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The First Pages in the History of the Academy of Sciences


Indeed, Peter perfectly understood the advantages of well-developed sciences for his country.

For a long time Peter had nourished the idea of establishing the Academy of Sciences. There were quite a lot of projects, but the whole endeavor seemed to drag on. In fact, there weren't any native scholars in Russia, and inviting foreign ones proved quite problematic. Peter demanded that the most prominent European scientists be summoned, but not all of them were eager to go to a far-away and unknown northern country. Besides, Peter always found himself in the midst of most urgent matters requiring his attention, which distracted him from bringing to fruition his plans of establishing the Academy.

But at last, on January 22, 1724, at a Senate meeting, the project for the foundation of the Academy of Sciences was finally approved. It was decided to use the house of the nobleman Shafirov, who was in the tsar's disgrace at that time, to accommodate the Academy at least temporarily. Peter even ordered that a house-keeper be hired to feed the academicians so that the visiting scholars should not "waste their time" in local taverns.

According to Peter's vision, the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences was to be markedly different from its western counterparts. It should unite, first of all, the university, where people were to study medicine, philosophy and law; secondly it should also incorporate a gymnasium to train the future university students, and finally, contain the Academy itself, or "the assembly of learned and skillful people". In Europe all three establishments existed and functioned separately. Peter believed that such an order of things was unsuitable for Russia. He thought that "the sciences will not spread to the population of Russia quickly enough" if "they would establish only the Academy". And just creating a university would not form a reliable system of education in the country, since young people not only had to "learn the ABCs" but in future were to "master knowledge of higher degrees of sciences". This is why the tsar wanted so much to make the St. Petersburg Academy a place that would become "a habitat for the sciences" as well as in the future become a cultural center and at the same time handle strategic matters of state.

Another peculiarity of the Russian Academy was the fact that it was being created by a government willing to financially support it, while in the west academies were concerned with obtaining sponsorship themselves. Peter allocated 25,000 rubles per year to support the Academy - at that time an impressive sum. He also promised to pay the academicians "healthy wages".

Negotiations with foreign scholars on the subject of bringing them over to Russia to work in the Russian Academy of Sciences continued throughout 1724 up to the eve of Peter's death. Many foreign scientists were reluctant to go to Russia. Some masked their refusal with flattery, others openly expressed their doubts in the success of new ventures in a half-wild and practically illiterate country, where there were hardly even primary schools. On the other hand, the Russian government selected candidates to the Academy carefully, even refusing some of them. Thus, for example, Peter refused to let the mathematician Sleibe, who bragged of his knowledge, into the country on the grounds that "he is not a man of the right sort".

Peter assigned Johann Schumacher to take charge of the delicate and sensitive issue of inviting foreign scholars. Schumacher arrived in Russia in 1714 and was given the position of librarian in the cabinet of rarities. At Peter's order, Schumacher went abroad to invite scientists and to acquire the most advanced and accurate physical and astronomical instruments.

Soon after the death of Peter the Great, in August 1725, Empress Catherine I, his wife and successor, received the first academicians in the Shafirov House. In winter and spring of 1725 a group of talented and outstanding people arrived to become the first Russian academicians, since Russia didn't have any native scholars of such caliber: the brilliant mathematician Leonard Eiler; Nicholas and Daniel Bernoulli, descendants of a famous family of Swiss mathematicians; historian and ethnographer G. Miller; naturalist I. Gmelin; and astronomer Joseph Nicholas Delille. Incidentally, Delille was responsible for the idea of firing a cannon shot from the fortress at noon every day. Delille brought with him an accurate astronomical clock so that every noon he would give a signal from the Kunstkammer tower to attendants in the Peter and Paul Fortress, who then fired the cannon.

We always visualize academicians as dignified awe-inspiring people with white hair, but in fact the first Russian academicians were extremely young: Eiler was only 20 years old, Nicholas Bernoulli was 30 and his brother Daniel was only 25; Miller was 20 and Gmelin only 18. The Academy was ceremoniously inaugurated in the House of Shafirov and Catherine announced: "We want all ventures conceived by the Emperor to be completed with God's help". Professor Hermann made a solemn speech in Latin on the future flourishing of the sciences, which Peter had considered most important for the future glory of Russia. The empress, formerly an illiterate peasant, understood nothing of this speech; nor did his Highness Prince Alexander Menshikov, Governor of St. Petersburg, who was just as illiterate. All the same, they must have appreciated the importance of this historical moment.

The first Russian academicians were a strange bunch. Living in a strange country, among an illiterate population, with wild and uncivilized fashions and customs, and unable to express themselves since they did not have sufficient command of the language, they encountered many difficulties. Some proved to be stronger than others; the weakest returned to their native countries, but those who stayed worked for the glory of their second homeland and did much to further its prosperity and future development.

At that time the concept of what an academician should know differed greatly from the modern understanding of such a scholar's functions. It was generally believed that an academician must know everything, be able to do everything and answer any question; in addition to their encyclopedic knowledge and constant scientific research work, they also had to deliver lectures and supervise studies of university students. They had to evaluate the working qualities of various devices and inventions, explain the cause of a person's death, write reviews on manuscripts, recite odes and speeches at different occasions, compose liturgies as well as know how to create coats of arms, mottoes and horoscopes, participate in the organization of fire-works, etc. Besides, the Academy published two newspapers, calendars, menologies, and, of course, scientific editions, which often came in huge volumes of large format. Let's not forget that bureaucrats constantly interfered with the work of the academicians, besetting them with impossible demands and poisoning their lives with petty nagging; at the same time quite often they did not provide the scholars with the means necessary for their work.

All the more fascinating and astonishing was the enthusiasm, industriousness and devotion of the first Russian scientists. Despite unfavorable conditions, they managed not only to "produce and accomplish the sciences" but also to do a lot of other things useful for Russia. They brilliantly performed, for example, their teaching duties. Only thirty years after the foundation of the Academy it already numbered 10 Russian academicians, and by its 50th anniversary this number increased to 15.

In many aspects the Russian academy surpassed even the best European academies and universities. Academician Billfinger, who returned to Germany six years after the St. Petersburg academy was founded, pointed out in a public speech that "Those who want to thoroughly study the natural and exact sciences, should go to Paris, London or St. Petersburg. There are many scholars in all areas of the sciences and a good stock of instruments. Peter, who was proficient in those sciences, managed to collect all the necessary equipment to develop them. He accumulated an excellent assortment of books, expensive instruments, exotic natural rarities and objects of art... in short, all that is respected and admired by adepts".

After the founding of the Academy of Sciences, the Kunstkammer was put under the academy's supervision. The collections were accommodated in one of the buildings that had belonged to the academy in the 18th century. In addition to the collections, it housed a library, cabinets and workshops. Academic workshops were at one time supervised by A. Nartov, Peter's favorite turner.

By the way, the famous round table, which was used by the first academicians during their meetings is now on display in the Kunstkammer, or the Lomonosov Museum, as it is called now. In the center of the table stands a carved gilded "zertsalo", or special triangular prism bearing the coat-of-arms of the Russian Empire, which in the days of Peter the Great was used to display his decrees on proper behavior in public places. Before 1917 such prisms could be seen on desks in all governmental institutions of the Russian Empire.