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He Who Was the First Gold Miner of Russia

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The most well-known of gold fevers is presumably the Klondike Gold Rush. Thanks to Jack London, who himself as a young man left for Alaska to seek gold. But although many were reading his novels, few knew it had all started in Russia, years before coming to America.

In 1719 Peter I issued a decree allowing anyone willing to do so to be engaged in mining, with no restrictions posed:

Paragraph 1: "To one and all, whatever their rank or calibre may be, irrespective of whether a property of their own or others, is granted the right to explore, extract, smelt, weld, and refine all kinds of metals: namely, gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, iron, so as minerals, too..."

(in Russian: Пункт 1. «Соизволяется всем и каждому дается воля, каково б чина и достоинства ни был, во всех местах, как на собственных, так и на чужих землях — искать, копать, плавить, варить и чистить всякие металлы: сиречь — злато, сребро, медь, олово, свинец, железо, також и минералов...»)

Historians generally associate Peter the Great's reign with the start of large-scale discoveries and development of deposits. Yet there were no gold deposits found then. News on discovering occurrences of gold appeared only later.

In 1745 Yerofey Markov, a peasant from Shartash, one of the first, and probably most ancient, settlements in what is now an administrative district of Ekaterinburg, Ural, found several gold grains near the city. Since surveying work at the location Markov indicated did not lead to any tangible result, the discoverer was accused of hiding the exact site. Indeed, there could have been various reasons why the expedition failed: starting from the wrong place and sampling mistakes and ending with a lack of technical know-how of lab testing. Markov had no relevant knowledge of geology and could not prove he was right, which ultimately led to his imprisonment.

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In 1797 Berg-College, also known as the Collegium of Mining, sent an expedition to Orenburg, Southern Ural, for prospecting ores, with engineer Evgraf Mechnikov as part of the group. After a few months, the Mining School's graduate found a first lode deposit of gold, later named Mechnikovskoe deposit, on the river Tashkutarganka in the valley of Miass.

The young professional established a stamping mill in the Ural region and discovered three goldfields and a copper mine. Which was the landmark event for the formation of Russian gold industry. But not the Klondike yet - gold washing did not yield those massive amounts.

However, the mere occurrence of the deposit suggested that the area could be rich in gold reserves. And so it was! Intensive exploration work resulted in finding alluvial gold in 1823.

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Фото © Разведка золота в долине реки Миасс

As is written in the "Journal of Mining Institute" («Записки Горного Института»), "sometimes, drawing on positive samples, 100 poods (1 pood = 16.38 kg) of sand yielded almost a pood of gold. And just about every handful of sand, if washed out, would bring a gram or two of gold...". The precious metal was virtually everywhere: gold reserves were found in the rivers of Atlyan, Big Kialim, Miass, and others. On the news of the find, 1,200 gold-diggers headed to the area in the first year alone. Ore mining was soon abandoned as the process was overly labour-intensive, and it was decided to focus on placer gold. An abundance of the latter offered, in turn, enormous wealth accumulation potential not only for industry specialists and enterprises but for ordinary workers, too.

In 1823 132 kg of the 'yellow metal' were found, and already in the following year, 246 kilograms were extracted. Miners' shovels were seen here and there, eventually leading to more and more mines being opened…

Even the Tsar got himself under a spell of the gold rush. While travelling about Russia, Alexander I stopped by the Tsarevo-Alexandrovsky placer, named in his honour. Just a few hours before the Emperor's visit, Dementy Petrov, one of the mine's workers, found a nugget of 3.3 kg in weight. That nugget was given to the Emperor as a greeting gift.

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A tour around the field was not enough nonetheless - the Emperor of Russia wanted to try himself as a gold hunter, too. And so he took a miner's hack and a shovel into his hands... The Tsar kept working for several hours without a break, until he was finally persuaded to stop. The legend says Alexander I did an excellent job: of 360 kg of gold-bearing sands he had extracted, 255 grams of gold were panned out.

Shortly after, the whole valley of the Miass River turned into one gigantic gold mine. By 1836 54 goldfields and 23 placer deposits had started operating there, which, for instance, in 1840 yielded 1250 kg of Au. Russia' largest nugget - the 36.21-kg "Big Triangle", nowadays stored in the Diamond Fund and exhibited in the Kremlin Armoury, - was discovered in that area, too.

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Russian engineers' success story became a source of inspiration for foreign colleagues, who started looking for similarities between their countries' geological structures and the Ural-Siberian 'gold zone'. Thereupon they were found - in California, Australia, Egypt, and elsewhere around the world. Sir Roderick Murchison, a Scottish geologist, wrote, "the snowy mountain range of California is by its mineralogical form perfectly similar to that of Siberian rock formations". And already in 1848, the California Gold Rush began, continuing with the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896.

But what about the discoverer of the Miass's vast gold reserves? For him, the Mechnikovskoe deposit became a starting point of the career. In 1799, he was awarded for successes in geological exploration and appointed the head of the mines in Miass, Ural. Upon return to the capital, Mechnikov served in the Ministry of Finance, wherein he was in charge of the Berg-College's and the Mint Court's operations.

Evgraf Mechnikov's role was not limited to the above mentioned, but he also organised and administered numerous mining establishments. He was one of the founders of the Imperial St. Petersburg Mineralogical Society, and in 1817 he headed the Department of Mines, the Russian Empire's central body responsible for mining and metallurgy divisions.

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Mechnikov paid no less attention to his alma mater, for he knew the raw materials industry heavily depended on the engineering staff quality. Having become a leader of the Mining Cadet Corps in 1817, he made sure the Emperor provided the institution with the same rights that State Universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg had already had. The Mining Museum was given extra space, and its exposition of mining devices and models was enlarged. Some changes in the way cadets were educated took place as well. For example, the Institute thereon held public examinations to which the cream of St. Petersburg society gathered, thus raising the educational institution's prestige. With each year, more and more cadets were admitted to the school, surpassing the 400 mark while being under the leadership of Mechnikov.

Mechnikov was known as in engineering communities of Russia as abroad. But he was neither the first nor the last representative of his distinguished family, which found its way into history books on numerous occasions. Evgraf Mechnikov's great-grandfather, Nicolae Milescu, served as an interpreter to the Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich and taught literacy to Peter the Great. And his great-grandson Ilya Mechnikov was a Nobel laureate, famous for pioneering research in phagocytosis and cell-mediated immunity.

илья мечников
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