|Mikhail Vrubel Portrait of Savva Mamontov|
By Elena Bashilova
Savva Mamontov was the founder and builder of the largest railway in Russia. He also laid the foundation of the largest wagon building factory, in suburban Mytishchi, just outside Moscow. He had interests in the iron ore extrac¬tion and the iron casting industry.He opened five commercial and industrial colleges in different parts of the Russian Empire. He was Acting and Honorary Member of the Society of Lovers of Commercial Knowledge and a City Duma Deputy. Last but not least, he was author of the book "Railways in Russia". This enumeration in itself, is very impressive! Yet, it doesn’t even begin summing up all of Savva Mamontov's activity and interests.
Mamontov oversaw the establishment of the 1st in Russia Private Opera theatre. In fact, it is to him that we owe the discovery of the unique talent of singer Fyodor Chalyapin. Incidentally, Savva Mamontov himself possessed a very good singing voice. When he was in Italy, he took singing lessons and the Italian Opera even invited him to appear on its stage!
Savva Mamontov was a gifted artist and sculptor; he had a particular interest in majolica; a talented person, he could hold his own and communicate with artists on an equal footing rather than as a wealthy, bored gentleman, dabb¬ling in art for the sake of diversion. Strictly speaking, he was neither patron, nor collector, nor sponsor. He was simply an artist and industrialist all in one.
Whenever other merchants saw to rebuke him for too excessive an interest in the Arts, Savva Mamontov would parry:
"Does not one need Imagination when dealing with business matters, too? I view each of my new ventures in the light of a block of marble. What possible financial success could you hope for without this vision?"
Savva Mamontov’s father, Ivan Mamontov, came from a very old merchant family. By the time Savva was born, he was involved in the farming of revenues. This was a system of tax collecting from the population, where the government, for a certain price, readdresses the right to collect the afore-mentioned taxes to private individuals, so-called tax farmers. Thus, Savva Mamontov’s dad colleted taxes from wine makers. He had a large family: a wife and nine children, of which Savva was the fourth.
“Savva Mamontov was born on October 4th 1841 in the town of Yalutorovsk, in western Siberia,” staff worker of the Moscow Museum of History of Russian entrepreneurship Darya Zhavoronkova says. “Eight years later the Mamontov family moved to Moscow, establishing itself in a fine, true gentry style, the head of the family rented a luxurious mansion in the heart of Moscow, that used to belong to Count Tolstoy. The Mamontovs began to give balls and receptions, with a great many influential people showing up among the guests. To begin with, the wealthy farmer of revenues was viewed by many as a man with a suspicious and black look of jealous animosity. However, overtime, he won himself a place of Honor in the Moscow merchant circles. And not only that. He had clout in the City Government and even ran for the post of City head.
When in Moscow, the nature of the children's upbringing changed radically in the Mamontov family. In Siberia, the young had been entrusted to the care of well-meaning yet illiterate nannies, while the move to Moscow called for a change: tutors were brought in. This would be someone with a Higher University degree, who taught the young Mamontovs European manners and foreign languages. Yet, like was the case with merchant families, new influences did not entirely supplant the deep-rooted traditions: Savva Mamontov recalled being laid out across the bed and thrashed mercilessly for various misdemeanors. The tutor personally would mete out the punishment. Bunches of rods were sus¬pended from the bedroom wall as a silent reminder and warning.
In Moscow, Savva Mamontov received an elementary education. Later, in 1855, together with his cousins Victor and Valerian, he was sent to study to St. Petersburg, the then Russian capital, to the Institute of Civil Engineers' Corps. This decision was by far no accidental. At that particular time the fathers of the young people, Ivan and Nikolai Mamontov, decided to set up an oil trading company. For this, they needed educated, qualified people to continue their line of business
Savva was not an overly diligent student. In his father’s letter to him voicing his indignation over the son's poor progress, there were the following concluding lines:
“I grant you my parental blessing and besiege you, I implore tо sat aside idle thoughts and pursuits, make an effort in your studies, and through good marks, snow me that you can be obedient and a dutiful son, in following your father's express orders.”
And another quote from his father's latter:
“Do not be idle, employ your time with sense and purpose, remember that idleness breeds sins… A serious attitude and hard work are a firm and sound foundation in life… Life is empty and meaningless without work and cares… One should labor conscientiously, as every good citizen does without relying on somebody else…”
And so on, and so forth… Such fatherly instructions did not immedia¬tely have their effect. Years were to pass, before the easily carried away, giddy Savva hit upon an acceptable for him "life formula", combining serious business activities and a granting of the spirit's artistic, non-commercial needs and drives…
In 1852 Savva, at his father's insistence, plunged into business activity. By that time he had completed studies at Moscow University, emerging with the certificate of a lawyer. He had a passion for the theatre, took fencing lessons and had not the slightest desire to indulge in business activity. However, he suffered from pangs of conscience. There is en entry in his diary, of that period, where we read:
"I feel, my conscience nags me; "Get into the business, there is work waiting for you… Otherwise, you will regret this for the rest of your life!" Yet the accursed laziness and flightiness undermine all good, righteous plans. At times I feel really disgusted with myself, wondering how it is that I haven’t the gumption to curb these shameful failings and stamp out my vices."
It was Savva's father, who helped him overcome his shortcomings. He resorted to extreme measures, informing Savva that he would have to set off for Baku, on business involving the oil company. After the charms of Mos¬cow and St. Petersburg, the dusty, small, sun-baked Baku, where he had neither friends, nor mere acquaintance, produced a daunting impression on Savva. At his father's insistence, he was appointed simple office employee under the Director of the Baku branch of the oil company. Three weeks later, in a letter to his father, Savva gave vent to his grievances, demeaning his sorry lot, and begging to be granted permissions to return to Moscow. In a letter of reply, his dad wrote:
"That it’s indescribably dull, hard and mind-numbing, living there. I have no doubt at all. However, a life of this kind can do you no actu¬al harm, while revealing to you, in practice, how difficult it is to earn the amount of money, that you tend to believe imperative to your way of life. Ruminate on this, be patient, bear with all hardships, and make a way for yourself in this life resorting to your own resources. You will come to accept it."
Faced with the implacable will and firm, resolute character of his father, Savva resigned himself to his fate, and became immersed in the business and trade concerns. Surprisingly quickly, he grasped one basics of this new occupation for aim, and before he could help it, he was deeply interested in it. He started to show business acumen, quick decision making, shrewd mind and a propensity for trade dealing. His father, regularly receiving informati¬on from his staff workers regarding the progress and pursuits of his son, was initially exceedingly surprised, and then overjoyed to hear of his successes. By the end of the last month of 1862, he had written to Savva:
"Let me say in all honesty, at the present time I am completely pleased with your achievements, and shall pray to the Lord that you may continue to be a consolation and joy to me. Get accustomed to working hard … you will see how it will bring you happiness in your future family life."
Savva spent approximately a year first in Baku, then in Russia, and, according to his own admission, "returned to Moscow an acknowledged trader". His father introduced him to the financial aspect of the family business, and now spoke to him as to a legal heir and со-partner. A year later Savva was entrusted with overseeing the central, Moscow-based branch of the company.
However, Savva fell seriously ill, miraculously recovered, and the doctors recommended his father to send him abroad. Ivan Mamontov sent Savva to Italy, to recuperate, and, ‘to kill two birds with one stone’, to get first-hand information regarding the silk trade. The North of Italy, Lombardy, had been the heart of the silk industry since olden times. The capital of the region — Milan — was the largest center of the silk trade.
However, Milan was also an acknowledged center of the Arts and particularly — the opera art. Several months spent in this town were very instructive for the young Mamontov. We do not have any testimony of just now he tackled the intricacies of the commercial science, yet it is known for a fact, that at that precise period Savva "became enamored" of the opera art. He attended the very best productions at Milan's La Scala, listened to the leading soloists and started taking singing lessons. The communicative, easy and high-spirited Savva very soon made the acquaintance of all Russian singers, studying in Italy. He began to learn opera parts with them, and after achieving quite impressive results in the vocal art, received an invitation to perform at one of Milan's secondary theatres. However, the theatre debut was not to be. Savva's dad, discovering about his son's new weakness speedily summoned him back to Moscow.
Savva came home a man in love. The fact is, in Milan he had made acquain¬tance with the daughter of a well-known Moscow merchant, prominent s trader in silk, Grigory Sapozhnikov. The girl's name was Yelizaveta. She became his wife. The fact that the parents of this wealthy bride had accepted Savva as a good match for their daughter, was testimony of the authority and respect that the Mamontov's commanded in the top merchant circles. Generally, in the wealthy merchantry, the marriage of son or daughter was always a great event. Each "match" was discussed at length by relatives and acquaintance, and detailed information was gleaned regarding the prospective bride or groom. It was important "not to lose face", and to ensure that the family business prosper from the match. ...
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