Authors: Linda Himelstein
PENING DAY WAS
a grand affair. At noon, the emperor and empress rode up in a ceremonial carriage pulled by six horses. No less than seven orchestras played for the event, including one conducted by the famous Johann Strauss. A cannon boomed, sounding the fair's official launch. Smirnov lingered near his display as visitors, including the emperor, streamed
into the halls. They snaked through the rotunda, machine hall, and other pavilions. But much to Smirnov's disappointment, the emperor never made it to his section of the fair. And the crowds overall were thinner than expected. The weather had turned cold and rainy, driving down attendance. Still, officialsâand Pyotr Smirnovâremained optimistic.
Vienna, though, was not in a mood for optimism. Just one week into the fair, Vienna's stock exchange crashed. Its effects, which included massive bankruptcies, suicides, and unemployment, were widespread. It deflated the whole atmosphere of the exposition, as officials panicked and attendance plummeted. Exhibitors, builders, and organizers had borrowed heavily to pull off their architectural feats and create their dramatic displays. Now, it was becoming a real possibility that the proceeds from the fair would fall far short of what was needed to repay those debts. No one, not even the shah of Persia, who had come to town, was feeling flush.
Oddly, the financial crisis may have been a blessing for Smirnov. It stunted the flow of the exhibition, putting it into slow motion as Austrians tried to regain their composure. It was the final straw for visitors who had come or planned to come to Vienna. Now, they largely stayed away, hoping for the foul weather to clear and the financial crisis to stabilize. They wanted to see a complete exhibition, with pavilions full of bountiful displays and jaw-dropping inventions. As the Austrians needed more time, so did Smirnov.
This interlude of sorts provided a perfect opportunity for Smirnov to get back to Russia without anyone noticing his absence. He boarded a train bound for home in the aftermath of the stock market collapse. He hoped to return to Vienna, perhaps for the judging of drinks or for the awards ceremony itself in August. In the meantime, Smirnov planned to use the trip to take measure of his current circumstances. Losing Nataliya presented a whole host of challenges beyond the obvious. Smirnov
was prohibited by custom from remarrying for at least a year. But he knew his future required that he find another wife. At a time when his image was critical to his strategy, he could not afford to be viewed as somehow socially incomplete.
Landing back in Moscow when he did turned out to be a gift. Just days after Smirnov's arrival, his Uncle Ivan died unexpectedly on May 16 from a heart attack. Whether uncle and nephew actually saw one another before Ivan's death remains a mystery, but Smirnov was likely present for the burial.
Ivan's death was big news in Moscow. The papers placed his passing on the front pages. The focus was not so much Ivan's considerable business accomplishments, earned over a lifetime. The newspaper articles barely mentioned his leadership roles or successes related to his liquor franchise, noting only that rumors suggested “the deceased left an enormous fortune.”
Instead, they emphasized his service as a churchwarden, his philanthropic endeavors, and his awards and titles. This charitable activity was what resonated in the Russian community, which Smirnov never forgot. This was why newspapers could report that “a huge number of people” came to pay their respects.
For Smirnov, his eyes bloodshot, his body weary, the funeral must have been exhausting, agonizing. Ivan's grave was a mere few feet from the fresh graves of Smirnov's wife, daughters, and mother. Almost as soon as Pyotr stepped away from Ivan's grave, it was time to bid a final farewell to his Nataliya. The fortieth-day commemoration for her was on May 23. As tradition demanded, he donated a sizable sum to the church, an act intended to pay off Nataliya's sins and ensure that she be forgiven and delivered to heaven. Smirnov and his children prayed heartily for her soul.
In a sense, Ivan's passing left more of a void for Smirnov than losing his wife had. It left him with no choice but to transition from a supporting role in his expansive family into a lead
ing role. Without Ivan, Pyotr Smirnov, at age forty-two, was a natural patriarch. The extended family could now look to him for authoritative guidance and care as well as to his father, Arseniy. At age seventy-three, though in the twilight of his life, he retained some of the vibrancy and vigor acquired after decades toiling in the rural farm fields.
Pyotr, of course, had little time to adjust or wallow. His household was in disarray. He had to find appropriate caretakers for his newborn son and the other children. He had a large and growing business to run. And from the reports he was receiving, the situation in Vienna had gone from bad to worse. Foul weather continued to taunt the city, with a wild storm causing widespread damage to several pavilions. Then cholera hit. Some one hundred residents of Vienna died daily in the middle of that summer, keeping would-be visitors far, far away. Reporters described the dirt and stench, concluding that the plague and other misfortunes had greatly damaged the exhibition. As if that were not bad enough, cash-strapped exhibitors were failing to pay their rents. “There is scarcely a misfortune [the exhibition] has not experienced, and the elements have done their best to cause its ruin,” wrote a
New York Times
The vodka maker viewed the turmoil with, perhaps, only mild interest. Sales at the fair had been lackluster. Attendance was on track to be down by more than two million visitors from the last international exhibition. But since Smirnov had left Austria, visitors, or the lack of them, had not dampened his outlook. Indeed, none of the fiascos bedeviling Vienna mattered much to him now. His only remaining concern was the awards.
Smirnov made his way back to Vienna in time to do a last-minute marketing blitz. He wanted his prize and nothing more. But even that began to look problematic. Suggestions of jury corruption surfaced as did alleged payoffs and favoritism. Unhappy exhibitors charged that some judges were conflicted in
their evaluations of products because they were also entrants in the categories they were judging. Organized rallies now demanded the appointment of new judges. A Russian newspaper reported that few people had faith in the integrity of the jury's decisions.
In the end, a commission was appointed to investigate the charges, which included evidence that awards were granted to some people who had not even participated in the fair. But by that time, few cared. Miraculously, however, the exhibition ended on a high note. Attendance recovered somewhat, and revenue, though less than anticipated, was not as meager as feared. Besides, Vienna had been generous in its praise, handing out more accolades to entrants than any previous exhibition. A majority of participants had gotten medals, honorable diplomas, or testimonialsâhelping to appease angry exhibitors. Some 70 percent of the competitors from Russia received some sort of award or acknowledgement, including Pyotr Smirnov. He took home an honorable diploma, which was awarded surprisingly not for his vodka but for his red and white grape wines. His flavored vodkas also won acclaim.
To Smirnov, it didn't matter why or for what he had been awarded. It was enough of a breakthrough to come away with anything. Other Russian award recipients in the liquor categories were largely known, established manufacturers. Some, such as Rouget and beer makers Korneyev & Gorshanov, were already purveyors to the Imperial Court. So for Smirnov to win any acclaim was a step in the right direction.
The success in Vienna helped Smirnov focus away from his personal tragedies and achieve some much-needed perspective. As dour as his home life had turned, his business had momentum that it would not relinquish for more than two decades. In just three years, the number of employees working for Smirnov had increased fourfoldâfrom just fifteen to about sixty. He had tri
pled the number of managers overseeing his operations, including the addition of his sister Glafira's husband, who had moved from Uglich to join the ballooning enterprise. His real estate holdings, which now included a factory, warehouses for both vodka and wine, and several shops, had swelled, too. Smirnov was even set to buy up Ivan's kiosks in the Gostiniy Dvor shopping mall, thereby solidifying his place as one of Russia's largest liquor retailers.
Vodka prices, though on the rise since the first days after the end of tax farming, were still relatively cheap, helping drive consumption up. The state's income from alcohol sales was also increasing, keeping nascent efforts to curtail excessive drinking at the fringe. But Smirnov was never one to compartmentalize his professional life from his personal life, particularly when matters lay unresolved. He saw the two as intertwined.
Smirnov needed a wife. So now he went looking for one.
ariya Nikolayevna Medvedeva was just a school-girl when Smirnov met her. “When visiting one of the women's institutes, he noticed a girl, one of the older students, whose beauty made an impression on him,” Smirnov's third son, Vladimir, later told his wife Tatiana.
Mariya was on the cusp of womanhood, yet despite her tender years, she had an inherent grace about her, a natural dignity that suggested there was more to this girl than lovely features. She had light eyes and rich, light brown curly hair that was usually piled in a bun at the back of her head. Her classic, straight nose was perched perfectly above full red lips, giving her face an easy, soft symmetry. She carried her tall, well-proportioned frame confidently upright, as if continuously balancing a book on the top of her head.
There was a sweetness, too, about Mariya, the daughter of a deceased, second-guild merchant. One man who knew her described her as “like a kind fairy.” Perhaps it was a way of being that she had acquired while attending Aleksandro-
Mariinskoye college, a finishing school of sorts for girls. The school's stated goal was to “bring girls up and to teach them to do their duties zealously and with responsibility so that, in time, they could become kind wives and helpful mothers.”
The seven-year curriculum, though, went beyond such female staples as religion, needlepoint, painting, music, and general homemaking. It also promoted the study of foreign languages, literature, history, and mathematics. When a girl graduated from Aleksandro-Mariinskoye, she was both educated and cultured.
Mariya's sophistication would have appealed to Smirnov. Unlike his first two wives who shared similar backgrounds to Smirnov's own, this time the vodka maker wanted a woman who could improve or even augment his prospects. That meant choosing someone who was not only educated but who also had at least some knowledge and understanding of the mainstays of Russia's upper crust. The daughters of true aristocrats, who were often schooled at home or attended exclusive institutions, almost universally married within their own class. They were off-limits to a man like Smirnovâdespite his healthy bank account.
Many of the young ladies at Aleksandro-Mariinskoye would have seen Smirnov quite differently. In fact, they might have even been in awe of him. He was a leading benefactor of the school through an umbrella charity known as the “Patronage for Poor People.” The organization, founded by an aristocratic woman, provided services and financial assistance to groups working with the needy. Among other things, it helped fund the educations of girls whose families faced hardships. Involvement in this particular group was considered an easy way for merchants to earn their charitable chits. Smirnov embraced the opportunity and, for his generosity, added to his collection of awards. He received a gold medal from the group in 1873 “as a result of zealous labors.”
Smirnov personally knew the school's founder and headmaster, Varvara Chertova. She was familiar to Russia's royal
family for her philanthropy and contributions to girls' education. Indeed, Chertova transformed Aleksandro-Mariinskoye from a school for orphans so poor that all students had to drink from just two glasses into a well-financed, first-class institution in Russia's three-tiered education system. The differences in the three tiers were mainly the social classes from which children were admitted and the makeup of curriculum. Students at first-tier schools, for instance, received 28.5 hours per week of sciences and foreign languages while third-tier students only received 16.5 hours. Girls in the bottom rung spent more time polishing up traditional homemaking skills rather than academics.
A girl like Mariya would have understood the advantages someone like Smirnov could bring to her future. Beyond financial security, he offered a ready-made platform from which she could pursue her own social agenda, unencumbered by the daily drudgeries of life. Knowledgeable about literature and the arts, she would have the means to attend the theater or the ballet, perhaps even as a patron. She might be able to travel, too, utilizing some of the languages she had learned at school. The prospects were clear for Mariya. They were also clear for Smirnov.
He had approached his hunt for a wife like an employer seeking to fill a job opening. This was an opportunityâand Smirnov wanted to make the most of it. He might even have seen Mariya as a stepping stone. Despite her youth, she could easily handle the conventional duties of a wife and possibly contribute something to his vodka operations, given her education and family's history in the merchantry. But what really convinced Smirnov was her ability to help him navigate the growing demands of Russian society that seemed to accompany his increasing wealth. She would not shy away from cultural or social obligations. Indeed, she might even seek them out.
To Smirnov, Mariya was young and lovelyâand simply the best candidate to fill the post of wife.
T SEEMS THAT
the couple's courtship was brief and unexceptional. Smirnov, not wishing to violate the customary one-year waiting period, held off the nuptials. But just one year and two weeks after the first anniversary of Nataliya's death, and after Mariya's graduation from school, Smirnov married for the third time, on April 28, 1874. Smirnov was forty-three years old, and Mariya was sixteenâjust three years older than Smirnov's eldest daughter, Vera.
With the marriage complete, life moved along uninterrupted. Indeed, there was hardly any chance to notice a newcomer in the Smirnov household. Mariya took her time, however, trying to understand the comings and goings of the house by the Cast Iron Bridge. She quickly realized she was surrounded by a buzz of activityâin the living quarters, at the store, pub, and cellar downstairs, or at the factory right next door. The constant commotion was something undoubtedly foreign to Mariya, who had lived a relatively cloistered existence at Aleksandro-Mariinskoye. The Smirnov's corner of Pyatnitskaya Street and the Moscow River was anything butâespecially during the springtime.
Beginning in May, just a few weeks after the wedding, each morning began with a cacophony of sounds. Policemen barked orders to peddlers and pedestrians. People shouted, fighting to get through the narrow walkways outside the vodka headquarters. Wagons and carts, lined up along the embankment and beyond the bridge, inched by, horses clomping and snorting. And the noise was all thanks to Smirnov.
He needed tons and tons of the freshest fruits and berries to create an assortment of popular flavored vodkas and other drinks; this produce was imported in bulk from the farms and orchards outside of Moscow. It came to the city via train, most likely into the Kursk station, just three miles from Smirnov's home. From there, the fruits, which included strawberries and
raspberries, were loaded on to carts heading for the vodka maker's factory and storage facilities. The colorful, aromatic caravan resembled floats in a parade.
The route from the station was circuitous and jam-packed with people, cargo, and horses. To get from the station to Smirnov's factory, located on the Ovchinnikovskaya embankment of the Moscow River, required carts to pass over a new bridge that had been built perpendicular to the river while the road it connected to skewed in another direction. This meant that the horses had to navigate their way through a jagged opening that was not large enough to accommodate the scores of pedestrians, peddlers, and carriages that used it. The passageway, particularly during Smirnov's processions of fruit, functioned like a clogged drain, trapping those caught up in the mess.
Once across the bridge, the aromatic caravan encountered an island known as “the bog.” It got its nickname because the area often flooded, making it muddy and difficult to pass. By the time the carts made it to the embankment, they still had to contend with the chaos of Pyatnitskaya itself, a neighborhood stuffed with shops, residences, and traffic. As Smirnov's son Vladimir later told his wife Tatiana: “Huge carts of cherries, strawberries, and raspberries blocked the courtyard of the factory. Even the streets leading to the Iron Bridge were made impassible because of the fruit wagonsâ¦. The business of receiving the fruits, weighing, sorting and paying for them, all of which took many hours and days, added to the confusion surrounding the streets. The air was resounding with the cries and insults from the carters and the people whom they were obstructing. Ladies closed their ears or hid themselves behind umbrellas.”
Luckily for Smirnov, he had the personal clout to get away with creating such pandemonium. In less than a decade, he had become one of the top two producers of liquor in Moscow. His 1 million rubles accounted for one-third of all alcohol annual revenue coming into the city, the equivalent of about $11.6 mil
lion today. He now employed one hundred workers, or one-fourth of all vodka factory employees in the city.
He had also recently purchased another warehouse and building. Smirnov, with products ranging from vodkas to brandies to wines, was indisputably an industry heavyweight.
This clout also allowed him to work the system. Just before the season, policemen would visit Smirnov's home regularly. Here, they drank tea with one of the factory managers. Even the police chief would come by. After these encounters, Smirnov's wagons had an easier time getting through. “The policemen made sure all was in order, usually favoring the carts with berries and telling the regular carriages to drive around,” Smirnov's son recalled.
In time, Smirnov's factory processed more than 36,000 pounds of berries and herbs annually.
ARIYA NOW INHABITED
this life. Of course, she was not involved in the elaborate processing of fruit or the day-to-day manufacturing of vodka and other liquors. Her concern was establishing her authority within the Smirnov household. It would take time to win over the hired help who had been loyal to Nataliya, but she did not hesitate to assert herself, especially when it came to the question of education. Mariya knew there was not much she could do to remedy her husband's elementary handwriting and other blind spots, but she could help shape the destiny of his children.
Mariya wanted Smirnov's girls to marry into the most prominent merchant familiesâor better. The boys would learn languages, history, math, and music. Mariya shared Smirnov's desire to stand equal with members of the nobility, and she had the same calculated cunning as her husband to plot the best avenues for their social climb. In time, Mariya would bring all the trappings of high society into the Smirnov mansionâfrom governesses and horseback-riding lessons to occasional evenings in Moscow's theaters and art galleries.
Smirnov supported Mariya in this regard. It was, in fact, one of the reasons why he had chosen to marry her. Life had shifted in Moscow, especially for merchants. The liberalization of the 1860s had given the most enterprising group of entrepreneurs greater freedom to pursue their business agendas. And now, a decade later, these men, including Smirnov, who had once belonged to a regimented class of inward-looking traditionalists, shunned, mistrusted, and resented by much of Russian society, were coming into their own. They were gaining power and voice, both civically and culturally. Instead of bystanders, merchants were an integral part of almost every aspect of Russia's political, artistic, economic, and municipal sceneâespecially in Moscow. Observed one American historian: “A group [merchants] that had been closed, bolted in, and walled off had escaped the real and metaphorical padlocksâ¦. In a burst of civic activity and organizational patronage, it helped preserve the past, mold a national identity, and provide leadership and vision for the future in learning, the arts, and science.”
Pavel Buryshkin, a wealthy Russian merchant who chronicled the lives of merchants in an authoritative book titled
The Merchants Moscow
, wrote about the flurry of activities that surrounded merchants beginning in the 1870s. “The merchant is everywhere. He is both the circle and the center of Moscow life.”
Much like the Rockefellers, Morgans, Warburgs, or Carnegies in the United States, Russia had its Tretyakovs, Morozovs, Ryabushinskiys, and Shchukins, among others. These titans of industry had financial power, which afforded them access to whatever else they wanted. They held public office, founded charities, opened art galleries and theaters, sat on school boards, and supported numerous of public causes. Textile magnate Pavel Tretyakov, founder of the famous art gallery in Moscow, was a prolific collector and patron of young painters. Pyotr Shchukin collected antiques and rare books, which were later donated to the Lenin Library (now the Russian State
Library), while his brother Sergey opened a gallery for French impressionists. Aleksey Bakhrushin maintained a theater collection and founded the Theater Museum. Other merchants seeded schools and technical institutions, underwrote hospitals, or built orphanages.
The Merchants' Club, too, reflected the changes among its member class. Apart from its commercial role, it became a social and intellectual command center. The club hosted balls, masquerade parties, and concerts. It introduced literary evenings and held banquets with political overtones. It even began to sponsor more aristocratic pleasures such as horse breeding, hunting, and racing.
For his part, Smirnov shunned these organized group functions. He had no use for them in his myopic world. He had never aligned himself with the Merchants' Club and he saw no reason to change his mind now. With Mariya as his partner, though, Smirnov managed a bit better than in previous years. But he still participated only in what was essential to maintain an upstanding reputation and improve his social status. Perhaps it was his lack of education or his singular obsession with his vodka business. Perhaps it was just his personality, shyness, or social uneasiness. Whatever the reason, Smirnov avoided venturing through society whenever possible.