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He Who Became the First Rector of Mining University

горный университет
Фото © Фридрих фон Мартенс (1809-1875). Вид Горного института. 1830-е годы

The first higher technical university in Russia was established by a decree of Empress Catherine the Great, following a request with which a mining entrepreneur from the Ural addressed her. But who was the person who established and headed the educational institution? A famous son of a famous father he was.

Mikhail Soimonov belongs to the family of respectable noble-borns, dating back to the 16th century. His father, Fedor Ivanovich Soimonov, was a nautical surveyor, first-ever Russian hydrographer, ranked Vice-Admiral of the Russian Empire. As a cartographer, Soimonov compiled the first map of the Caspian Sea in history and drew a set of maps of the White and Baltic Seas. He spent decades exploring the country to complete the Atlas of Russia and invested his time in monitoring the advancement of Russian nautical schools. It is no wonder then that the offspring of such a tireless person would follow in his father's footsteps and make no less worthy contribution to the country's development.

Федор Соймонов
Фото © Общественное достояние/ Федор Соймонов

Mikhail Fedorovich was raised at his grandfather's whilst being a boy of tender years. During Peter I's reign, the nobility generally resisted the imperative to study. However, several decades later, education turned from a state-imposed factor into a vital part of noblemen' life strategies. So, once reached the age of 8, in 1738, Mikhail was sent to the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences to study foreign languages and exact sciences, and afterwards to the Moscow Artillery School.

After graduating, the young man received the rank of under-officer and headed to Siberia. With the purpose of scientific enquiries, he spent there the late 1740s and almost all of the 1750s. Joined by his father, the fresh graduate was engaged in exploration works; he also conducted hydrographic, geodetic, and mapping surveys. And in 1753 he took part in the legendary Nerchinsk Expedition, led by Fedor Ivanovich. Its main objectives were to map the then little explored area of the Amur River and its tributaries, survey the region's rivers - Ingoda and Argun, explore the land route and waterway from Irkutsk to Nerchinsk, search for an area suitable for shipbuilding.

Фото © Вид на Нерчинск, гравюра XVIII века

Historians have written and are still writing monographs about the expedition's enormous role in spreading Russian statehood onto the territories of Siberia and the Far East. For the junior of Soimonovs, the journey was also unique - the experience he had gained exhibited the prospects a high-quality education, dedication and perseverance could bring. As Mikhail was exploring the Russian-Chinese border and entrenching the position of Nerchinsk, he became first a lieutenant, a captain, and then a major.

In 1762 he arrived in the capital, and in two years was appointed the Chief Procurator of the Senate. But the career-turning point was the assignment as the President of the Collegium of Mining, which happened in 1771. Soimonov was 41 by then, and finally, the person who went down in history as one of the establishers of mining practices and geological surveying services turned to the industry he was destined to truly revolutionise.

One of the first decisions Soimonov made once promoted to the new post concerned the mining-engineering education. In fact, this idea had crossed his mind on numerous occasions while travelling about Siberia. Yet he put it into practice only after had received a letter from Ismagil Tasimov, an entrepreneur from the Ural, with the following suggestion:

"... To ensure that plant directors or those who supervise mining works are well-informed and intelligent, for they have to be asked often, and being instructed by one who is competent and proficient is more eagerly accepted than by a stupid ignoramus, it is to be asked to establish an officer school, likewise the cadet corps or academy alike…"

(in Russian: «…Чтоб начальники заводов или надзиратели их трудов и промысла были знающие люди, ибо они часто спрашиваться должны, и от умного и сведущего охотее слушать наставления, нежели от глупого невежи, то просить, чтоб завести офицерскую школу, как здесь кадетские корпусы и академии…»)

Soimonov, a staunch supporter of founding a higher professional school in Russia, supported the initiative and presented the draft on establishing the Mining School to the Senate. Having considered his "On the Establishment of the Mining School" report, the Collegium of Mining admitted it was useful and also highly necessary.

горный университет
© Общественное достояние

The earlier mentioned Ural entrepreneur alongside the other members of the initiative group were prepared to support the school by deducting payments from their wages. Of course, it could not have been a winning argument nor that very factor that inclined Catherine II to approve the initiative. It was a pleasant addition, though.

On October 21, 1773, the Empress approved the Senate's decision to establish the Mining school (now Mining University). Soimonov was appointed the director.

By July 1774, when the grand opening took place, Mikhail Soimonov had had the school's charter and curriculum done. He had personally invited the key teachers, established the Mining Museum and the scientific library, the publishing and printing offices. Being aware of the importance of practical studies, he had built laboratories on the premises of the school, and a unique mine, too. The mining model was used to study the positions of rocks, extract samples, and perform chemical tests. The first students of the school were students of Moscow University who had some basic education in chemistry and other essential disciplines, such as geometry, arithmetic, and French, German, and Latin languages.

In the Rector's eyes, the educational institution's goal was to be a research, education and information centre for the raw materials industry. Teachers and students were translating research articles from foreign languages into Russian and publishing them to spread the pioneering expertise among state-owned and private factories. Cooperation with the Academy of Sciences, Russian and foreign research and educational institutions was considered a matter of extreme importance. Soimonov not just proposed but obliged the most talented graduates to embark upon a compulsory assignment - all to help them acquire experience abroad. The foundations on which the Mining School was built turned into a benchmark other domestic universities strived to adhere to.

Фото © Александровский завод, относящийся к группе Олонецких горных заводов

Soimonov did not nonetheless limit himself to promoting and developing higher education. Another project of high value, he devoted much time to, involved the revival of Olonetsky mining plants, which had fallen into utter decay by then. With the passion of his, Mikhail, and also high-profile engineers and chemists he invited, got down to work. Having identified the already accumulated problems, Soimonov succeeded in reestablishing mining activities in the region, and under his leadership, the local mines began to bloom again.

That was just one example of many. Soimonov initiated countless exploration and mining projects all throughout the Russian Empire. He arranged the project on the reorganisation of mining and metallurgical works, with an additional suggestion to have it reviewed and, if necessary, adjusted every five years.

Long-lasting trips affected Mikhail's health badly. He was an aged person and had to take breaks from his duties, but he still kept working until his health condition forced him to resign. Nevertheless, Paul I, who ascended the throne in 1796 and who highly valued Soimonov's achievements, insisted on him returning to his post and assigned him as a privy councillor and a senator. The Mining School's first Rector agreed. In the following years, he, as the country's first-ever person to do so, established state prospector parties, which led to discovering multifold ore lodes; he also designed a new building of the Mint, including a laboratory inside. In 1799 Soimonov was awarded the Order of St. Andrew, and it was not until 1801, at the age of 71, that he stepped down from his post - this time for good.

Михаил Соймонов
Фото © Михаил Соймонов

Historians wrote later:

"At all times of his long service, Soimonov did not cease to feel love for what he was doing and was committed to developing the mining industry. His contributions to the mining sector's growth make us remember him as a man whose work was especially beneficial to the country, be grateful and feel respect for all his merits".