Tuesday 26 September 2017

The Crystal Count

One of my oldest hobbies is geology. My parents often told me that I would be found digging holes in the garden almost as soon as I could walk. Since then I’ve collected rocks and minerals as often as I can, either by collection on site or by purchase.

One of my purchased specimens is a small piece of uvarovite (pictured above). It’s a mineral composed of small green crystals which were formed millions of years ago under great heat and pressure. Uvarovite belongs to the garnet group. You may be familiar with garnets and their deep red colour. Uvarovite is green because it contains chromium.

The first specimen of uvarovite was discovered in 1832 in the Ural Mountains by a Swiss scientist called Germain Henri Hess. At the time he was living in St. Petersburg and was a member of the prestigious Academy of Sciences there. Rather than name the new mineral after himself he chose to name it after the then President of the Academy, Sergei Semionovich Uvarov (1786-1885).

portrait of Sergei Uvarov by Orest Kiprensky, 1815.
Sergei Uvarov, who was created a Count in 1846 by Tzar Alexander III, was also a prominent statesman and scholar who had first made his name known internationally as an archaeologist. He became friends with many other scientists of the period, including Alexander von Humboldt.
But Uvarov also had his critics, the most notable and most public of whom was the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. I get the impression that Pushkin didn’t like Uvarov. He called him a “great villain” in his diaries. What didn’t help was when Uvarov appointed his widely-regarded lover Prince Mikhael Dondukov-Korsakov as Vice-President of the Academy of Sciences in 1835. With it went the appointment of Rector of St. Petersburg University.

Prince Mikhael (1794-1869) was not a scientist and Pushkin had an even lower opinion of him, but he wasn’t alone. The prince was generally described as unintelligent and ignorant. Everyone in their social circles knew he and Uvarov had been lovers and they were sure that this was the only reason the prince got his appointments.

Pushkin was also very angry at the couple because Prince Mikhael, whom he called Prince Dunduk, was a government censor and was instructed by Sergei Uvarov to censor Pushkin’s work. Not merely content with insulting the prince in his diary Pushkin wrote a little verse which expressed in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t the prince’s brain that got him the post at the Academy of Sciences but another part of his anatomy. In translation the verse goes like this :

“In the Academy of Sciences, look,
There sits Prince Dunduk.
It’s said he doesn’t deserve
To plan such an honoured role,
How does he have the nerve?
Because of his big ass-hole.”

Prince Mikhael’s reputation has never really improved in over 180 years, but his lover Sergei Uvarov has fared better. He remained as President of the Academy for 37 years until his death. However, his influence is felt more strongly in the field of state education.

Even though there was some semblance of the acceptance of homosexuality in all levels of society the same could not be said of education. In 1832, the same year that Hess discovered the mineral uvarovite, Sergei Uvarov was a Minister of Education as well as Academy President. He came up with a policy that was to influence Russian society for decades. Uvarov said that education should be centred on three things – the value of the Russian Orthodox Church, the rule of the tzarist government, and the national character of Russia. This became known as the “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality” policy.

Unfortunately, Uvarov believed that education should not be available to the non-noble classes. Universities came under direct government control and all literature influenced by western ideas were censored, hence Pushkin’s anger at him and “Prince Donduk”.

Perhaps because of Uvarov’s restrictive educational policy Russia wasn’t able to identify and nurture the scientific talents that may have been present in its lower social ranks. Perhaps that helped Germany to fill the void, because Germany’s more inclusive education system produced many of the great scientists, particularly in the field of chemistry, of the 19th century. But Count Sergei Uvarov did leave a legacy in the founding of the Russian Archaeological Society and the Russian State Historical Museum by his son Count Aleksey Uvarov who became one of the greatest historians of his age and was surely inspired by his father.

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