Mikhail the Great
22.03.2015 11:48

Ahead of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Mikhail Lomonosov

The abyss opened

Full of stars.

The stars are countless,

The abyss bottomless.

M. Lomonosov

Ahead of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765), a sensational book was published in St Petersburg, Questions of Blood: the Legend of the Great Lomonosov, Peter the Greatís Son by geographer Leonid Kolotilo and historian Vitaly Dotsenko. In this book, the authors maintain that the entire story of Lomonosovís early life was invented by his first biographer, Yakov Stelin and offer their own version: Mikhailís mother, a girl coming from indigenous dwellers of the White Sea coast, came to St Petersburg and became one of the czarís numerous lovers. She got pregnant and, with his blessing, she gave birth to a boy after marrying her prosperous landsman, Vasily Lomonosov. She died when the boy was just nine years old. Afterwards, Mikhail was raised by stepmothers.

Oddly enough, this version does not change anything in the unusual beginning of the unknown village boyís life. In December 1730, at the age of 20, Mikhail received his passport and secretly left his fatherís home in the village of Mishaninskaya. He caught up with a fish merchantís wagon train that had left for Moscow the day before and spent a month on foot to reach the old capital. In his bag, Lomonosov had corned beef and two books, Arithmetic by Leonty Magnitsky and Grammar by Meletius Smotrytsky, something he later mentioned in his autobiography.

Yes, this daring move bears the signs of Peter the Great and his epoch.

Lomonosovís plan was simple and simultaneously bold: he wanted to enter the Spasskaya school of Moscowís clerical Greek Latin Academy. Arkhangelsk coast dwellers were the heart of the Russian north, free from serfdom, the so-called state peasants. They lived along the shore of a severe northern sea, fishing, building ships, trading and investigating new trade routes. Lomonosovís father owned a galliot with a team of sailors. He was both the owner, the captain and the sailing master. This required a head on oneís shoulders. When still a little boy, Lomonosov spent entire summers with his father in the White Sea. He was stronger than other boys of his age, but, apart from the sea, he had a strong passion for learning. Almost independently, with a little help from the village deacon, he learned to read and calculate; he knew a little Latin, basic English and German (coast dwellers were in regular contact with foreign ships). He loved to read. So when the 20-year-old came to the school, Moscow monks saw a literate and educated young man, fully fit for further studies. At the same time, he was enterprising, able to protect himself, healthy, neat, simple and a little romantic.

The Soviet popular history often relished the story of a peasantís son studying at a school for noble ignoramuses, describing how Lomonosov had to lie, deceive and pretend being a nobleman. I remember having a color slide film about Lomonosov when a child. In it, the poor guy was bullied, with evil classmates setting a swarm of bees after him. This was not true! Who could take upon such an athlete? Who could compete with his erudition?

After just a year of studies, Mikhail was transferred to the fourth grade, hopping over the previous three. The samples of his beautiful Ė sometimes even fancy Ė handwriting are still kept in church archives.

The main reason that made his career possible was that it was the era of Peter the Great. Even though the czar had already died, and his heirs were busy fighting for power, the state ship was already launched: hundreds of schools, dozens of mining factories and manufactories, the army, the navy, the post service, roads, the new capital city with its Academy of Sciences required quick thinkers, educated personnel and qualified managers.

In short, Lomonosov easily fit in with the life of the church school and even became a favorite with the legendary church reformer and cruel inquisitor Feofan Prokopovich, who in those years was in the higher echelons of the Russian Orthodox Church and No.1 person in the Holy Synod. Peter the Greatís associate, author of the Panegyric to the Russian Fleet, a patriot, a bookworm and a shrewd person, he quickly saw that the young man taking the Greek exam in Moscow was destined to become famous. But for what?

The Greek Latin Academy trained elites for the church, but Mikhail was clearly a man of flesh, his mindset was that of a scientist, a researcher, but not of a religionistÖ Going ahead, I will say that Lomonosov was a religious man and an eager church-goer, he always mentioned God in his speeches and poems with the true ardor of a Christian, but at the same time, he had not trouble taking everything transcendent outside his scientific interests and studied the nature as a naturalist, practical researcher, chemist and physicist should. So the turn in his fate was obviously beneficial.

But that was only the beginning of his luck. In 1735, the Academy was asked to send ten most gifted students for studying at the school of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Even though he had not yet finished the final stage of studies, theology, Lomonosov was among those selected and so, five years after his escape from home, he found himself in Peter the Greatís city, in the new Russian capital, which was still under construction at the time, with new streets and quarters added to the palaces on the banks of the Neva river and glades cut in the surrounding forests. One cannot help by recall Pushkinís words that Peter I floated Russia out as a new ship from a shipyard.

Having moved to St Petersburg, the young manís journey towards the religious elite ended; from then on, his fate was linked to science and practice, to retorts and telescopes.

In 1736, the capital and the country were ruled by German Ernst Johann von Biron, the favorite of Empress Anna Ivanovna. Later, historian Vasily Klyuchevsky gave the following ironic description to the epoch, ďGermans poured into Russia like rubbish from a holey bag; they clung to the court and the throne, getting all profitable administrative positions.Ē

Lomonosov was to become a threat to foreignersí stranglehold on Russian science, but at the time, everything German and Western was for him a sign of the selected, so he quickly and substantially learned German (which he spoke and wrote fluently), and then also French and ItalianÖ To be fair, he was good at adjusting to circumstances, willing to accept the laws of the court; he knew when to fist a face and when to flatter. Later, he was second to none in writing pompous odes, for example, for the ode devoted to Empress Elizabethís accession to the throne, he received 2,000 roubles, which he received in small coins because the treasury didnít have bigger ones at the time. Lomonosov needed two wagons to take the bags with his award home.

Having moved to St Petersburg, the young manís journey towards the religious elite ended; from then on, his fate was linked to science and practice, to retorts and telescopes.

Also in 1736, still patronized by Feofan Prokopovich, Lomonosov as one of the countryís top three students was sent from St Petersburg to the University of Marburg in Saxony, to study mining and metallurgy under Professor Johann Friedrich Henckel. Russia needed a lot of such specialists: hundreds of ore deposits were discovered in the Urals and in Siberia, and to develop them, it was necessary to build mines; foreigners, however, didnít want to go to the end of the earth, and Russians didnít know mining.

By the way, the resolution on sending the students to Germany, signed by the Academyís president Johann Albrecht Korf, clearly stated Lomonosovís origin: ďa peasantís son from the Kurostrovskaya district, the Dvinsky county, the Arkhangelsk region, 25 years old.Ē

The studentsí stay in Marburg was financed by the Russian treasury. They rented housing. Bought clothing. Ate. Travelled a lot. Purchased books. It was then that Lomonosov began collecting his impressive library. Here are just a few books (in English and German) from his extensive list: Jonathan Swiftís Gulliverís Travel, William Shakespeareís tragedies, Georg Ernst Stahlís Fundamental Chemistry, Daniel Defoeís Robison Crusoe, Colin Maclaurinís Organic GeometryÖ

At the time, European culture and science were blooming unprecedentedly. The great German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz wrote his treatise Theodicee, Voltaire wrote Brutus, the Covent Garden Theater opened in London. The amazing, unparalleled Trevi fountain appeared in Rome, Bach composed his brilliant organ fugues and Hendel his operas, Marivaux wrote his comedies and Prevost his novel Manon Lescaut (which was confiscated and burned publicly a year later for amorality); Carl Linnaeus completed his Systema Naturae and Emanuel Swedenborg published his manuscript on cast iron meltingÖ

Little is known about Lomonosovís life in Germany. Apparently, there were interruptions with deliveries of government money; Lomonosov was rumored to initiate student fights and orgies, but at the same time studied hard and spent a lot of time at libraries. Once he was drafted as a soldier, but fled, and then married a pretty young German girl, Elisabeth Christine Zilch, the daughter of the woman with whom he boarded. The couple was married at a reformed church, which allows concluding that Lomonosov was free in the questions of faith. The marriage proved very solid. Elisabeth gave birth to two daughters and a son.

Meanwhile, the situation in Russia changed. In October 1740, Empress Anna Ivanovna died, giving the reins of power to Grand Duchess Anna Leopoldovna and her baby son Ivan VI Antonovich, with Biron as a regent.

On June 8, 1741, Lomonosov returned to St Petersburg by sea from Amsterdam. Four months later, in November the czarist guard organized a coup against the German party of power and brought to the throne Peter the Greatís daughter, Elizabeth.

The wheel of fortune was again good to Lomonosov. It was the most favorable moment in his career as a scientist. The Germans were losing power and soon the young researcher became the first Russian academician at the Academy. His generous nature and ardent scientific temperament received an opportunity to be realized.

What did he look like? Several portraits of Lomonosov have survived. In a ceremonial portrait, we see a courtier in a crimson gold-embroidered vest coat with very broad lapels, in a snow-white shirt decorated with Brabant lace, in a marble-white wig, with a pair of compasses in his hand. Even though the portrait is obviously full of flattery, Lomonosovís character is captured correctly: we see a worker, a thinker, a scientist. His image was shown even better by the great sculptor Fedot Shubin: the marble bust of the researcher is full of dignity, sense of purpose and power of thought. By the way, one cannot fail to notice Lomonosovís rare similarity with Empress Elizabeth in all portraits: the same chin, cheeks, nose and lips; a similar face as if sculpted by the same hand. This, of course, couldnít go unnoticed at the St Petersburg court. Many still remembered Peterís fiery temperament. This may be the origin of the legend about Mikhail and Elizabeth being half-siblings, him being Peterís son. At least, having come back from Marburg, Lomonosov demonstrated unprecedented politesse at the Russian court; in this labyrinth of self-conceit and intrigues, he became the most loyal poet of the throne, singing praises to Elizabethís deeds. He was in fashion. The empress adored him, and the powerful Count Shuvalov patronized him. Lomonosov knew how to be liked and how to impress with the power of his thought, breadth of his interests and his indifference to fame.

He knew how to be liked and how to impress with the power of his thought, breadth of his interests and his indifference to fame.

This trait Ė the ability to be liked by the high and mighty Ė is common for Lomonosov and another genius, Leonardo Da Vinci, who was unparalleled in his ability to charm any court, starting from Milan Duke Sforza and ending with the French court under Francis I.

One cannot but admire the artistic talent with which Lomonosov made a number of monumental mosaics, including the brilliant portraits of Peter I and Count Shuvalov and the amazing Poltava Battle. But his main goal was to find truth.

Here is an episode that portrays Lomonosovís character very well. Once, in the winter, he was returning home after midnight, going along a new road recently laid in the forest. A group of sailors noticed him, and he was attacked. But the three bandits had bad luck. Lomonosov knocked one down with his fist, kicked over another and caught the third by the scruff. Two ran away, and Lomonosov asked the third one why they had attacked him, what their purpose was and what their names wereÖ He viewed the attack as a scientific problem that needed resolving. ďHave mercy!Ē the sailor begged, saying that there was no purpose, they just wanted to rob him. To rob him! When it was freezing! Lomonosov got angry; he told the bandit to take off his coat and boots and left with them. It was not enough to solve the problem; he turned an encounter with thieves into a clear lesson.

This Renaissance-era personality harmoniously combined the gift of a scientist and of a poet, the mind of a historian, the talent of an inventor (who, among other things, created a prototype of a helicopter), the shrewdness of an astronomer, the ability of a systematizer, the gift of a monumental artist, and so on.

Here is a random list of some of his most important achievements: he understood the atomic and molecular principle of the structure of matter, learned the reasons for resilience of physical objects, unveiled the mysteries of chemistry via laws of mechanics, discovered the principles of atmosphere electricity, created a centroscopic pendulum, a barometer, a telescopeÖ

Meanwhile, listing his achievements, Lomonosov did not think it necessary to mention the discovery of the atmosphere of Venus. Hundreds of astronomers watched the planet move in front of the sun in 1761, many noticed the shining rim and refraction of solar rays when the outline touched the solar corona, but only Lomonosov came to the correct conclusion that the planet had ďa significant atmosphere.Ē

He could be generous: when physicist Georg Richmann died in a failed experiment with electricity, Lomonosov did what he could to ensure that the Germanís widow and children had means of subsistence.

Lomonosovís career is yet another creation of his amazing life: starting as a village boy with a couple of books in his bag and becoming a renowned scientist, academician and nobleman, the Empressís favorite, owner of houses and villages, honorable member of the Academies of Sciences of Sweden and Bologna, rising to the top of the scientific world Ė this is something few people could have achieved.

Lomonosov was the first Russian scientist to be recognized internationally. Finally, the Moscow State University was his project. Pushkin, while criticizing his poems, rightly said that he was the only devotee of Enlightenment between Peter the Great and Catherine.

Lomonosov died unfairly early, of pneumonia. He died at his home in the Moika street, surrounded by his beloved wife and children. He was the same age as Peter when he died, 54.

Immediately after his death, Catherine the Great issued an unusual order: Lomonosovís personal archive was sealed the same day and all papers were delivered to the Empress. She must have been aware of the rumors about the true parentage of the great scientist and, sensitive to the issues of succession to the throne, must have destroyed any evidence that could give us an answer to the delicate question.