corruption.

In 1734 Tatishchev, however, was released and was sent once again to the Urals where he was asked to build more plants – an activity he had already proven himself at. Tatishchev was also asked to compose the mining statute.

Vasily proved to be truly worth the credence he had been given: while he was in the Urals, the number of plants reached 40, new mines were opening and Tatishchev believed that at least 36 more plants could be built. They were, indeed, built, but not until several decades later.

In 1737 Biron, who was still harboring a grudge against Tatishchev, made up his mind to take him out of the mining industry and Tatishchev was sent on the Orenburg expedition.

Tatishchev returned to Saint Petersburg in 1739 and had to face a commission that was set up especially to consider complaints filed against him. He was accused of bribery, dishonesty and other crimes. Though these accusations may not have been unfounded, Tatishchev’s position would have been much better, had he been on better terms with Biron. The commission ruled that Tatishchev was to be arrested and held in the Peter and Paul Fortress. In September 1740 he was condemned to deprivation of all ranks, but the ruling never came into effect.

Geographer, cartographer, historian and scientist

The fall of Biron brought Tatishchev once again to the foreground – he was released in 1741 and sent to rule the Astrakhan province, but a lack of substantial military forces prevented him from actually achieving much. When Elizaveta Petrovna, the daughter of Peter the Great, ascended the throne, Tatishchev wanted to return to Moscow, but was not permitted to do so and had to retain the post until 1745, when he was dismissed after a misunderstanding with the governor. Tatishchev immediately moved to his village of Boldino located not far from Moscow and refused to leave it until his last day. It was in Boldino that Tatishchev engaged in writing the last pages of his book.

Today this impressive work, the five-volume “Russian History Dating Back to the Most Ancient Times,” is considered Tatischev’s chief scientific achievement. The book is also the reason why Vasily Tatischev is often called the first Russian historian.

Apart from dipping into history, Tatischev made a great contribution to the allied sciences of geography and geodesy. He believed that geography was developing too slowly in Russia, and the main reason for that was the lack of factual material. The scientist was deeply dissatisfied by the occasional and inaccurate information that was possible to obtain from the existing records and decided to collect the necessary geographical data with the help of a specially-invented survey that was to be sent to the far corners of the country on behalf of the Academy of Sciences.

The survey was finally composed in the mid thirties of the 18th century and consisted of nearly 200 questions. It became the first in the array of surveys that soon gained huge popularity in Russia. However, the first one wasn’t approved by the Academy of Sciences and its brilliant author could not send it around the country as planned; only in Siberia was able to implement it (having been appointed head of Siberian plants, Tatischev did not have to ask the Academy of Sciences before making a decision). The received data led the historian and geographer to start a book dedicated to Siberian geography, which, however, was never finished.

Cartography was not left unattended by Tatischev either. His interest in this science, which he believed was very closely linked to geography, was simply a logical result of all his previous work. His geodesic activities brought his attention to the quality of land-surveying, which he considered unsatisfactory to say the least. In order to redress the situation he wrote a letter of instruction addressed to geodesists.

Thus Tatischev managed to become a pioneer in Russia’s natural sciences and spent much time and energy trying to justify his ideas and teach young scientists. Vasily Tatischev is often called the first true geographer in Russia – none before him had understood the role geography played in the life of the country.

Last days

Several days before his death Tatishchev went to the church in Boldino and asked the workmen to dig him a grave near those of his relatives. He monitored the process personally and asked the priest to say a prayer over the grave beforehand. When Tatishchev returned home that day he was greeted by a messenger who had brought him a decree saying he was pardoned: he was also awarded the Order of Alexander Nevsky - given to distinguished Russian citizens who had served their country with honor in politics or on the battlefield. Though the historian was touched, he returned the order saying he was dying. The next day, July 26, he said goodbye to those by his side and died quietly.

Tatishchev’s main work, “Russian History Dating Back to the Most Ancient Times,” was published in five volumes after his death, during Catherine II’s ministry.


All of Tatishchev’s literary works, be they on geography, history or mining, pursued a certain publicist aim. Tatishchev was a true utilitarian. He tried to expound his ideology in the work “The Conversation of Two Friends About the Benefit of Sciences and Academies.” The chief idea of the book was based on the popular and well-known ideas on the natural right, natural morals and natural religion that Tatishchev borrowed from Samuel von Pufendorf, a German jurist, political philosopher, economist, statesman, and historian and Walch. The true aim, according to their ideology, lay in the equilibrium of spiritual forces and in the easy conscience. 

Written by Anna Yudina, RT

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