August 2006


The beginnings of the mining industry in Russia (Part 1)

By I.V. Toropitsyn

Vassily N. Tatischev 


Establishing the mining and metallurgical industry in Russia in the 17th and 18th centuries took place in close cooperation with foreign specialists and Russian masters, who learned from them in the same way England owed its technical achievements of the 16th and 17th centuries to workers hired from advanced countries of Europe. These specialists taught the British technologies and skills necessary to establish new industries like mirror-making, glass-making, casting cannons, production of alum, copper, niter, and others. During this period, mechanical devices such as water pumps, lifts, and ventilation systems were used for underground mining, which improved mining and smelting technology.

In Russia, beginning in the 17th century, foreign specialists in mining were actively involved in ore prospecting and also worked at newly established metallurgical plants. Pyskorsky was the first copper smelting plant in Russia. It was established in 1634 near Solikamsk, on the land of the Pyskorsky monastery on the Kamgorka River in the Urals. In the 1720s, this plant was built anew on government funds near the same river, as the land was bought from the monastery by the state. It was located 15 kilometres away from the town of Solikamsk. German technicians from Saxony were in charge of the entire process, including mining and smelting. A dam was built near the plant to activate the waterwheel that operated the bellows for blowing air in the furnaces. The Pyskorsky plant, which closed in 1657 due to exhaustion of the ore, was the centre for training of new technology. The Russians who managed the process after the Germans left in 1642 were transferred to Kazan.

Foreign specialists were also sent in several expeditions in the 17th century to explore for non-ferrous and noble metal ores. The expeditions traveled to Archangelsk, up the Volga River to Kazan and Simbirsk, to Caucasus, the Urals, and Siberia. In the 1670s, New Ural Ostrozhek became the centre of mining in the Urals. Ore samples were brought there and studied by foreign specialists, originating mainly from Saxony. Descriptions of smelting experiments have survived since then and were later used by miners who opened several large ore deposits in the Urals in the 17th and 18th centuries, thus the beginning of Uktussky, Ekaterinburg, Polevsky, Sysertsky, and other smelting plants.

According to an order by Peter the Great (1672–1725), a group of specialists from the Berg Collegium1 was sent to the Urals in 1720. It included the Saxon specialists and was headed by the Russian artillery captain, Vassily Nikitich Tatischev (1686–1750), who later played an important role in developing natural resources of the Urals and Siberia. The Saxon specialists found, near the Pyskorsky monastery, the possibility to exploit the same ores which were abandoned earlier by the Pyskorsky plant.

Tatischev and the development of mining in Russia

Tatischev came from an impoverished line of Smolensky princes, but due to his knowledge, energy, and capabilities, he became, after Peter the Great and later tsars, one of the most important statesmen of Russia during his 40 years of service. For the first 16 years, he was in the army and participated in the battles of the Northern War, including the famous Poltava battle (1709) where the Swedish troops of Karl XII were defeated. He also took part in the Peace Congress between Russia and Sweden.

One of the main ways to obtain new technical knowledge was to study abroad. Peter the Great regularly sent promising children of nobility to study professions that were rare in Russia. In 1712, Tatischev was sent abroad to Prussia (Berlin), Silesia (Breslau, the present Wrazlow in Poland), and  Dresden, the capital of Saxony, to study engineering, artillery, and mathematics. He spent two and a half years there. In 1717, he was sent to Danzig and in 1724, he was sent to Sweden to hire specialists in mining and also to accommodate Russian pupils at Swedish plants.

From 1720 to 1745, Tatischev was involved in managerial activities. He guided the mining industry of the Urals and Siberia, founded towns and fortresses at the southeastern borders of Russia, developed foreign trade, headed the mint, and took care of finances and monetary policy of the country. As a head of the Orenburg expedition, Kalmyk commission, and as the governor of the Astrakhan region, he expanded Russia’s political influence in Central Asia and Caucasus, and settled the relations between public authorities and non-Russian nationals of the Empire (Bashkirs, Kalmyks, Tatars, peoples of Northern Caucasus). In each assignment, Tatischev showed himself as a talented manager with broad political views. Defending public interests, he often had conflict with some representatives of authority and industrialists, and as a result, he had many enemies in court.

During his first visit to the Urals (1720-1723), Tatischev was in charge of general administrative management of state mines, while a Saxon specialist was responsible for the technical management of all the works at the mines and ironworks. During that period, it was an obligation for all foreign specialists to share with Russian workers not only their skills, but also their experience of repairing different equipment and devices. However, as it was not always the best of workers that came to Russia, Peter the Great demanded that the skills of invited masters be tested. During his reign, a training centre was founded in St. Petersburg in 1718 to teach mining and metallurgy. It was a small plant with two smelters, one silver and one copper, and other equipment. These centres showed how the ore was processed in practice.

Peter the Great also paid great attention to technical achievements and advances in Europe. During his trips abroad, he himself studied technology and individual machines. During his reign, equipment for the minting of coins was introduced in Russia as well as an armory. In general, the technical level of western countries was still higher than in Russia. Nevertheless, during the first quarter of the 18th century, the Russian industry, just like Europe, began to use machinery. In metallurgy, this stage is connected with the name of Willim Ivanovich Gennin (1676–1750), a Dutch engineer who worked for Russia. In 1716, he was sent abroad to hire skilled masters to work in Russia. With their help, he established new workshops and reconstructed old ineffective blast furnaces of the Olonez plant.

In 1719, Gennin made another trip abroad to gain new industrial and technical experience. On his return, he drew a plan of re-equipping the Olonez plant with new foreign machines. According to the historians of that period, the equipment in Russian plants and the quality of the labour were not much different from England, which was behind Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany. It is necessary to stress that some rulers of European countries were not interested in the economic development of Russia and didn’t encourage their specialists to go there. There were cases when Russian representatives were persecuted in Europe, but since the Swedish government had signed the Treaty of Alliance in 1724, the country did not prevent its specialists from working in Russia and would allow scholars from Russia to be trained at Swedish enterprises. Tatischev was aware of the needs of the Russian mining industry, which he had been directing in the Urals and Siberia since 1720. He also knew German, which was widely spoken in Sweden.

Tatischev in Sweden

During his stay in Sweden (1724-1726), Tatischev had an opportunity to learn the most advanced technology and shape his views on its application in Russia. Visiting factories and mines, meeting military men and politicians, masters and owners of enterprises, Tatischev closely studied not only metallurgy but also trade, finance, and the transport routes of Sweden. He saw that the Russian industry was behind that of the Swedish. In his first letter to Peter the Great, he described machines that could pump 40,000 buckets of water from a shaft 50 Russian fathoms deep in one hour, and water being transported through special pipes. The machine was activated by four horses rotating a wheel. He wrote that this machine was most necessary for mining in Russia. Also, water-driven mechanisms were being used at Swedish mines for a long time. For example, due to the improvement of overshot wheel energy of waterfalls and mountain creeks at the mine in Falun, the technology was widely used. One water wheel was used to pump the water from the shaft 156 fathoms deep. This water was transferred to other wheels that lifted ore from deep mines upwards to the surface. One such wheel could activate a mechanism lifting up to 100 poods of ore without any chains or ropes from a depth of 54 fathoms.

In Russia, at that time, almost all mining works were done manually. If any mechanisms were applied (jack rolls, etc.), they were muscle-driven. In the late 1740s, jack rolls were used for the first time to lift ore to the surface at the Zmeinogorsky mine, once considered the largest silver mine. In 1752, a horse capstan was built at one of the shafts. In his letter to Catherine I (1684–1727) on the results of his trip to Sweden, Tatischev tried to explain in detail the secrets of Sweden’s economic success. Among the factors facilitating the growth of the Swedish mining industry, he mentioned the wide use of different water-activated machines at factories and mines, the availability of a qualified labour force in industry, of specialized educational institutions, and the research of Swedish scientists.

Tatischev saw both the positive and the negative sides of the Swedish economy. He found that copper and iron mines were in a rather bad condition. Mines constantly caved in, causing deaths. In Tatischev’s opinion, it happened because “in old times, without skillful supervision, any company could do as it wanted, thus mines collapsed.” But despite that, mining and smelters were the main source of income for the Swedish treasury. Tatischev was surprised to note that some Swedish ore deposits were worse than Russian, but nevertheless, metal smelting was better. He noted that not only skilled masters but also peasants without much knowledge of ores worked in smelting plants. Sweden was not richer in forests than Russia but they did not lack fuel. Tatischev noted that Swedish mines were very deep, e.g. Salberg and Falun were up to 160 fathoms deep. Charcoal was more expensive for the Swedish industry. Also, workers in Sweden got two times more money than those in Russia. At the same time, Swedish metal was less expensive than metal produced in Russia.

He drew the attention of the Russian Empress to the fact that in Sweden they cared for restoring natural resources and scientists assisted industrialists. Many people worked on the problem of improving the quality of ores and metals and the problem of deforestation. As a result, Swedish metal-makers improved their smelting techniques so that they could get high-quality metal even from low-grade ores. Scientists working on such problems received substantial awards, while manufacturers increased their and their country’s profit. According to Tatischev, another reason was the water-driven machines “where one wheel worked instead of a hundred people.” At one ironworks in Falun, he counted as many as 13 such machines, invented by Christopher Polheim, the famous Swedish mechanic.

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