"…NOTHING FOR OURSELVES". THE RYABUSHINSKI BROTHERS
What does the world know about the Ryabushinskis? Not only the passage of time, but also the former rulers of their native country, has done everything possible to erase any trace of this large family from the collective memory of the nation.
Almost everybody, however, has noticed at least once the mansion in Moscow on Malaya Nikitskaya street - a pearl of the Russian moderne - built by the world- famous architect Shekhtel: the house had belonged to the Ryabushinskis; following the revolution, it was presented to the proletarian writer Maxim Gorky. That is probably all that is known of them.
It is then more than time to introduce the whole of the family, and thus fill the gap in the historical memory of generations.
There were eight Ryabushinski brothers - all bright, smart, talented builders of Russian industry and enthusiastic and devoted patrons of the arts.
Their grandfather, Mikhail Yakovlev, originated from the Rebushinski suburb village of the Kaluga region; he was a selfmade man, who from origins as a landless peasant finally reached the position of merchant of the second guild. Mikhail Yakovlev - a man of strong will with the no less strong character of the Russian muzhik - formulated the Ryabushinski family motto: "Everything for business, nothing for ourselves". Mikhail Yakovlev was a very strict and exacting father who did not believe in education, considering the experience of real life the best teacher for the young generation. After the disastrous year of 1812 Russian society entered a period of religious quest, and among Moscow merchants, the majority became old-believers. In 1820 Mikhail Yakovlev applied to the authorities to change his family name to Rebushinski, and later its spelling became Ryabushinski.
His son, Pavel Mikhailovich, though very much like his father, was evidently cleverer and more talented. He received his education at home and worked in his father's shop from the age of fifteen studying book-keeping. Pavel was his father's right hand man in the manufacturing business of the Kaluga region.
He became an enthusiastic theatregoer, and often arranged receptions at home for the actors of the famous Maly Theatre. Pavel Mikhailovich was a happy father of eight sons, who would become outstanding personalities and renowned citizens of Russia. All of them received the best European education, and manifested their diverse talents in the fields of textile and linen production, the publishing business, cotton factories, the timber industry, and in banking - such a list of their business activities remaining far from complete. But each of the brothers had his own particular hobbies and passions.
After Pavel Mikhailovich's death, his eldest son Pavel Pavlovich became the head of the family. He was widely known in pre-revolutionary Russia as a millionaire- politician: embarrassed by political instability, he often tried to lobby the interests of men of industry and trade. Among those who hated him were the Government, the Bolsheviks, and the Tsarina. He claimed in public in Summer 1917, several months before the revolution: "We know quite well that everything will be developing in a natural way, and all those who disobey the laws of the economy will be severely punished. An uneasy period is approaching - this is a sign that all civilized forces should hold together. You, men of trade - unite to save Russia!"
The Ryabushinskis built a new printing house in Moscow (the architect was Shekhtel, and the building was designed and decorated in the Russian moderne style), and started issuing first the paper "Utro" ("Morning"), and then later "Utro Rossii" ("Morning of Russia"). Both papers were anti-government. Before World War I Pavel Pavlovich sent a geological expedition to distant areas of Russia with the goal of finding deposits of radium. That was the result of his informal communication with the outstanding Russian scientist V.I. Vernadsky, who was invited to Pavel Pavlovich's house to lecture to the most prominent Russian businessmen about radium and its probable deposits in Russia.
After the revolution Pavel Pavlovich emigrated to France. He was severely ill, and died in 1924 from tuberculosis, at the age of only 50.
The second son of Pavel Mikhailovich Ryabushinski was Sergei. Always active in the family business (industry, trade, banking, etc.), he also made investments according to his own interests including the Institute of Education, well-equipped with the most up-to-date and advanced educational methods and technologies. Few remember this Institute today, since the Bolsheviks closed it down soon after the revolution.
Sergei's second, and beyond doubt most important, investment was the construction of a car factory near Moscow, which he started with his brother Stepan. The factory was built in only six months, with car production organized in such a way that only a slight reorganization was needed to produce aeroplanes. This plant was the best in Soviet Russia. Sergei Ryabushnski headed the Moscow Motorists' Club and the Moscow Society of Aeronauts. In addition, Sergei Pavlovich was a talented artist, who was recommended by Repin himself to join the Union of Russian realistic painters, the peredvizhniki (wanderers). Ryabushnski took part in, and was one of the organizers of their exhibitions, and of course frequently acted as a patron of the arts.
The fascinating impression we receive is that these people, although pillars of the old-believers' community, were able to catch the slightest and most subtle signs of developments to come in the future: airplanes, automobiles, sports and tourism.
On the last note, Sergei's younger brother Vladimir was the head of the Russian Tourist Society.
Vladimir Pavlovich studied at the Heidelberg University. He entered his family business and became a member of the board of Moscow Bank, of Moscow City Council, and of "PM. Ryabushinski & Co. Manufacturing". A real combination of all possible talents, Vladimir took the sudden and decisive decision to leave the family business, and at the very beginning of World War I volunteered for the army. He was wounded and awarded the Order of St. George IV class, later writing an article on defence constructions. Vladimir was at the front when the revolution broke out, and subsequently became a commander of an automobile regiment (which was organized by him) in the White Army under Vrangel.
He emigrated to Paris, where all his attempts to start a business proved futile. In 1925 Vladimir founded the "Icon" Society, remaining its president until his death. He published dozens of articles on the Russian icon and on the history of religion in Russia; as a polyglot, he wrote a brilliant research work, "On the Comparison of Languages" (Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Russian and English). His life as an immigrant was often awful, afflicted by poverty, sometimes hunger, and the Nazi occupation... None of the members of the large Ryabushinski family collaborated with the Fascist regime. Vladimir Pavlovich survived all these hardships with a noble dignity, and died in 1955 at the age of 83.
The mansion on Malaya Nikitskaya street in Moscow is a major part of the heritage of Stepan Pavlovich; indeed, it remains uncertain whether Shekhtel would ever have realized himself as an architect without the patronage of the Ryabushinskis. Of course, the interior of the mansion was later altered by its last owner, Gorky, who changed it according to his needs, with the result that the light sliding lines of the mod- erne style were sometimes broken; however, the facade and garden were unchanged. Stepan Pavlovich has entered Russian history not only as an entrepreneur and businessman, but principally as a collector. A part of his collection - 57 icons of the 13th- 17th centuries - is listed in the catalogues of the Tretyakov Gallery, which received them after the revolution. The most valuable icons were in the cathedrals of the Rogozhskoye cemetery in Moscow. In 1905 the elder brother Pavel Pavlovich bought a plot of land and donated it to the church for the construction of the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin there. His brother Stepan offered great sums of money towards the construction of the Cathedral, with an iconostasis of unprecedented artistic and archeological value, which incorporated original ancient icons from his private collection (the Cathedral was restored in 1998). In immigration Stepan collaborated with his brother Vladimir in the "Icon" Society, writing a paper on icon restoration. He died in 1942 in Italy at the age of 68.
Nikolai Pavlovich - he was called Nikolasha at home - was considered a dissipated and useless man in this family of old- believers. Nikolai lived a bohemian life, complete with the genuine extravagance and wastefulness of a rich merchant: he took his share of the family capital and managed to spend almost half of it over just three months (Nikolasha spent money on a cafe- singer Fagette), and the young man was immediately taken under the control of the family. Nikolasha used the money received from his brothers on travels, visiting such exotic countries as Japan, Hong-Kong, and China (where he took part in pheasant shooting). Some people appreciated him as an extraordinary personality, while others saw in him an ordinary wasteful merchant. Without doubt he was talented, writing short stories and novelettes in the then- fashionable decadence style. Alexandre Benois - the artist and art theoretic, organizer of the Union of Russian Artists - saw in young Nikolai Ryabushinski the personification of the golden calf on which pure art was dependent. But in 1905 the magazine "Zolotoye Runo" ("The Golden Fleece") appeared with Nikolai Pavlovich Ryabushin- ski as its editor and publisher; such great names of belle lettres as Bunin, Balmont, Blok, Bely and Voloshin published their prose and poetry in this luxurious fine magazine which was recognized as a centre of Russian symbolism. One of his contemporaries wrote: "Nobody in Moscow took Niko- lasha seriously, but he turned out to be cleverer than his other brothers, as he spent everything in his motherland". He was not poor in immigration in Paris, hid himself in Monte-Carlo during World War II, and ended his days in 1951 at the age of 74.
Another brother, Mikhail Pavlovich, started to collect painting when he was only twenty, and his collection made him probably the most notable and famous of all the brothers. Unlike Pavel, Nikolai and Dmitry, Mikhail was not a public person; serious bankers do not like publicity, and his wealth made him cautious and serious. At the age of thirty he was already the Director of the Kharkov Agrarian and Moscow Commercial Banks. Business and art mingled so closely in his life that the inventory of his art collection was found among his papers at the Moscow Commercial Bank.
Mikhail Pavlovich was really inspired by the example of Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov and he publicly announced that he would donate his collection to Moscow in due time. A very particular document is kept in the archive of the Tretyakov Gallery: "Paintings and drawings from the collection of M.P. Ryabushinski, taken for temporary storage. November 13 1917". He handed over 35 paintings to the surveillance of the national museum in an attempt to save them from potential danger at such a troubled time.
The Ryabushinskis were sure that the Bolsheviks would not remain in power for long. When, in 1924, Pavel died in immigration, the responsibility for the family investments passed to Mikhail, then aged 44, who founded the "Western Bank" in London. But the economic crisis and depression of the late 1920s was ruinous for this once powerful dynasty. At that time in Russia newspapers were "decorated" with sensational headlines: "The treasures of Ryabushinski are found!" The hidden cache - containing 40 paintings by the most renowned Russian artists, including Brullov, Tropinin, Serov, Vrubel, Bakst, Repin, and also a marble bust of Hugo by Gauguin, as well as pieces of oriental porcelain - was found. After the end of the World War his business was almost dead, and he had to take a job as assistant to an antiques dealer, later becoming an agent on art and antiques. Mikhail Pavlovich died at the age of 80 in a London hospital for the poor.
In 1904, soon after it was announced that the brothers Wright in America had invented the aeroplane, the twenty two-year- old youth Dmitry Pavlovich Ryabushinski approached Nikolai Zhukovsky, an outstanding scientist in the field of aerodynamics, and offered his family estate as the location for an aerodymanic laboratory, the first of its kind organized in Europe.
In 1916 they tested a weapon which was to prove the beginning of contemporary reactive artillery. Dmitry devoted his life to science, and after the revolution he tried to save his creation, meeting on a number of occasions with Lunacharsky and the professor of the Moscow University and astronomer Shternberg, a member of the Communist Party. Ryabushinski's suggestion to nationalize the aerodynamic institute was adopted, and he was appointed an acting director. Soon Dmitry Pavlovich applied for permission to go to Denmark on a business trip, where he was kindly received by the director of the meteorological institute Mr. Lakur and the famous physicist Nils Bohr.
Dmitry Ryabushinski never returned to Russia. He continued his research work abroad, was elected a corresponding member of the French Academy of Science, lectured at the Sorbonne, and founded a scientific-philosophy society and the society for the preservation of Russian cultural values abroad. He died at the age of 80.
The youngest of all the brothers Fedor Pavlovich did not devote himself only to business matters. Impressed by the fact that Kamchatka - a peninsula as large as Prussia - was not explored, he initiated and organized a scientific expedition there. Despite his enthusiasm, preparations for the expedition turned out to be very complicated, with an absence of relevant literature, maps etc; in spite of all such difficulties the first Russian scientific-research expedition to Kamchatka took place and was a success. Fedor Pavlovich's dream was to organize a number of such expeditions to explore the whole of Siberia, but it was not to come to reality. What he did manage to do was to build a number of meteorological stations in Kamchatka, exploring - indeed discovering - the peninsula. In 1910 Fedor Pavlovich Ryabushinski died of tuberculosis at the age of 25.
The Ryabushinki's family tree flourished over only three generations, yet their contribution to the history and industrial and cultural development of Russia was incomparable. Russia meant everything to them: their kind motherland, their strict and demanding fatherland, their soil and ground. The Ryabushinskis were not successful abroad in the period of immigration which they had never desired. Deprived of their roots, everything became purposeless and meaningless. They did not know how to live only for themselves. Their foresight remains impressive to later generations. Thus Mikhail Ryabushinski wrote: "We are living in tragic times. December 1916 will enter the history of Russia as a period of discrepancy of interests between the motherland and the government. The future lies in darkness. The Americans received our money and grew rich, while we sank into the depths of incredible debt. They have no science, no art, no culture in the European meaning of the word, but they will buy up the national museums from the defeated countries, they will pay enormous sums of money to lure away artists, scientists and businessmen, and they will create what they do not have now. At the same time in Russia, in this period of anarchy, our only and nearest aim will be to preserve what will survive and to start everything anew".
They were millionaires but none of them ever thought to make investments abroad - to buy mansions in Nice or transfer funds to Swiss banks. In immigration they could think only about Russia and her future.
The Ryabushinski family tree was cut down. But their industrial enterprises, cathedrals, banks, and the architectural masterpieces created to their orders, on their money and according to their ideas, plans and artistic taste, remain as monuments to this great family. And their collection of icons which now comprises the core and basis of the Russian ancient art section in the Tretyakov Gallery, as well as numerous paintings distributed among a number of Russian museums, constitutes the unprecedented contribution of the Ryabushinskis to Russia's cultural heritage.
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