Rich man’s world: Who was on the ‘Forbes List’ of tsarist Russia?

The Romanovs were some of the richest people in Russia for many centuries. The Massandra palace, a former tsarist residence, was initially owned by the Vorontsov family. The owner Semen Vorontsov was a general under Alexander III and a member of a very famous and wealthy family, close to the tsar.

The Romanovs were some of the richest people in Russia for many centuries. The Massandra palace, a former tsarist residence, was initially owned by the Vorontsov family. The owner Semen Vorontsov was a general under Alexander III and a member of a very famous and wealthy family, close to the tsar.

Vadim Razumov
With the world currently unable to escape Robbie Williams' "Party like a Russian," RBTH recalls the oligarchs of imperial Russia. Who were they, the Abramoviches from the times of Ivan the Terrible and Nicholas II?

The history of the Russian oligarchy began a long time ago. Merchants played an important role in the Novgorod Republic as early as the 12th to 15th centuries. During the reign of Ivan the Terrible (16th century), a man named Anika Stroganov, closely associated with the government, was the richest entrepreneur.

He received millions of hectares of land from the tsar, built his enterprises there, and used the money to send scouts and colonists to the Urals. The merging of capital and power peaked under Catherine II (the Great). Her favorites paraded millions given by the tsarina, while less fortunate courtiers were engaged in real games of thrones for the title of the empress's pet. Wealthy people in those years owned thousands of serfs and enormous areas of land.

By the 19th century, feudal relations started to break down, and a class of "classical" capitalist industrialists emerged in Russia. By 1914 some of them had already surpassed the wealth of many ancient noble families. However, a close relationship with the state remained. Railroad tycoon Polyakov plundered the treasury, while "Vodka King" Smirnov delivered beverages to the imperial court.

The 19th century

Samuil Polyakov (1837-1888) was "the most famous railway ace," as this industrialist was called by Finance Minister Sergei Witte. His fad was the introduction of modern and rapid management in construction. Polyakov received concessions for the construction of new railways, and established commercial banks. However, according to contemporaries, Polyakov also did not hesitate to embezzle public funds.

"To receive the concession for the Azov road, he promised the zemstvo [local government] 300,000 [rubles] and to build a railway plant, but he neither built the plant nor gave the money to the zemstvo," ranted the economist Skalkovsky (who himself was, however, a notorious bribe taker).

When Polyakov died, he left a fortune of 31 million rubles. This financial success is doubly surprising for a Jew – the Russian Empire oppressed Jews. Incidentally, it is the Polyakov family that built the first synagogue in Moscow.

Pyotr Smirnov (1831-1898) – this representative of Russia's most popular surname rose from the lowly rank of serf to become the "vodka king" of all Russia. Having received his freedom, Smirnov opened a liquor store, and three years later – a small plant.

The businessman placed an emphasis on the quality of his goods – and it paid off. His liqueurs, vodkas and wines won prizes at international exhibitions, and profits grew in leaps and bounds. Smirnov developed his vodka empire, and left a fortune of 8.7 million gold rubles after his death. A couple of decades later, his emigre son, Vladimir Smirnov, began producing vodka under the now-famous brand Smirnoff.

Pavel Tretyakov (1832-1898) is sometimes called Russia's Medici. A member of a merchant family, Tretyakov built cotton mills, sold linen, cotton and wool, and was also on the board of the Merchants Bank. In 1898, his fortune was estimated at 3.8 million rubles.

But this entrepreneur is known in the first place as a generous philanthropist. For almost 40 years, he collected paintings and built a national gallery. "For me, who truly and ardently love painting, there cannot be a better desire than to initiate a public repository of art," he wrote in his will. Today, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow hosts 180,000 exhibits and is one of the largest museums of Russian art in the world.

The 19th and early 20th century (until 1917)

Felix Yusupov (1887-1967) is primarily known not as a rich nobleman but as the murderer of Rasputin. A bisexual and playboy, Felix was the sole heir of 21 million rubles: The Yusupov family owned houses, mines, 23 estates, and shares. Yusupov lived fast – more than half of the income went to personal expenses. But eccentric aristocrat Felix dreamed of great things, and it was this that pushed him to the murder.

In his memoirs, Yusupov wrote: "After meeting with Rasputin, I became convinced that all the evil and the main reason for the misfortunes of Russia were hidden in him." Ironically, it was Rasputin that helped Yusupov regain financial stability after fleeing from revolutionary Russia.

In the movie Rasputin and the Empress, Yusupov's wife was presented as a victim of rapist Rasputin, and Yusupov won $250,000 in damages from the MGM movie company in 1933. It was after this incident that Hollywood first adopted an "all persons fictitious" disclaimer.

Nikolai Vtorov (1866-1918) – according to Forbes' later estimates, Vtorov was the richest Russian businessman in 1914. Unlike many of the 19th-century capitalists, Vtorov did not start from scratch – the merchant's son inherited 8 million rubles. Vtorov built a five-story shopping center in Moscow, issued loans to factories, sold tea, and was engaged in gold mining and the production of cotton.

During the First World War, the industrialist founded Russia's first plant to produce chemical dyes and electrometallurgical company. In 1914, Vtorov's fortune exceeded 60 million rubles.

How much were they worth in today’s terms?

According to the Audit Chamber, in 1913, a grammar school teacher received 85 rubles, a janitor – 18 rubles. The average family spent 20-25 rubles on food.The ruble-to-dollar exchange rate in 1913 is known. From 1898 to 1913, the value of the ruble did not change much (it was pegged to gold), so the 1913 exchange rate was used for calculations. By this estimation, Tretyakov would have $52 million today (in the 2016 equivalent), Smirnov – $119 million. Polyakov died before the introduction of the gold standard, so his capital would be approaching $583 million. The Yusupovs would have $250 million, Vtorov – more than $716 million.

The Romanovs were some of the richest people in Russia for many centuries – and did not always spend their money wisely. Catherine the Great lived a fast life and gave multi-thousand sums to her favorites. But at the same time, she specifically named her fifth granddaughter Olga, so that her birthday and name day coincided – and therefore grandmother could spend less on celebrations!

Later on, the Romanovs only accumulated wealth. Nicholas II's first cousin once removed recalled: "The dead capital of the royal family [in jewelry] was estimated in the amount of 160 million rubles." According to the assessments of historian Igor Zimin, Nicholas II’s wife Alexandra Feodorovna had saved 600 to 700 diamonds by 1917.

The tsar had a multimillion-dollar stake in the Noble Bank and railways. To be on the safe side during the failed 1905 revolution, Nicholas transferred millions in personal savings to German banks. According to various estimates, from 2 to 15 million rubles was kept there in 1917.

The imperial family owned villas in France and palaces in Denmark. In Russia, they owned vineyards, farms, luxury estates and castles, mines and cottages with a total value of 100 million rubles. Nicholas II's income reached 20 million rubles a year. But even this was not enough for the tsar, and he sometimes took money from the coffers. Witte recalled that Nicholas once gave his peer a loan of 2 million rubles from the State Bank.

Read more: Breaking court news for the illiterate: The Romanovs in popular prints>>>

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