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The Tchaikovskys: Family of Engineers Except for Pyotr Ilyich

© Братья Чайковские. Анатолий, Модест, Ипполит. Сидят Николай и Пётр

In 2020, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky became the top trending Russian musician outside the country. A billboard with an image of his was erected right in central New York, on Times Square. Yet notwithstanding the international recognition of the composer's music, the Tchaikovskys are also known for having had connections with another industry, traditionally the key one for Rusia's economy.

If someone decides to browse through the late-19th-century issues of the Journal of Mining Institute, which publishes scholarly articles on the development and modernisation of the mineral resources sector, they will numerously come across the surname Tchaikovsky among its authors. So who is it: the author of Swan Lake himself, his relative, or a namesake?

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The famous musician had a large family, and many of his family members were talented engineers and miners. His brothers and cousins graduated from the Mining Institute. They thereupon built highly successful careers: the first developed the railway network of the Russian Empire, the second was in charge of the Mining Department of the Kingdom of Poland and served in the Ministry of Finance, while the third administered the mining-metallurgical activities in Don Host Oblast (presently Rostov and partly Donetsk Oblasts).

Still, Ilya Pyotrovich -the composer's father- was the one who brought the Tchaikovskys to glory in mining.

"Originally, I am not from the family of mining engineers. All my elder brothers were enlisted in military service. As for me, in 1808, my mother took me, a poor 11-year-old boy, who had just completed his studies at Vyatka Folk School, to the Izhevsk Plant headed by Andrey Deryabin," recalled the scientist.

© Миниатюрный портрет Ильи Петровича Чайковского

By then, Deryabin had already become one of Russia's most prominent mining engineering specialists. The acquaintance with him transformed Ilya's life completely. Having mastered under Deryabin's supervision the basics of factory work, the young fellow obtained the rank of 2nd-class non-commissioned mine superintendent -the lowest mining rank- and worked as a copyist. Given his duties' nature, Tchaikovsky would glance through all of the plant's records and reports. With each year, he was getting more impressed by the idea of serving his homeland through developing the mining and metallurgical industries.

In 1810 Deryabin was urgently called to St. Petersburg to head the Department of Mining and Salt Affairs and the Mining Cadet Corps -nowadays Mining University. The privileged higher school that gave solid industry-specific knowledge and fostered the high level of general culture mainly accepted the offspring of nobles and officers. Nonetheless, the new rector did not forget his talented assistant and personally sent him an invitation to become a cadet. Studying geology, mineralogy, and chemistry awakened Tchaikovsky's keen interest in mining.

Ilya Pyotrovich received a brilliant education, and in 1817, at the age of 22, he graduated with a grand silver medal. As part of the mandatory industrial placement, he spent the next two years working as an Assistant to the Chief Surveyor at the Perm Mining Board, followed by the transferal to the Department of Mining and Salt Affairs. Being the Head of the Division of Salt and Mineral Mining, the engineer travelled extensively across the Russian Empire's central provinces.

горный университет
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Thus, in 1824 he conducted geological studies of salt deposits and mineral waters in Novgorod Governorate. In search of rock salt, he was the first in Russia to use a drilling technology to explore salt brines - natural waters containing dissolved minerals in elevated concentrations. Their high value was noted by Tchaikovsky in an article printed in the Journal of Mining Institute in 1825. For 12 years, he remained one of the active contributors to the scientific periodical.

Meanwhile, the composer's father did not lose touch with his alma mater. At the age of 30, he became a member of the Scientific Committee on Mining and Salt Matters, which was established at the university to act as the leading research centre for mining engineering. Besides, Tchaikovsky taught mining statistics and law.

It would seem to be a great start to an academic career, but Ilya Pyotrovich dreamed of something more than just being a theorist. He believed that the effectiveness of research and development work increases manifold if carried out directly at production sites. Therefore he gladly accepted his new appointment. In 1831, Tchaikovsky headed the Onezhsky Salt Board and led the development of local rich salt mines; in 1837, he was promoted to the Director of the Kamsko-Votkinsk Factory (nowadays Votkinsk Machine Building Plant).

© Панорама Воткинского завода, XIX век

The enterprise was of national importance and was considered one of the country's best in the industry. For Ilya Pyotrovich, it was a great responsibility entrusted to him "upon the recommendation of the Head of the Corps of Mining Engineers by His Imperial Majesty's supreme decree". The scientist had to arrange and reorganise metallurgical production to make it consistent with the technical progress. The results of his work followed shortly.

Tchaikovsky became the first in Russia to introduce the complete iron puddling process -assuming the conversion of cast iron into soft low-carbon wrought iron- as a replacement to the bloomery (artisanal) one. The material obtained was well welded, had excellent ductility and a low percentage of impurities (phosphorus, sulphur, non-metallic inclusions). This steel-making method had been in use for almost 100 years until a more sophisticated process substituted it in the 1930s.

In 1843 the mining engineer built a gas-puddling furnace which cut fuel costs by about half. Experts emphasised the superiority of iron from Votkinsk in quality and economic performance over French and German samples. The supervisor did not rest on his laurels, though: he kept bringing into use new machines and lifting mechanisms that subsequently replaced manual labour.

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The pudding-welding production of high-grade iron, organised by Tchaikovsky, allowed to start constructing iron hulls for steamships. Ashkhabad, a merchant ship with a steam engine of 40 nominal horsepower, was built at the Votkinsk Factory. One of the first Russian steamships floated off the Kama River in 1845.

The same year's summer, the 8-year-old Pyotr Tchaikovsky, born in Votkinsk by the way, sent a letter to his relatives from Omsk about his first water trip: "That day we visited a ball and had a boat trip; the steamship, which was built here, took us by the Kama to Ust-Rechka. The steamship looks amazing: there are three cabins with windows, but the speed is too slow - just two versts per hour".

During the 12 years that Ilya Pyotrovich headed the company, the loss-making enterprise turned into the profitable one. The state treasury collected 447 thousand roubles in silver. And what is more important, the factory became an industrial site wherein intensive scientific research was conducted, the results of which were immediately introduced into production.

"Everything I have done for the Votkinsk Factory excites in me a just pride, an impeccable pride such that only an official who fulfilled his duty honestly can feel," recalled Ilya Tchaikovsky.


The 'mining boss' was awarded the Orders of St. Stanislaus II Class and St. Anna II Class for his successful service. In anticipation of his new appointment, he came to St Petersburg with his family.

Pyotr's parents wanted their son to study at the Mining Cadet Corps, just like his elder brother had done, but changed their minds and sent him off to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence. After graduating, Pyotr entered the service of the Ministry of Justice but soon realised he could no longer fight his desires. As a small child, he had had a passion for music and dreamt of becoming a composer, and so he gave up on the legal career to devote all of himself to the arts.

In 1848 Ilya Pyotrovich was promoted to Brigadier General and was put in charge of the private Alapaevsk, Nevyansk, Byngovsky, and Petrokamensk factories. A few years later, in 1952, he finally settled down in the capital and started teaching. In the position of a professor, he gave lectures on mining law at the Institute of the Corps of Mining Engineers, and in 1858 the mining engineer was appointed the Head of Saint Petersburg State Institute of Technology.

Ilya Pyotrovich Tchaikovsky deceased in 1880.

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