Science and Spectacle in the 18th Century Russia

Historian of Science Simon Werret on the Russian Academy of Sciences, the foundation of Saint Petersburg, and the application of a spectacle in order to develop scientific tradition

videos | July 12, 2018

It’s a fascinating topic as to how the scientists entered Russia, entered Russian culture. We’re familiar with the idea that science was introduced into Russia by Tsar Peter I, Peter the Great, that Russia didn’t have a scientific tradition before the 18th century. During the 18th century, Peter introduced science through an Academy, which he founded and which opened in 1725. But how the Academy and how the sciences actually became a part of Russian culture was a complicated story. It was quite a fraught affair. One of the fascinating things about that story is that spectacle and performance were key elements of the way that scientists who were involved in it managed to get the Russian government and the Russian court to take the sciences seriously.

Peter the Great wanted to bring more Western European style culture to Russia partly to improve the military, who’s involved in the Great Northern War with Sweden, and he had to modernize the army to win that war. So, he founded a city Saint Petersburg and introduced many different reforms that europeanized Russian culture. One of those was to introduce Western science. He organized with the help of the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and his students and followers an Academy of Sciences that opened in Saint Petersburg in 1725. The people who were brought there came from Germany, from France. They were very well paid, some of them were quite famous, and all things looked good. But unfortunately, Peter died, and so he, as the main patron of the Academy, was no longer there to protect it.

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Just as the academicians had arrived in Petersburg, the fate of their institution and of Western science in Russia suddenly hung in the balance. What the Academy had to do in its first years was very quickly come up with ways to secure a place for it. A lot of people at this time were very hostile to the idea of bringing Western science into Russia. The Orthodox Church was skeptical or probably not as skeptical as it’s sometimes made out to be. But there were lots of nobles as well, who thought that Peters reforms had been taking Russia in the wrong direction, and they wanted to go back to the old Muscovite ways of doing things before Peters reforms. That included getting rid of these academicians and their sciences.

The academicians very quickly tried to figure out ways to enamor themselves with the Russian Court, which at this time – and we’re talking about the 1720s and 30s – was located in Saint Petersburg. For a while they were okay, whilst Peters Widow Catherine was on the Russian throne. But at the beginning of the 1730’s, there was a new empress Anna Ivanovna. She didn’t automatically have any particular interest in the sciences.

So, what should you do? How should you secure your Academy in this situation and your scientific activities? Well, the academicians were led by a man named Johann Daniel Schumacher. Schumacher was originally from Alsace and he’d come to Russia as Peter’s librarian and chief scientific adviser, and he was the secretary of the Academy, and he was a very smart man in understanding what needed to be done to try and secure the place of the Academy and the sciences in Russia. I think, what Schumacher realized was that doing science was not going to get the court very interested in the academy. So, whereas in the 1720’s people had done lectures about Newtonian physics and Leibniz mathematics and so on, that really declined in the 1730’s. Instead what Schumacher concentrated on was hiring people who could perform activities that would be of interest to Ana Ivanovna’s court chief.

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Among those interests and very unusually for an Academy of Sciences in this period was the composition of fireworks displays. Peter the Great had introduced Western fireworks designs and displays into Petersburg as a way of celebrating the mnemonic and the state. Some of these were triumphs. So, you set off lots of fireworks to celebrate a victory against the Swedes or the Turks, some of them were done to celebrate royal birthdays or marriages, or the New Year. They were very grand spectacles. Gunpowder was cheap in Russia at that time, so you could produce spectacular fireworks. They were set off around very elaborate scenery. They weren’t like fireworks displays today where you just have images in the sky and lots of lights and color, but they were more like plays, in which there were a narrative and a story, and lots of symbolism, all telling about the greatness of Russia and the Tsar.

You needed expertise in order to write those narratives and understand how to compose stories using all of the symbolic iconography that fireworks displays required. In Russia there was no one who could do that. Schumacher understood that, and so he started to hire new academicians who were really good at designing fireworks. He found a gentleman named Junker who could do that, and another called Stahl. Junker and Stahl, and others in the Academy started to produce these very elaborate compositions of fireworks for staging to celebrate the Russian Court and the Empress Anna Ivanovna.

This, in fact, is one of the things that the first Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov did as a young man. He would design illuminations and fireworks for the court. Schumacher also hired people to write poetry for the court, odes to celebrate the Empress, for example, and all kinds of artistic departments that would produce the kinds of things that the court might be interested in having. This was a very successful strategy.

By the end of the 1730-1739, the Academy was in a very good position because it had set itself up to provide all of these services to the court who ultimately controlled its fate. The court was happy to support it. But then something unfortunate happened – Anna Ivanovna died and was replaced after a little while by the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth Petrovna, Elizaveta Petrovna. She became Empress Elizabeth, and she really had a problem with Anna Ivanovna and foreign courtiers who had grown up with her and become a part of her retinue led by a man named Ernst Baron, who was considered an absolute disaster for Russia.

Elizabeth set about getting rid of all of the nobles and anyone closely associated with Anna’s court and replacing them with Russians and French individuals who were in her favor. That was very bad news for Schumacher because he just spent ten years building up a close connection to Anna’s court, because he wanted the Academy and the sciences to survive in Russia. In fact, Schumacher was quickly arrested under Elizabeth’s rule, and there was an investigation into him in which he was accused of all kinds of terrible deeds, and embezzlement, and corruption, and so on.

It turns out that in the end Schumacher survived partly through his connections to people like Jacob von Stahl, who was one of these designers of court spectacle. One might argue that what Elizabeth realized over time, or what her courtiers realized over time was that they still needed the spectacular skills of the Academy albeit that they should be transformed to celebrate Elizabeth and not Anna. So, Schumacher ultimately was released and in the early 1740s, or in the 1740s a charter was established for the academy, which set in law that the Academy had a right to exist and operate on particular terms, and that was a key moment because it meant that the academy was finally secured in Russia. So what we’re seeing in this story is the way that spectacle and the ability to design fireworks of all things actually played an important role in securing a place for science in Russian culture.

Senior Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science, University College London
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