Foundation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As part of his program to Westernize and modernize Russian culture, Peter the Great founded an academy of sciences on the model of the British Royal Society and the French Academy of Sciences.

Summary of Event

In the early eighteenth century, Russia was significantly behind its Western Westernization;Russia counterparts in appreciating and understanding the great advances of the Scientific Revolution Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Enlightenment;Russia Earlier in its history, Russia had been cut off from the advances of the Renaissance by a Mongol Mongols in Russia occupation. The Mongols, nomadic warriors, instituted a policy of absolute rule that was ruthlessly enforced by a brutal secret police force that forbade any contact with the West. [kw]Foundation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1724) [kw]Sciences, Foundation of the St. Petersburg Academy of (1724) [kw]Academy of Sciences, Foundation of the St. Petersburg (1724) [kw]Petersburg Academy of Sciences, Foundation of the St. (1724) [kw]St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, Foundation of the (1724) St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, Russia[Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences] [g]Russia;1724: Foundation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences[0640] [c]Organizations and institutions;1724: Foundation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences[0640] [c]Science and technology;1724: Foundation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences[0640] [c]Education;1724: Foundation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences[0640] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1724: Foundation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences[0640] Peter the Great Krizhanich, Yury Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm Farquharson, Henry Prokopovich, Feofan

When the Mongols were finally driven from Russia, the anti-intellectual environment they had fostered was extended by the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian Orthodox Church Orthodox Church, Russian The power of the Church rested on the belief that Moscow was the inheritor of the Christian theological purity that had been passed down from Rome and Constantinople. Moscow, as the “Third Rome,” was regarded by the leaders of the Russian hierarchy as the seat of orthodoxy in the Christian world, and the Church rejected the study of any subjects that could possibly challenge their literal Christian worldview.

The Orthodox clergy, like their Mongol counterparts years earlier, blocked the dissemination of the Enlightenment ideas that both the universe and society were governed by natural laws and that it was part of God’s divine plan for humankind to discover these laws through scientific research and inquiry. The writings of Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Sir Isaac Newton, and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek were unavailable to Russian scholars, and the nation’s educational system and military establishment suffered from a lack of modern scientific and technological knowledge. Most important, there had developed over time a deep anti-intellectual bias within Russian culture, especially among the nobility, who completely rejected the need for formal education.

The individual who had the greatest impact on reforming the Russian educational system and creating the necessary environment for the establishment of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences was Czar Peter the Great. Deadly palace intrigues forced Peter as a young boy to take refuge in a suburb of Moscow that was inhabited by a large number of Europeans, especially Germans. There, in academic discussions and tutorials, the future czar was exposed to the potential intellectual power of the Enlightenment.

Peter was introduced to the writings of Yury Krizhanich, who had been an early voice in the Russian intellectual wilderness, writing a number of essays demanding a radical intellectual change in Russian civilization. He believed in absolute rule, but he also insisted it was the primary duty of the ruling family, the Romanovs, Romanov Dynasty to make the necessary changes needed to bring the nation into the modern world. Most important, he believed that the Romanovs had to establish their supremacy over every aspect of Russian culture, especially the Russian Orthodox Church. If the church was not made subordinate to the state, the new advancements of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment would never be allowed to flourish within Russian society. Krizhanich also emphasized the importance of social mobility, of providing the best and the brightest with the opportunity to attain positions of power and prestige based upon talent and drive, not upon their ancestry.

Another turning point in Peter’s quest to establish Russia as a scientific power was his trip to Western Europe. There, he was able to experience at first hand the impact of the new scientific culture on the nations of the region. The most important person Peter met on this journey was the great Christian philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, whom he befriended. Their meeting would initiate a long and important correspondence that would have a profound effect on the czar’s effort to establish an academy of science. Leibniz was a profoundly religious man who viewed the transformation of Russia as an important part of God’s divine plan for the world. He believed God gave humankind intelligence in order to improve the human condition. He was a firm believer in the Christian and Enlightenment concept of the perfectibility of humanity.

Leibniz’s view of Russia reflected the optimistic Enlightenment idea of tabula rasa Tabula rasa popularized by John Locke. According to this belief, Russian culture was a “blank slate” (tabula rasa) that could be molded into a successful nation through the proper application of Enlightenment ideas. Leibniz also thought Russia occupied an important geopolitical location, connecting Western Europe and China. This was a period of widespread missionary activity in China, and the philosopher believed that the transformation of Russia would create a new Christendom that would stretch across much of the Eurasian landmass. He also viewed this as an opportunity to acquaint Western civilization with the scientific accomplishments of China.

Leibniz’s plan to reform Russia was based upon the creation of a central library Libraries;Russia system, which would also house a national printing press, along with a complete overhaul of the national educational system. Education;Russia A nationwide system of elementary and secondary schools would focus on moral and civic education. Elementary mathematics, science, history, and literature would also be used to prepare the finest students to study at the postsecondary level. The universities would expand upon these academic disciplines and have as their main focus the training of an educated elite to run the Russian governmental bureaucracy. Finally, an academy of sciences would be established, where Russia’s most prestigious scholars would carry on high-level research and make it available to the nation and the world by publishing their work in academic journals and books.

Initially both the universities and the scientific academy would be made up of mostly foreign scholars, whose goal would be to develop the first two generations of Russian academics. Leibniz emphasized that the Academy of Sciences would play the most significant part in Russian civilization. He also believed that the universities and the academy should be independent of all interference by both the government and the Church.

Peter’s first step in setting this plan into motion was to acquire the services of the renowned European mathematician, Henry Farquharson. Under his leadership, a number of scientifically oriented schools, eventually including the Russian Naval Academy, were created. These educational institutions emphasized the study of Enlightenment scientific thought, and Farquharson had a number of important mathematical and scientific books translated into Russian. His standards were extremely high, and he never wavered from his educational model. His most important contribution to Russian scientific culture was the establishment of the use of Hindu-Arabic numerals. This would allow potential scholars to follow exactly the work of the great Enlightenment scientists and mathematicians.

Peter was able to challenge the reactionary Church establishment through the appointment of a Danish minister and scholar, Feofan Prokopovich, as the head of the nation’s seminaries. Prokopovich was a respected academic who integrated new scientific discoveries into his theological curriculum. He forced his students to reconcile such important discoveries as Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentric theory with their literal religious beliefs.

Resting on this solid foundation, Peter set into motion a series of decrees that led to the establishment of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1724. Even though he died before the first set of scholars began to arrive in 1725, it was his clear vision, energy, and focus that brought the academy into existence. This reality was immortalized in a eulogy given on his behalf at the Paris Académie des Sciences praising his great work in opening Russia to the ideals of the Enlightenment.


The first years of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences reflected the overall uncertainties of the Russian nation in the period following Peter’s death. Russian society was yet unready fully to accept a rigorous scientific establishment like the St. Petersburg Academy. The culture of anti-intellectualism still dominated the Russian nobility and was in fact exacerbated by the widespread resentment of the infusion of what were perceived as German scientific ideas into Russian culture.

Over time, especially through the impact of the German-born empress Catherine the Great, the Russian intelligentsia would accept western scientific attitudes. The St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences created the foundation of the powerful Russian (and later Soviet) scientific community that at its zenith would count among its members some of the best theoretical mathematicians and physicists in the world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Josephson, Paul. Physics and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. The early chapters contain an excellent overview of the impact of the legacy of the St. Petersburg Academy on the development of Russian physics. Index, charts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vucinich, Alexander. Empire of Knowledge: The Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. The first chapter has an excellent description of the legacy of both Peter I and the Enlightenment on the development of the St. Petersburg Academy. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Science in Culture: A History to 1860. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1963. The best single overview of early Russian science. Index.

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