Bounty of the Earth: Mineral Resources in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Russian Economic Thought

Intensive industrialization in the nineteenth century generated a series of ideologies that fused economic thought with utopian socialism and even with a new 'religion of humanity' – Saint-Simonianism and Comtian positivism being the most dynamic and influential. Early industrial development in the Urals region in the 1740s and 1750s, when Russia became Europe’s largest iron exporter and displaced Sweden as the leader in the Baltic iron trade, was similarly accompanied by shifts in intellectual attitudes, and by a focus on minerals and extraction as an object not only of material pursuit but also of concerted philosophical reflection. Industrial development and particularly mining gained attention in legislation, scientific treatises, travellers' observations, and even poetry.

Crucial to the new 'industrial' mentality was Peter I’s renowned 'Mining Freedom', crafted by Vasilii Tatishchev and James Bruce and promulgated in 1719. Lamenting the poor level of exploitation of Russia’s abundance of necessary metal and minerals, from which the state and citizens could derive great utility (польза), Peter’s law enabled 'all, and each person regardless of rank and status, and in all places including one’s own and others’ lands, to seek, smelt, boil and refine all sorts of metals, namely: gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, iron, as well as minerals such as saltpeter, sulfur, vitriol, alum and all colors of earths and stones; and to take on as many workers as needed for and can be sustained by that particular factory.' Further, the law insisted that, if a landowner did not desire to exploit any mineral resources located on his property, he was obliged to permit others to do so, 'so that God’s blessing does not remain useless under the earth', receiving a small percent of the profits in exchange. This intended stimulus to industrial development, while replaced by an emphasis on chartered companies in the 1730s, received a new impetus under Empress Elizabeth, one of whose early measures was to restore the Berg Collegium and renew the Mining Freedom (PSZ No.8543, 7 April 1742).

The elaboration of an 'extractive philosophy' is simultaneously apparent in treatises on mining and metallurgy, of which a spate appeared in the 1730s and again in the 1760s. The most significant of the earlier works is Emanuel Swedenborg’s Opera Philosophica et Mineralia (1734), which was sponsored by the Duke of Braunschweig and published at Leipzig & Dresden. While Swedenborg (1688-1772) is obviously not Russian, his works were widely read by Russian scientists and engineers; in addition, the brilliant court of Braunschweig formed an important link with the Russian court in St. Petersburg. Ivan VI (r. 1740-41) was the fruit of the marriage between Anton Ulrich (1714-74) and Elisabeth, Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, subsequently to be known as Anna Leopoldovna. The Principia, which includes a cosmogony, followed by treatises on iron & copper, postulated a constantly expanding universe, thus anticipating the Kant-Laplace nebular hypothesis. Swedenborg insisted on an attention to 'hidden and invisible things' in nature, which he perceived as the object of the sciences of chemistry and metallurgy. Swedenborg was particularly fascinated by the abundance of rich matrices and ores in the coldest regions of the earth, and proposed a cosmological vision of cataclysmic change, in which a universal flood 'confused and mixed together the lowest with the uppermost parts, and, the earth being rent open to the lower regions, it not only released, ploughed up, and turned over [emitteret verteret et obliquaret] the concealed wealth and treasures of the overturned mountains which would otherwise still have remained hidden, towards the surface of the earth, but the ocean also scattered throughout the entire globe the parts broken up whether into larger or smaller pieces, and thus rendered the earth more prepared for things of widely different kinds, and made it open and pervious in all directions for this formation of strata, and thus fitted it to receive the metals.'

Two other important mining treatises of the 1730s are Christoph Andreas Schlüter’s Gründlicher Unterricht von Hüttenwerken (1738), published in Braunschweig; and Georg Wilhelm de Gennin’s Описание уральских и сибирских заводов (1735), remarkable for its emphasis on the environmental aspects of metallurgical production. Gennin described the 'huge terrassed nests' of iron ore which, in the Urals, 'are virtually outside the ground, so that they can be mined with little effort and no drilling or dynamite, but with the aid of picks and crowbars making lots of noise.'

Thinking about mining and minerals underwent a shift by the 1760s, with Johann Wilhelm Schlatter’s Обстоятельное наставление рудному делу (1760) emphasizing the advent of coal and thus the momentous entry of fossil fuels into the industrial scenario. The most philosophically significant work of this later period is Mikhail Lomonosov’s Первые основания металлургии, или рудных дел (РАН, 1763). While the body of the treatise itself is largely derivative, a fascinating 200-page appendix, 'On the Earth’s Layers' expounds a counter-cosmogony, depicting an earth in process of constant and occasionally violent change. While also evincing a preoccupation with the hidden things concealed in the earth’s depths, Lomonosov pokes fun at those (Swedenborg?) who think they can explain the structure of the earth by a single point of origin such as the primordial Flood. The bulk of Lomonosov’s appendix discusses the layers of the earth themselves, primarily focusing on the ways in which either human action (ch. 2) or natural factors (ch. 3) or even catastrophes – from wind, rain, and the flow of rivers to earthquakes – rearrange these layers so that the metal-rich interior of the earth becomes visible, and accessible, on the surface.

Scientists’ and engineers obsession with minerals and extraction is echoed in the observations of travelers and local administrators. Johann Georg Gmelin (1709-55), a member of the Second Kamchatka Expedition, recorded his impressions in Reise durch Sibirien von dem Jahr 1733 bis 1743 (Göttingen, 4 vols.), commenting upon his visit to the industrial enterprises of the Urals, 'I had little interaction with humans here, and didn’t desire any, because other matters were more useful. The foundries, mines, factories, and animals were for me more reasonable objects of interest, or at least more genuine than the people of Nev’iansk, and more fit to shape and illuminate my mind.' Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche, who found himself in the depths of Siberia in 1761 on his quest to observe the passage of Venus, echoed Swedenborg in his astonishment at the richness of resources in the coldest of regions: 'The Russians present it as a new Peru, where mines for gold, silver, and precious stones abound. It is true that we find gold and silver mines in the icy terrains of Siberia, no less than in the flaming heart of the torrid zone.' The local government official Petr Rychkov remarked extensively, if perhaps too optimistically, upon the role of the local Bashkir population in bringing mineral and ore deposits to the attention of the merchant entrepreneurs who arrived in response to Elizabeth’s encouraging legislation.

Finally, Lomonosov wearing his other hat as the official bard of the Elizabethan regime, placed mineral resources at the epicenter of the empress’s scenario of power in his 1747 ode to her succession.

И се Минерва ударяет
В верьхи Рифейски копием,
Сребро и злато истекает
Во всем наследии твоем.
Плутон в расселинах мятется,
Что россам в руки предается
Драгой его металл из гор,
Которой там натура скрыла;
От блеску дневного светила
Он мрачный отвращает взор.

Natural resources and industrial development were clearly very much present in the minds of statesmen, scientists, and engineers in the middle of the eighteenth century. Some new key concepts became dominant in this period; they include emphasis on utility [польза] and a fascination with matters subterranean 'hidden & invisible things'. In the work of Lomonosov in particular, we can observe a scientific shift from taxonomy and practice to and emphasis on larger contexts and particularly physical geography. Finally, the conversation about minerals helps to sketch a 'Baltic' intellectual space including Sweden, Russia, Braunschweig, and Königsberg. It seems productive to posit a strand of economic thinking in the eighteenth century that does not fit in more familiar categories of mercantilism, free trade, or physiocratism.

– Catherine Evtuhov, Columbia University

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