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From rags to riches: how the children of the peasants became oligarchs in Russia

Before the coup of 1917, Russia was unique in that, on the one hand, there was social inequality in the country: some had everything from birth, others nothing. On the other hand, the children of former serfs sometimes flew to the very top of the social ladder.

There were hundreds, if not thousands of people in the Empire who came from not just the poor, but from frankly poor families who managed to become oligarchs in modern terms. Some serfs as a result became much richer than their masters – there would be will, intelligence and energy, and this despite the fact that they grew literally in hunger and cold, without gaining any systematic knowledge. At best, the serf oligarchs completed several classes of the parochial school, but their children and grandchildren received the best upbringing and education.

The peasant share – the whole century bondage?

The first real opportunity to get into the people of the serfs got in the times of the hurricane reforms of Peter the Great. The king-reformer was generally famous for his ability to find gifted people in the most diverse social strata, while not paying attention to the fact that the next nugget found by him barely knows how to read and write – the main requirement was the desire to learn and benefit the state.

The most vivid example of this is the Demidov family. At the end of the 17th century, Peter I was going to fight with Sweden and therefore often visited Tula gunsmiths, where he met the blacksmith Nikita Demidych Antufyev, the son of a serf in the Tula province.

From rags to riches: how the children of the peasants became oligarchs in Russia

The childhood of the future of the largest industrialist passed in severe deprivation – the family literally starved. In the end, the father of Nikita, Demid G., hired a blacksmith at the Tula Arms Factory. Sons, he, of course, puts the case from the very childhood. The head of the family dies when Nikita was barely eight years old, but the boy has already become an apprentice, and then an excellent master of his craft.

Peter the Great notices this and sends the son of a serf to the Urals in order to found a metallurgical plant there, as a result of which rather quickly Russia caught up with and overtook the western competitors in the production of metal: the network of Demidov metallurgical plants grew and expanded, the Russian army won out in the Northern War and won back her vital sea routes. The sons and grandsons of the industrialist only strengthened the position of the clan.

But was Nikita Demidov trained in reading and writing? Historians do not give an exact answer to this. It is only known for sure that the signs for him were always signed either by the son or by the salesmen. There are, however, a number of testimonies of contemporaries that he still knew how to read – in any case, he looked through the documentation himself. The almost complete absence of basic education and low descent did not prevent him from getting into the lists of the first rich of Russia.

From rags to riches: how the children of the peasants became oligarchs in Russia


Domestic history made a second sharp turn at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1804, the peasants were allowed petty trade in the shops, and two years later – already wholesale. By the decree of 1824 they were allowed to produce industry, but not otherwise than with the taking of special evidence. Due to this, the most resourceful serfs started their own business. The initial capital was made by resale of agricultural products in the city and, on the contrary, they carried urban goods to the villages. Serf people began to crowd the urban merchants and industrialists. And all this – despite the brutal taxes.

Our reference. Peasant entrepreneurs paid the state for certificates (a patent for activity) many times more than free people. Thus, the city merchant of the 3rd guild paid 220 rubles, and the peasant-merchant of the same 3rd guild already paid 4000 rubles, an astronomical sum for those times. And, of course, serf businessmen unfastened the master’s annual rent, reaching several thousand rubles a year. But all the same, merchants and industrialists from peasants grew rich and flourished.

Just like Savva Morozov – the founder of the famous dynasty of industrialists and entrepreneurs. He was born into a family of Old Believers peasants in the village of Zuyevo, Moscow province, that is, to serfs. Education, like most ordinary children of that time, received not just bad, but very bad. The future oligarch barely knew how to read, he learned only the simplest arithmetic actions, but since childhood he dreamed of finding freedom and material well-being. To achieve this goal, while still a teenager, Sawa tried to break through in several professions at once: for example, he was a shepherd and a cab driver. Then, as a young man, he became a weaver and went on foot to Moscow to sell his own goods to dealers.

From rags to riches: how the children of the peasants became oligarchs in Russia

Finally, the amount of effort made turned into quality – Savva Vasilievich managed to open his own silk-weaving workshop, he gained a clientele from the highest strata of society. As a still old man, Sawa, together with his five sons, bought out of serfdom for 17,000 rubles and acquired from his former landowner a part of the land. He founded the famous Morozov manufactory on them. And a native of the serf family received hereditary honorary citizenship, became a merchant of the first guild, amassed enormous capital and built numerous factories.

Shorygin – here is another famous surname. The founder of this dynasty, Ivan Mikhailovich Shorygin, was the serf of Sofia Grigorievna Volkonskaya, the sister of the Decembrist Volkonsky. In childhood, he mastered only a simple letter, but from an early age stood out among his peers with remarkable ability to work, technical skills and entrepreneurial ingenuity.

Very early, Ivan Mikhailovich opens up a hand-weaving factory-light and comes up with giving the yarn to neighboring peasants to work at home. This know-how had its dividends – soon the serf entrepreneur became a very wealthy person, but he could only obtain free citizen status 30 years later … However, all these years his business grew and flourished – by the beginning of the 20th century the fixed capital of the manufacturing association founded Shorygin, was 1 million rubles – the amount is simply fantastic.

By the example of this kind, it is interesting to trace how priorities have changed from generation to generation. The grandson of the half-literate Ivan Mikhailovich, Poliyevkt, was already a brilliantly educated man, becoming the chairman of the Kovrov district council (that is, the head of the city administration), a philanthropist, built a Zemstvo school and a poorhouse, using his own funds, was a church leader at the church. The son of Polievkt and the great-grandson of the serf, Pavel, studied in Heidelberg and the Sorbonne, became an engineer and a scientist-chemist, in the times of the USSR he received the title of academician. Other brilliant scientists and public figures were in the Shorygin family.

Another vivid example of that time – Nikolai Aleksandrovich Vtorov, who found himself, as they would say now, in the service sector. He was nicknamed the Russian Morgan for business acumen. According to Forbes, he owned the largest state of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century (60 million gold rubles).

From rags to riches: how the children of the peasants became oligarchs in Russia

Nikolai Alexandrovich was born after the abolition of serfdom, but his family did not bathe in luxury at all. The father of the future capitalist, in the hope of a better share, moved from Kostroma to Siberia and opened a department store. At first the large family lived very hard – there were 8 sons in it, and all of them had to help in the shop as a child. Nikolai Aleksandrovich, despite the fact that he was not sent to the gymnasium and did not hire private teachers, in 12 years he actively developed the family business. At 15, he distinguished himself by selling non-existent rights to the Tomsk – Novonikolayevsk section of the road, and in 20, he received a share in a gold mining enterprise. As he grew older, the business founded by his parents grew and grew stronger.

In the prime of his career, Vtorov created the first supermarket chain in our country under the brand, the passage of Vtorov. All its stores were equipped with the latest technology, met a single standard and kept a common pricing policy acceptable to the public. But this was not enough for an active Nikolai Alexandrovich: he later creates a Europe hotel chain, also adhering to common standards, develops a project for village shops with inns, and finally founds the Electrostal plant in the Moscow region.

. There have always been a lot of people who have realized the smallest opportunity in Russia – much more than was commonly believed in the Soviet era. This and Elisha Martynovich Tretyakov, the founder of the Tretyakov dynasty, a native of the serfs of the Kaluga province. This is the famous Mosolov family, which emerged from the serf landowner Ryumin. These are the manufacturers of Guskov and Zhukov, who were born as serfs in Ivanovo, and many others. But there were also immigrants from raznochintsy, from burghers, and emigrants who managed without any initial capital, connections and even a decent education to make themselves – according to the well-known American expression. But we will tell about it next time.

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