Mikhail The Great

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A star-filled vault,

has opened up;

No number is there to the stars,

No bottom is there to the vault


On the eve of the 300th anniversary of Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765), a sensational book by geographer Leonid Kolotilo and historian Vitaly Dotsenko was published in St. Petersburg “Issues of Blood: the Legend of the Great Lomonosov - Son of Peter the Great”, in which the authors argue that all history of Lomonosov’s early years is an invention of his first biographer, Yakov Shtelin. So they put forward their own version: Mikhail’s mother, a Pomor girl, having found herself in St. Petersburg, became one of the funs of the tsar, became pregnant from him, and after having received a blessing of childbirth, gave birth to a boy in a marriage with an eminent Pomor Vasily Lomonosov. She died early, when her son was only 9 years old. After that, Mikhail was raised already by stepmother.

Oddly enough, this version does not change anything in that wonderful set-out, from which the fate of an unknown village youth started. At the age of 20, in 1730, having received a passport, on December night Mikhail secretly leaves his father’s house for the village Mishaniskaya, and after having caught up with the merchandise fishing cart which had left for Moscow the day before, together with carters and merchants he gets on foot within a month to the old capital. Besides corned beef, Lomonosov also brought along two books in his scrip: Magnitsky’s Arithmetic and Grammar of Smotritsky, as he later wrote in his biography.

Yes! In this reckless burst, the features of Peter and the Petrine era are lurking.

Mikhail’s plan was at the same time brilliantly simple and bold; he decided to enroll in school of the Saviour in the then Slavic-Greek-Latin Academy in Moscow.

Pomors were the heart of the Russian North, free from serfdom, the so-called state peasants; they lived in the harsh shore of the North Sea, engaged in fishing, constructing new ships, trading, exploring trade routes. Mikhail’s father had a sailing ship, galliot, a team of sailors, where he was both the owner and captain, and navigator. For this purpose one needs to have a good head on his shoulders. Being still quite a boy, Lomonosov went to the White Sea with his father in the summer. He was strong beyond his years, but apart from the sea he was passionately reaching for literacy; almost independently under light tutelage of a sexton he learned to write and read, parsed the Latin words, knew the basics of English and German (the Pomors constantly came into contact with foreign vessels), was addicted to reading. In short, 20-year-old late bloomer appeared before the Moscow monks as a literate, educated young man, absolutely fit for further study. Plus his spirit of enterprise, ability to stand up for himself, glowing with health, neatness in dress, in addition, sincere disposition and the romantic pathos of soul.

In the Soviet popular history about Lomonosov’s life it was often discussed about the study of a peasant’s son at school intended for minor nobility, where he had to lie pretending to be from a noble family. I can remember in my childhood, there was a colored filmstrip on Lomonosov, where malicious kids pestered the poor guy like a swarm of bees... But this problem did not exist!

Who could touch such a strong man?

Who could compete with his literacy?

In just one year of study, Mikhail was transferred through three classes at once to the fourth, and samples of his beautiful - even foppish handwriting have survived in the archives of the church to the present day.

Finally, the key condition for his career...

It was Peter the Great’s era!

And although the tsar had already gone, and his successors were fighting self-forgetfully for power, the start for the ship of state was already given: hundreds of schools, dozens of mining plants and factories, army, navy, post, roads, the new capital with the Academy of Sciences and so on required fast minds, educated people and skilled managers.

In short, Lomonosov easily fitted into the life of the religious school and even became a favorite person of the legendary church reformer and cruel inquisitor Theophan Prokopovich, who in those years was well received at the top circles of the Russian Orthodox Church and was the first in the Holy Synod. Peter the First’s associate, the author of the Word of Praise to the Russian Navy, patriot, bookworm, a man of penetrating mind, when grading Greek exams in Moscow, quickly discerned a future luminary in the boy, but in what field?

The Greek-Latin Academy was preparing elite for the church, and Mikhail obviously was a man of flesh, a sturdy fellow, his turn of mind betrayed in the Pomor the makings of a scholar, encyclopedist, but not a sanctimonious person...

Looking ahead, we say - Lomonosov was a religious man and a zealous parishioner, he always spoke and wrote about God in verse, with sincere zeal of a Christian man, but at the same time he easily took all the transcendental things out of the scientific interest and intently studied the nature properly as a naturalist, practitioner, chemist and physicist.

Thus, the twist of fate brought him a clear advantage.

But his luck had just begun.

In 1735 the Academy received a request from St. Petersburg to send a dozen of young men gifted in the sciences to study in the capital school at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Although Mikhail Lomonosov did not formally graduated from the final educational level, theology, he was among those selected, and five years later, after an overnight flight from his father’s house - he found himself in Peter’s House, a new Russian capital, which was in those years under active construction; new streets and quarters attached to the palaces on the banks of the Neva River; swaths of the forest were cut.

Pushkin’s words come to mind at once saying that Peter floated out Russia like a new ship in clatter and rattle of the shipyard.

Since moving to St. Petersburg the youth’s way to the elite of monks was interrupted, his fate was now engaged to a science and practice, retort and telescope.

In 1736, power in the capital and the country was in the hands of the favorite of the Empress Anna Ivanovna, German Ernst Johann Biron. Later our historian Vasily Klyuchevsky wrote with irony about this epoch: “The Germans have poured into Russia like rubbish from a leaky bag, clung to the yard, sat round the throne, getting on all well-paying jobs in management.”

Later, Lomonosov would be menace for foreign domination in science but in those times, all the German, western thins were for him a sign of selectness, that is why he began to quickly and thoroughly learn German (he fluently spoke and wrote it) as well as Italian, French… It is fair to say that our great Pomor was able to adapt to circumstances, was ready to accept the laws of the court, he was able, when necessary, to smash a fist in someone’s face, but he also knew how to flatter. Later, he had no equal in writing pompous odes, for example, for an ode in honor of the accession to the throne of Elizaveta Petrovna, he received 2,000 rubles, issued in small coins by the Treasury to the author. There were no big coins. Lomonosov needed two carts to bring home the bags of copper coins!

In St. Petersburg under the patronage of Theophanes Prokopovich - just the same 1736 - Lomonosov among three best students of the country goes abroad to Marburg, Saxony, to Professor Henkel for the study of mining sciences and metallurgy. Russia especially needed these specialists; in the Urals and Siberia hundreds of ore deposits were opened; mines had to be built for their development, but foreigners refused to go to the end-of-the-world, and there were no Russian experts in the mining business.

Incidentally, in the order of the then president of the Academy of Sciences, Korff about students being sent to Germany, Lomonosov’s belonging to peasants was clearly marked: a peasant’s son, Arhangelogorodskaya province, Dvinsk uyezd, Kurostrovskaya volost, 25 years old.

In Marburg, the students lived off the Russian treasury. They rented housing. They bought clothes, ate well, and traveled a lot. They bought books - that is when Mikhail began to collect his impressive library. Here are a few books (in German and English) from an extensive list: Gulliver by Swift, Shakespeare’s plays, Foundations of Chemistry by Stahl, Robinson Crusoe by Defoe, Organic Geometry by MacLaurin…

European science and culture experienced a unique flourishing in those years. The great German philosopher Leibniz wrote the Theodicy; Voltaire wrote the tragedy of Brutus; Covent Garden Theatre was opened in London; a wonderful Trevi Fountain was created in Rome, than which there is no finer; brilliant organ fugues by Bach, operas by Handel, comedies by Marivaux, Manon Lescaut novel by Prevost (which a year later was confiscated and publicly burned for immorality) were written, a landmark work – the Linnaean system was created by Carl Linnaeus; the Swedish Swedenborg’s work on the smelting of iron was published...

There is no specific information about Lomonosov’s life in Germany; it appears there were constant delays in sending public money; by hearsay, Lomonosov was a ringleader of student fights and binges, but at the same time he toiled over study materials, and disappeared in libraries. Once he got into recruits, but escaped, and eventually married a pretty young German woman named Elisabeth-Christine Tsilh, a daughter of a landlady, whose room Mikhail was renting. The newly wedded couple was married in the Reformed Church, of which one can conclude that Lomonosov was free in matters of faith.

The marriage proved to be among the strongest, Elizabeth bore her husband two daughters and a son.

Meanwhile, the situation at homeland changed.

In October 1740, the Empress Anna Ivanovna died, handing the reins of government to the new Empress Anna Leopoldovna and her baby Ivan Antonovich, under the regency of Biron.

On June 8, 1741 – by sea from Amsterdam - Lomonosov returned to St. Petersburg, and after another four months - in November - the royal guard committed coup d’etat against the German party in power and enthroned the daughter of Peter the Great - Elizaveta Petrovna.

The wheel of fortune is working again for Lomonosov.

That was the most favorable moment in his scientific career, the Germans are losing power, and soon the young scientist becomes the first Russian academician at the Academy. His generous nature and furious scientific temperament are given full play.

How did our hero look like?

A few portraits of Mikhail Vasilyevich have survived. A courtier looks from the gala portrait in a scarlet west coat embroidered in gold with baggy cuffs, in white shirt lined with Mechlin lace, in white marble wig, with compass in hands. And though the portrait is evidently full of flattery, his nature is grasped exactly - a hard worker, thinker, scholar is before us. The image of Lomonosov is more exactly conveyed by the great sculptor Shubin. A marble bust of the scientist amazes by noble appearance, spiritual dedication of the hero, power of the mind.

By the way, the rare resemblance of Lomonosov to the Empress Elizaveta Petrovna is evident everywhere on the portraits - the same chin, similar cheeks, nose, lips, and in general, the similar sculpting the face. Of course, St. Petersburg court’s grasping eyes could not help noticing this. Many still remembered Peter’s fierce masculine temper. Perhaps here lies the source of the legend that Mikhail and Elizaveta are brother and sister, Peter’s flesh and blood.

Anyway, coming back from Marburg, the recent student Lomonosov showed wonders of politeness at the Russian court; in this labyrinth of self-esteem and the apotheosis of intrigue, he became the most devoted poet to the throne, glorifying the affairs of Elizabeth in solemn style. He gained popularity. The Empress adored him, and the all-mighty Count Shuvalov became his patron. He knew how to please and impress on by the power of mind, breadth of interests, and indifference to fame.

This trait - to be a favorite of the power players - brings Lomonosov closer to another genius, Leonardo da Vinci, who more than anyone knew how to captivate any palace, from the court of Sforza, duke of Milan, to the French Court of King Francis the First.

What is amazing is the artistic talent with which Lomonosov executed a series of monumental mosaics, including a brilliant portrait of Peter and Count Shuvalov and a wonderful mosaic The Battle of Poltava.

But his main goal was just to find the truth.

Here’s a typical story, which perfectly describes Lomonosov’s character.

Once, in winter, he was walking home after midnight, on a new avenue, recently laid out in the woods. His move was seen by a gang of sailors. “Don’t move!” three bandits shouted and jumped out of an ambush. But the poor guys were lucked out. Lomonosov punched the first, kicked the second and seized the third by the scruff of the neck. The two took to their heels at once and the third was caught by Lomonosov who began to ask him for what purpose they had attacked, what plot they had devised, what names of the escaped men were, and what insolent fellows needed… He treated the bandit raid as a scientific problem, which needed to be resolved as quickly as possible…

“For pity’s sake!” the sailor implored, “No purpose, we just wanted to rob…”

To rob! In frost! Lomonosov became furious, and then ordered the robber to remove his coat, pants, boots, made up a bundle of them and went home.

It was not enough to solve the problem; he turned the confrontation with the thieves in a visual upbringing lesson.

This truly Renaissance personality smoothly combined a gift of a scholar and a poet’s talent, a historian’s intelligence, an inventor’s genius, who among other things created a prototype of the helicopter, an astronomer’s insight, a taxonomist’s ability, a muralist’s talent, and so on.

Here are just a few at random his most important achievements: he understood the principle of atomic and molecular structure of matter, learned the causes of the elasticity of physical bodies, revealed the secrets of chemistry through the laws of motion, created the science of minerals, discovered the principles of atmospheric electricity, made a pendulum centroscopicum, a barometer, a telescope ...

Meanwhile, when listing his achievements, Lomonosov did not consider it necessary to inscribe, for example, his discovery of the atmosphere of the planet Venus.

In 1761, hundreds of astronomers concurrently with him observed with telescope this planet passing in front of the Sun; many noticed a flaming fringe, and the refraction of sunlight at a touch of the circuit to the solar corona, and Lomonosov alone drew the correct conclusion about the presence of a “noble atmosphere” on the planet.

He was not devoid of generosity, and when, during a failed experiment in electricity, physicist Richman was killed, Lomonosov did the utmost of his power that the German’s widow and children were not left without a livelihood.

Lomonosov’s career is another creature of the wonderful life: to rise from a country boy with a couple of books in the scrip, to an excellent scientist, academician and noble, a favorite of the Empress, an owner of houses and villages, an honorary member of the Swedish and Bologna Academies of Sciences, to soar like an eagle to the Olympus of science - a few people are able to do it.

Lomonosov is the first Russian scientist of the world level.

Finally, the Moscow University was founded upon his project.

Pushkin (lightly criticizing his poems) rightly observed that between Peter the Great and Catherine, he was alone to be the supporter of education.

Lomonosov passed away unjustly early, of pneumonia, at his house on the Moika in the hands of his beloved wife and surrounded by children.

He died at the age of Peter the Great, having lived the same 54 years.

His death was marked with an unusual order of Catherine the Great – on the same day to seal the entire personal files of Lomonosov and to deliver every single paper in her cabinet.

She could not have been unaware of the rumors about who the real father of Mikhail Vasilyevich was, and being sensitive to issues of succession to the throne she must have destroyed everything that could answer this delicate issue.

Anatoly Korolev, writer, member of the Russian PEN Club