The world of Jews in Ryazan: Beyond the Pale, Chapter 2. The Polyakov family

June 1st, 2010
Lazar Polyakov

Lazar Polyakov

Chapter 1 of The world of Jews in Ryazan: Beyond the Pale, is here.

A skilled shingle-maker.  A soldier.  A dress shop assistant.  A 21-year-old engineeer at a Ryazan factory (my own grandfather).

These were all Jewish Ryazan-dwellers, and I explore their lives in these blog posts.  They were each ancestors of present-day Ryazan JewishGen participants now seeking information about them.

Another family in this group of 19th-20th century Ryazan Jews included some of the wealthiest, most influential magnates in Russia.  These were the Polyakov family, one of whom was among the very few Jewish Russians permitted into the top ranks of the hereditary nobility.  This generation of the Polyakov family included the spectacularly prominent trio of brothers: Samuel, Yakov, and Lazar.

Efraim Polyakov, probably the son of one of these brothers, founded an agricultural equipment factory in Ryazan in the late 1880s.  Efraim’s great-granddaughter (a fellow Ryazan JewishGener) and I had initially hoped to find that my grandfather, Boris Bobroff, had worked for him.  It would have been a fun connection between us.

Cartoon of Samuel Polyakov, Railroad construction magnate

19th century cartoon of Samuel Polyakov, railroad construction magnate

Having done further research, though, I’ve since discovered my grandfather worked at another similar factory at a later time.  But there may possibly have been a connection between the two factories through the aforementioned very powerful generation of Polyakovs.

A generation of legendary Polyakov brothers

The three legendary Polyakov brothers, Samuel, Yakov, and Lazar, had grown up in the Pale of Jewish Settlement.  But each overcame tsarist restrictions applied to most Jews and moved eastward out of the Pale.

In particular, Ryazan became one of the first stepping stones in the dazzling rise of Lazar Polyakov.

Lazar’s brilliant older brother Samuel (left)  had become one of the primary builders of railroads in Russia during the era of explosive railway development in the 2nd half of the 19th century.

Lazar, after graduating from synagogue high school in 1860, began working with Samuel on the Kursk-Kharkov railway line.  (Lazar also benefited from the help of middle brother Yakov, who had moved to Taganrog, near the Black Sea, becoming a banker and Merchant of the First Guild.)

Lazar Polyakov’s fabulous rise

Pit saw timber operation in Ryazan, early 20th century

A pit saw timber operation in Ryazan, early 20th century

Lazar first became active in Ryazan in the 1860s.  Having decided to move into the timber industry, he found partners among Ryazan’s timber merchants.  He also became involved in Ryazan’s charitable institutions, in particular the orphanage.  This, notes the Russian Jewish Resource website, helped him win the favor of the Empress, who highly valued charitable activity.  That in turn advanced his application for awards and titles (note the medals in his photo above).

Lazar Polykov's Ryazan bank, photographed early 20th century

Lazar Polykov's Ryazan bank, early 20th century photograph

Between 1870 and 1873, Lazar Polyakov founded three banks, in Ryazan, Moscow, and Orel.  To the left is a photo of Polyakov’s Ryazan Commercial Bank on Astrakhanskaya Street in Ryazan.

Some of the complex history of this bank and its somewhat incestuous relationship – legal under Russian law at the time – with the Government Bank of Ryazan is told on several Russian language websites, including here and here.

As Lazar’s fabulous ascent continued, in 1891 this Ryazan bank became one branch of his Moscow International Commercial Bank, the largest commercial bank in Moscow by the beginning of the 20th century.  Lazar became active in international affairs, and a member of the Tsar’s Privy Council.

Imagining the bank’s impact on our humbler Jewish Ryazan residents

Astrakhanskaya Street.  Nobles and Peasants Bank on right.

Location of Lazar Polyakov's bank, Astrakhanskaya Street. In this view, another bank, the Nobles and Peasants Bank is on right.

How might this bank, with its nationally-honored Jewish owner, have affected the world of our little band of Ryazan JewishGen ancestors: the shingle-maker, the soldier, the dress shop assistant, and the young factory engineer?   Would their employers  have transacted banking affairs there?  Might dress shop assistant Yakov Kull have deposited receipts there?

Our shingle-maker, Avrom Mesigal, lived in a village near Ryazan beginning around 1875, under the protection of a well-to-do non-Jewish dairy owner.  We don’t know how often Mesigal or his family came into the city of Ryazan, or whether his protector might have had banking business there.  But like Lazar Polyakov, Mesigal was also involved in buying up timber around Ryazan in the 1870s.

Photographs taken from church bell towers reveal wooden roofs in small towns in Ryazan province

Photographs taken from church bell towers reveal wooden roofs in towns in Ryazan province. Shingles were replacing thatch as the roofing of choice in late 19th century Russia

Mesigal and his protector would buy up a forest, cut down the trees, dry the wood, and craft hand-made shingles from it.  Mesigal prospered in this business, living in a large house with his family of seven children.  It’s interesting to wonder what Mesigal’s awareness and opinion of Polyakov’s timber business would have been.

Psychologically, how might the fame and success of the Jewish owner of their local bank have impacted members of Ryazan’s Jewish community?  Would it have made them feel they, too, might overcome at least some of the anti-Semitic restrictions in their lives?

The Polyakovs’ impact on Russian Jews

According to one assessment today, it’s hard for us now to conceive of how widely-known and discussed the Polyakovs were during their lifetimes, in particular Lazar.

Polyakov at an older age

Polyakov at an older age

“A hundred years ago, this name thundered around Russia more powerfully than the names Berezovsky and Gusinsky do today.  The Polyakovs were adored.  The Polyakovs were hated and despised.  The Polyakovs were feared.  “The Polyakovs have bought up all of Russia.”  “The Polyakovs are the hope of Russia.”  “The Polyakovs are the shame of Russia.”  All conversations of the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th sooner or later, one way or another, came back to the Brothers Polyakov….  And above all to the youngest of the brothers, His Excellency Lazar Solomonovich Polyakov, “the Moscow Rothschild,” as he was called in Russia and abroad at the turn of the century.  [He was] the greatest Russian banker, next to whom all others since then look like look like young sheep next to a pure-bred bull.”

Even Jewish weddings of the time often took note of Lazar.  It was said,

“Lazar Polyakov’s name is retold in fairy tales across the Pale of Settlement.  Our poorer brethren, blessing themselves on their wedding days, say ‘Let G-d make you equal to Polyakov.’”

Polyakov is also generally believed to have been the inspiration for Bolgarinov, a character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to whom Anna’s brother Oblonsky, an impoverished aristocrat, had to go for help after selling off most of his estate.

Even today, awareness of Lazar Polyakov’s power and wealth are alive.  For example, a 2007 newspaper article called “Young Muscovites Find Community in High-Speed Scavenger Hunts,” described a Jewish youth club’s midnight car races.  One of their first high-speed scavenger hunts through Moscow streets, “called ‘On the Road to Riches,’ covered places related to the life of famous banker Lazar Polyakov (1842-1914).”

If Russian Jewish youth today are still racing to follow the footsteps of Polyakov, we can only imagine that Jews of his time were equally fascinated.

Lazar Polyakov

Lazar Polyakov

Crisis at Polyakov’s banks

Polyakov’s career of course had its difficulties.  In 1900, Russia went into a major banking crisis, perhaps on the order of the one we’re experiencing in the US today.  The largest banks of Russia began to collapse.  One after another, stock companies, trading and banking houses failed.  Polyakov’s banks, however, were deemed too big to fail by the tsarist Minister of Finance, who declared,

“suspension of payments by [Polyakov's] banks would not only ruin many investors scattered across Russia, but would also deal a severe blow to all private credit, undermining the already shaky confidence in private banks.”

So the government restructured Polyakov’s banks.  Although he lost much of his fortune, he apparently continued to live a lavish lifestyle.  (Does all this sound very familiar?)  He was awarded the highly coveted title of Baron at the end of his life, and died in 1914.

Impact of the crisis on Efraim Polyakov’s agricultural machinery factory

It was in these machinations to save the Polyakov banking empire that my intensive search for information about the Efraim Polyakov’s agricultural equipment factory finally found fruit.  You may recall that Efraim – probably a son or nephew of Lazar – began this factory in the 1880s.  (Not surprisingly, it’s much easier to find information about the magnate than about the provincial factory owner.)

The Joint Stock Company of the Ryazan Agricultural Machinery Factory, according to a Russian language website of essays about banking, was founded in 1889 “with the assistance of” Lazar Polyakov.  The factory was hit hard by the banking crisis – perhaps in a way analogous to US employers during our banking calamity today.  By 1904, Lazar Polyakov had designated a new factory administration (whether this affected Efraim, the article doesn’t say).   This new factory administration was unsuccessful in righting the situation.  They finally recommended the factory be closed.

“[Polyakov's] Moscow International Commercial Bank, however, did not take this extreme measure.  To avoid loss of the bill of debt that would have resulted from closing the factory, they decided on further funding, dispersing another 200,000 rubles to the company.  In 1905, an extreme shortfall in the bank’s own position forced it to suspend the loan.  In 1908, the Ryazan factory had debts of 680,000 rubles.”

It’s a shame that – at least thus far in my search – the historical record seems to describe only the misfortunes of this factory, not the heyday it must have enjoyed for fifteen years before that.  I will continue my hunt for more information about happier days at the Joint Stock Company of the Ryazan Agricultural Machinery Factory.

Meanwhile, a couple of small details about Efraim Polyakov’s factory really caught my eye.  Its name was almost identical to that of Yekhiel Levontin’s factory, where my grandfather worked:  The Joint Stock Company of the Ryazan Agricultural Machinery and Railroad Equipment Factory. And it was founded in 1904-5, at the same time Polyakov was trying to rescue his family’s factory.

It’s certainly possible that two factories in the same small city had nearly the same name.  But it makes me wonder whether there might have been some connection or other between the two factories, especially because one was founded at the same time the other one was going under.

Is it possible that Lazar Polyakov might have backed Levontin’s factory, hedging his bets?  The new factory was small, occupying two already-existing wooden buildings and employing only six people.  Presumably it wouldn’t have taken much capital to start up (it eventually became much larger, and exists to this day).  Was Polyakov seeking to shift the name to a new entity?  Branching out into railway equipment for greater business stability?

On the other hand, if there was no such connection of Polyakov to the new factory, were Levontin and his backers poaching on the former glory of all things Polyakov?  Did they give their factory nearly the same name in hopes of achieving similar glory?

This is all utter speculation on my part, and I am no business whiz.  But it’s this kind of speculation and curiosity that fuels my relentless detective work.  I’ll be exploring all possibilities in my research to come.

Even the Tsar’s Privy Councilor faced anti-Semitism

A final note: Lazar Polyakov’s success of course by no means erased anti-Semitism in Russia.  Anti-Semitism certainly affected Polyakov himself.  For example, soon after he had finally managed to build a synagogue in Moscow, following a long struggle for permission, the government suddenly adopted a policy of expelling thousands of Jews from Moscow.  The synagogue was unable to be used for many years.

It should also be noted that the honor of being the basis for a Tolstoy character, Bolgarinov, in Anna Karenina is grossly tainted by the fact that the emotional impact of this episode in the book depends on deeply-ingrained Russian anti-Semitism.   The embarrassment of Oblonsky’s financial difficulty is intensified by the fact that he must turn for help to a Jewish banker.  Bolgarinov makes Oblonsky wait for a long time before meeting with him.  “He, Prince Oblonsky, a descendant of Rurik, was waiting two hours in a Jew’s waiting room….”  Oblonsky tries to make up puns relating to “the Jew” in an effort to dispel his discomfort at this supposed indignity.

4 Responses to “The world of Jews in Ryazan: Beyond the Pale, Chapter 2. The Polyakov family”

  1. Rhoda Becker says:

    Avram Mesigal is my 4th great grandfather. Your article says he had 7 children. I only have four; Moyshe, Leyb, Mirke and Rochel. If you could point me to where I could find more information about any of the family, I would be thrilled!!

  2. Hi, Rhoda, sorry it’s taken me so long to respond.

    Looking back at Rose Goldman’s oral history, I believe that I came up with the figure of seven children from the bottom paragraph on the first page, where she says “By the time we went to public school there were four of us; when we came here we were seven.” I could be wrong, but I assumed this meant that three children had died or left to live elsewhere. If you have more information on this please let me know!

    Anne

  3. Catherine Fischhof says:

    Samuel Polyakov is the grand father of m’y grand mother: do You know something about his relatives, wives, and children? Thank You very much.C.Fischhof.

  4. Catherine, I’m so glad you’ve found this site. Unfortunately I don’t have information beyond what I’ve posted here. If you find additional material, I’d love to hear about it.

    Anne

Leave a Reply