Today, we know a lot about Benardaki. Documentaries have been produced about this man, along with numerous articles, books, theses, and other scientific works. However, until recently, some 20–25 years ago, our knowledge about him was very scarce.
In The History of Krasnoye Sormovo, published in 1969, Soviet authors portrayed Benardaki in line with the ideology of the time, calling him a “dodgy dealer,” “predator,” and “exploiter.” Nevertheless, they acknowledged his willingness to introduce all kinds of technical innovations into the production process and involve talented professionals.
Times change, and so do our attitudes to people. These days we speak about Benardaki as a genius Russian entrepreneur of Greek origin. Dmitry Georgiyevich (or Yegorovich, which is the Russian version of this patronymic), was born in Taganrog, southwestern Russia, in July 1799 (the exact date remains undefined). His farther, Georgy Nikiforovich Benardaki, was a Greek nobleman and a merchant of Venice. As a captain of sailing ship Phoenix, he fought on the Russian side in the Russo–Turkish War of 1787–1792. Before that, in 1784, during the reign of Catherine the Great, Georgy Benardaki swore an oath to become “an eternal subject” of the Russian Empire. He joined Russian service and made a career from the rank of praporshchik to lieutenant. In 1796, Captain Lieutenant Georgy Benardaki was added to the Russian Book of Nobility and became one of the Greek settlers who found their new home in the Azov region. In 1811, Alexander I granted him a piece of fertile land on the coast of the Azov Sea. The mansion was named Benardakino. A kids’ resort, Krasny Desant, is located there now. Georgy Benardaki grew wheat and became a successful grain merchant. He passed away in 1823, seven years before his motherland Greece gained freedom and independence.
Dmitry Benardaki graduated from the Taganrog Boys’ Commercial Gymnasium and started military service with the Akhtyrsky Hussar Regiment. But after his father’s death, Dmitry Benardaki, who held the rank of poruchik at the time, had to leave military service, as he was the eldest son and heir to a major estate.
Russian historian Mikhail Pogodin wrote, “Benardaki... having a capital of 30,000–40,000 rubles, quickly made a fortune on his grain operations.” By the mid-19th century, he became one of the richest men of Russia by creating a huge industrial empire, which stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea, and even further — to Lake Baikal and the Amur River in Russia’s Far East. In modern language, Benardaki’s business started off with agricultural production and trade in grain and wine, and then evolved into a conglomerate, comprising huge gold mining, metallurgical, and machinebuilding centers, as well as numerous light industry companies, such as glass and stearin works, a cloth factory, nailery, linen factory, and others.
The jewel in the crown of Benardaki’s industrial empire is rightfully considered the Sormovo steamer and machinery factory, founded in the summer of 1849.
In March 1849, the Nizhny Novgorod Machine Factory and the Volga Steam Navigation Line established a new company in St. Petersburg, which then set up the Sormovo Works. Besides Benardaki, its founders were two Russian princes, Lev Kochubei and Vladimir Menshikov.
By the mid-1850s, almost half of the steamers navigating in the Volga River were the ones built in Sormovo. The Sormovo shipyard built the first iron vessels; and during the Crimean War (1853–1856) it was making warships for Russia’s Caspian Flotilla.
In 1860, Benardaki bought out the shares of the Nizhny Novgorod Machine Factory; until his death in 1870, he was the sole owner of the shipyard. While he was running the Sormovo factory, it started using steam engines, turning machines, a crane. During the decade from 1860 through 1869, Sormovo built 40 steam engines; and in 1870, it produced steel using Russia’s first open hearth furnace. The same year, the committee of the All-Russia Industrial Exhibition awarded the owner of Sormovo Works a bronze medal for “introducing the Siemens–Martin process for steel casting.”
Benardaki’s contemporaries mentioned that “he had an iron grip when it came to business.” As a factory owner, Dmitry Yegorovich was tireless. You could see him in the shops, on the plant’s territory, in the boatyard, and in the director’s office. He corresponded and negotiated with customers and all kinds of dealers. Only death could stop his energetic activities.
Mikhail Pogodin, who knew Benardaki personally very well, described him as a “daring, industrious, and honest” person.
Being one of the richest people of Russia, Benardaki took part in funding and implementing projects of national importance, such as the construction of Kronstadt fortifications (northern and southern fairways) — the key base of the Russian fleet in the Gulf of Finland. “For exemplary zeal for the good of the state,” Benardaki was awarded the title of an honorable citizen of St. Petersburg and several orders of the Russian Empire, including the Order of Saint Vladimir, 4th and 3rd Classes. Emperor Alexander II would accept Benardaki’s contributions for state needs. There are few examples of a favor like this granted by the Emperor — this was considered a major privilege.
Benardaki held dual citizenship, Greek and Russian, and enjoyed respect and authority in both countries. He made significant donations for the construction of the National University and the National Museum in Athens. His contemporaries used to say that Greece owed him eternal gratitude. The King of Greece decorated Benardaki with the Commander badge of the Order of the Redeemer.
Being a renowned benefactor, Dmitry Benardaki was a living symbol of great deeds “in commerce and virtue.” He established several funds to assist people in need and was building schools, orphanages, hospitals, churches in Siberia, the Urals, and Bashkiria.
He had an iron grip when it came to business. As a factory owner, he was tireless
Benardaki also helped writers and artists. According to Russian literary critic Sergey Aksakov, this “was the only person in St. Petersburg who called Gogol a genius writer considered it a big honor to be acquainted with him.” Nikolai Gogol, in his turn, drew inspiration from the conversations with Benardaki while working on his masterpiece Dead Souls. Moreover, he showed Benardaki in the second part of his novel as Kostanzhoglo, an exemplary landowner. Benardaki’s palace on Nevsky Prospect is well-known in St. Petersburg today as the Actor’s House.
The most valuable gift to Russia’s “northern capital” was the Greek Church of Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki, built by Dmitry Benardaki on Ligovsky Prospekt. This is where he was buried in 1870.
Benardaki’s descendants (he had three sons and five daughters) did not inherit his energy and commercial talent. As a result, their father’s industrial empire fell apart. Only the Sormovo shipyard continued to develop rapidly and gradually turned into a legend of Russian industry.
Benardaki passed away in Wiesbaden, where he was staying at a mineral water resort. In the summer of 1870, his embalmed body arrived in St. Petersburg. Emperor Alexander II personally met the train at Nikolayevsky railway station. It was probably the only case in Russian history when the monarch personally came to see the arriving coffin with the body of a person who didn’t belong to the Imperial family. The body of “a Russian son of the Greek people” was placed in a sarcophagus and stayed inside the family vault in the Church of Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki for more than 90 years…
The incredible story that happened with his remains, reinforce the interest in Benardaki’s personality.
In 1962, the administration of Leningrad (renamed St. Petersburg) decided to pull down the Greek church and build Oktyabrsky concert hall on its place. When making the basement, construction workers found a metallic coffin with a well-preserved mummy of “some rich Greek man.” Benardaki’s name had long been forgotten by the time. The sarcophagus was opened and ransacked. The remains of Benardaki were delivered to Forensic Mortuary No. 1 of the Botkin Hospital. A decision was made to dismember the mummy and use the remains as teaching aids in the medical schools of Leningrad.
For many years nobody knew what happened to Benardaki’s body afterwards. There was a theory that it had been buried or cremated. But members of the Benardaki Russian-Greek Friendship Club carried out a study, led by Iordan Kessidi, and proved that this version was wrong. The remains of Dmitry Benardaki were brought together and identified by the St. Petersburg Forensic Examination Bureau. The Krasnoye Sormovo Shipyard museum made its contribution, too. St. Petersburg experts only had a painted portrait of Benardaki, but a photo was needed for identification purposes. A daguerreotype of Dmitry Benardaki was stored in the museum’s collection. Its copy was sent to St. Petersburg via email, which helped the experts do the photo matching and identification.
On December 16, 2011, the historical injustice was finally put right: the remains of Benardaki were buried with honors in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg, following Christian traditions. A handful of land was thrown into his grave. It was the land, taken from the Krasnoye Sormovo Shipyard, near the wall of one of the first shops, erected in 1849.
While searching for information about the life and deeds of Dmitry Yegorovich Benardaki, the author of this article would come to St. Petersburg a number of times and meet such wonderful people as Iordan Kessidi and Yuri Galtsev, head of the St. Petersburg Forensic Examination Bureau. The author had an honor to stand next to Benardaki’s coffin during the memorial service in the Holy Trinity Cathedral of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra and pray for the departure of his soul; and then, in a year, to attend the ceremony of opening his monument at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra’s 19th century necropolis. The author also had a chance to visit Taganrog, the birthplace of the man who founded the Sormovo Shipyard. Employees of the Taganrog Historical Museum have arranged a vast exposition, dedicated to Dmitry Benardaki’s life and work. And they would ask me, “Isn’t there anything left from Benardaki in Sormovo, not a single personal belonging? Maybe an inkstand?”
Well, there is something. There’s the shipyard!
[ 1799-1870 ]
The 70 years that Dmitry Benardaki lived in this world as one of the richest people of Russia, an entrepreneur, and a patron of arts
[ 1870-1962 ]
For 92 years, his embalmed body was lying inside his family vault in the Greek church in St. Petersburg, first buried with honors and then forgotten under the ruins of the building
[ 1962-2010 ]
For 48 years, the remains of Benardaki, dismembered and spread throughout the medical schools of Leningrad, served as teaching aids for several generations of medical students
[ 02.09.2011 ]
The remains of Benardaki were buried in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra’s necropolis in St. Petersburg