How women ran business empires in Tsarist Russia

Kira Lisitskaya (Photo: Fred Morley, Heritage Images, Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Russian Imperial law did not discriminate between men and women in the sphere of business ownership. It also didn’t allow husbands to control their wives’ wealth, in stark contrast to European laws of the time. This allowed a lot of Russian women to become successful entrepreneurs.

It’s hard to imagine this in a heavily patriarchal society, but according to Russian historian, Dr. Galina Ulianova, about half of Russian charity givers in the 18th-19th centuries were women. “Many of them were not only wives, widows and daughters of well-to-do businessmen,” Ulianova writes in her book ‘Women Merchants, Noblewomen, Women Tycoons’ (Moscow, 2021), released by the “NLO” publishing house. “They were independent businesswomen who headed factories, mills and trade enterprises. Their capital was often earned independently of the men in their families.”

The main difference between Russian Imperial and European property laws had to do with gender equality. “After marriage, the husband didn’t acquire legal rights to his wife's property (estate, house, land, furniture, clothes, jewelry, etc.), as was the case in other countries,” Ulianova writes. Meanwhile, in 19th century Europe, married women didn’t have the right to own any property, or defend themselves in court independently of their husbands.

In Russia, however, already beginning in 1753, married women were able to buy and sell assets independently, without consulting their husbands. Spouses could even buy and sell among themselves, as if they were perfect strangers!

In this way, Russian women could independently own and manage their own factories and mills, and by the 1870s, they headed over 1000 enterprises. Imperial Law also made no distinction between women and men in terms of taxes. A woman could set up a commercial enterprise and join the merchant class, provided that she paid the taxes. Most of the businesses owned by women were textile manufactures. In fact, a fifth of all cloth supplied to the Russian army was produced by factories owned by women!

In the 19th century, half of the businesswomen in Russia hailed from noble families. Of those, more than half inherited their businesses from their parents, and only about 20 percent did so from their husbands. The rest of the female entrepreneurs were mostly born into merchant families. In many such families that owned and inherited businesses, young girls were taught maths and accounting, as well as English and German languages, in order to successfully lead a business in case they inherited it. “We loved and appreciated our factory business. Ancestral factories were to us what ancestral castles were to medieval knights,” Vladimir Ryabushinsky, an offspring of one of Russia’s wealthiest merchant families, once said.

There were thousands of businesswomen in Tsarist Russia in the course of its history. We chose the following three biographies that Galina Ulianova highlights in her book as the most fascinating.

“Great worldly tact”: Maria Morozova (1830-1911)

Maria Morozova, 1897, by Valentin Serov.

By the end of her life, Maria Morozova amassed a tremendous personal fortune exceeding 30 million rubles. By contrast, in those times, the sum of all judicial and clerical taxes collected in the Russian Empire amounted to 54 million, while the country’s entire budget was 2,2 billion rubles. How did Morozova acquire such wealth? And how did she manage it?

Maria Morozova was a descendant of two influential textile producing Old Believer families – the Simonovs and the Soldatyonkovs. At 25, she married Timofey Morozov – the heir to the most famous Old Believer textile dynasty in Russia. They parented nine children before his untimely death in 1889. But Maria was ready to take on the family business.

The Nikolskaya Cotton Spinning Manufactory that belonged to the Morozovs

In 1873, Timofey Morozov established a joint company, listing Maria as one of the founders. In Timofey’s will, all his property (five million rubles in stock, securities and cash) was bequeathed to his wife. “She was a very domineering woman, with a clear mind, great worldly tact and independent views,” Pavel Buryshkin, a contemporary, wrote.

With 17,300workers, the Nikolskaya Cotton Spinning Manufactory in the town of Orekhovo-Zuevo near Moscow was the second largest enterprise in Russia. It was technologically modern, possessing the latest equipment, and governed on a daily basis by Maria personally, from her office in downtown Moscow, a short distance from her fabulous mansion that still exists today.

By the time of her death in 1911, Morozova grew her company’s capital six-fold. She was one of the most successful businesswomen in Imperial Russia.

“She was feared and respected”: Vera Alekseeva (1774-1849)

Vera Alekseeva

The great-grandmother of famous Russian theatrical entrepreneur Konstantin Stanislavsky (born Alekseev), Vera Alekseeva took over her husband’s business when she was 49, after his demise. Their company was producing gold and silver threads for parade embroidery (for priests and high-ranking civil servants). The Alekseevs also sold wool and silk, owned houses in Moscow, 92 stores and 18 storage areas. All this was inherited by Vera and her two grown-up sons.

It was not easy to control such a fortune. But Alekseeva went as far as expanding it: by 1849, she owned 30 percent of all storage areas in Gostinyi Dvor, an old marketplace right next to the Kremlin. Fabrics from cloth to silk and calico, ribbons, hats, fur – all this was sold in Alekseeva’s stores. She even had to rent additional spaces to cope with the quantities. Her outlets and factory earned her approximately 100,000 rubles a year each, a very lucrative sum (a government minister was paid 4-5,000 a year).

Gostiny dvor (R) at the beginning of the 19th century.

“She was an old woman with expressive features that bore unmistakable traces of former beauty. She always wore a handkerchief tied around her head, in the old-fashioned way,” her nephew Nikolay Vishnyakov wrote. “She was terribly stingy. Having once planned to give all of us, her nephews, a silver spoon, she brought the spoons, kept her hand in her pocket all the time, but eventually didn’t have the heart to give them away and just left with them in her pocket.” Such behavior, however, didn’t make the relatives angry. “She was rigorous and prideful, but clever. Although she didn’t express much tenderness, there was no doubt she treated us well. She was feared and respected.”

“Just a shoemaker”: Natalia Andreeva (1832-1910)

Natalia Andreeva

Natalia Andreeva was barely literate – she could basically read and write. Nevertheless, she saw to it that all her children received the best university education. When Andreeva died, she left over 200,000 rubles to numerous charities, and her funeral procession was almost a kilometer long. Her granddaughter Margarita Sabashnikova recalled how a passer-by asked her uncle, Andreeva’s son, who the person that was being buried with such pomp was. “Just a shoemaker,” he replied. “And we’re her offspring.”

Andreeva inherited the shoemaking business from her father, who died in 1867, and had no sons, so, according to Russian law, the daughter became the sole proprietor. Her husband had his own separate business selling tea. Natalia gave birth to 12 children – 10 of whom lived – before her husband passed, the same year as her father.

The deep grief didn’t crush her. At 35, she took over management of all the businesses. Despite a lack of a formal education, she did much of the paperwork herself. Her daughter Catherine remembered: “My mother wrote with difficulty, made spelling mistakes, as she never studied systematically. Nevertheless, her letters were very lively, always laconic, but informative.”

Natalia brought up her children with an understanding of how real business was done. Every evening at 8 PM sharp, an accountant, or a lawyer, visited her at home. She also frequented her downtown office, taking the children with her. “She went upstairs, and left us downstairs, where we sat on the only oilcloth sofa, sagging, waiting for her. We weren't allowed to talk there.”

This way, the children from a rich family saw that the mother could have her own important matters to attend to, witnessing firsthand the working environment of the merchant class. “It was a conscious policy of the mother, who showed the children that the wealth of a family is based on work, and that even a millionaire should come to work at the office every day, so as not to lose her millions,” Ulianova writes.

After Andreeva’s death, a hospital facility and an educational establishment (teaching public courses) were opened in Moscow at her expense. Both buildings still exist and serve their purpose.

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Dr. Galina Ulianova and the cover of her book

Russia Beyond asked if Dr. Galina Ulianova has researched any cases of women being banned from organizing businesses solely because of their gender.

– No, I haven’t found any such cases, – Dr. Ulianova says. – Businesses were banned only on the grounds of Imperial laws or local municipal regulations . This included productions that caused environmental pollution – fabric dying and leather tanning. For example, in 1850, the largest Moscow tannery that belonged to a wealthy female merchant Natalia Bakhrushina was reported to Moscow authorities – the openly dumping waste from her enterprise was polluting the Moscow river. Immediately, Bakhrushina spent considerable sums on installing scouring machines, and the factory continued working.

– It is necessary to understand, Dr. Ulianova continued, that by far, all business women in Tsarist Russia belonged to influential business families, so treating them with contempt was virtually impossible. Women were never alone in their business, supported by brothers, husbands, and their children. Nevertheless, it was still women who headed the enterprises and managed the financial matters.

* * *

Galina Ulianova, Ph.D., is a senior researcher at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, in Moscow, Russia. Dr. Ulianova is the leading Russian researcher of the history of Russian philantropy and charity. She is the author of many books, including: The Philanthropic Activity of Moscow Entrepreneurs. 1860-1914. (in Russian; Moscow Archive Publishing House, 1999); Female Entrepreneurs in Nineteenth-Century Russia (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009), Philanthropy in the Russian Empire, 19th and early 20th centuries (in Russian; Moscow: Nauka, 2005).

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