December 24, 1837, is the birthdate of Samuel Polyakov the “railroad king” of czarist Russia, a man whose life story evokes the biographies of many of today’s post-Soviet, so-called oligarchs. Through enterprise – and, basically, bribes – Polyakov was able to build and operate an empire of railroads. Then, after he was good and rich, he began to give away a lot of money away, in an apparent attempt to purchase a good name for himself for posterity.
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Samuel, or Shmuel, Polyakov, was born in Dobrousha, in Belarusian Russia, within the Jewish Pale of Settlement. He was the second of the three sons of Solomon Polyakov, who made his living as a tax farmer (private tax collector) among manufacturers of distilled spirits. Samuel began by working for his father, but when tax revenues plummeted, after the country’s 1861 reforms, he moved into supplying both materials and laborers for construction work, and then became a builder himself.
Apparently it was his relationship with a former government minister of posts and telegraphs, Ivan Tolstoy, that set Polyakov on the path to riches. He began, with Tolstoy’s help, by running a private postal station in Ukraine, and a vodka distillery on lands owned by his patron.
The relationship was of mutual benefit: By the time of his death, in 1867, Tolstoy is said to have owned a half-million roubles’ worth of shares in railroads built by Polyakov.
In the decades following 1850, it was standard for the Russian government to farm out major infrastructure projects and their operation to private entrepreneurs. In Polyakov’s case, however, he didn’t always recompense the public for the concessions that made him a tycoon. For example, a contemporary economist, K.A. Skalkovsky, wrote, how, Polyakov, in the late 1870s, “in order to obtain the contract for the construction of the Azov railway promised to give 300,000 roubles to the ‘zemstvo’ [local government council] and to build a railway plant. But he neither built the plant, nor gave money for the zemstvo.”
In 1863, Polyakov had still been a subcontractor building someone else’s railroad, but by 1866, he was awarded the contract to build the Kozlov-Voronezh-Rostov-on-Don line himself.
It was a good arrangement for him. He charged the state 75,000 roubles per verst (approximately a mile) of track, an amount eight times his cost. That was followed by the Gryazi-Oryol and Kursk-Kharkiv-Azov lines, among others. That last line was built in a record 22 months; it linked to the coal mines in the Donets basin, of which Polyakov was also part-owner.
By the time of the Russo-Turkish War, in 1877-88, the government was insisting on owning the railroads itself. But Polyakov continued to build them – two lines that led to the military front – and for his speedy work, he was paid a 4.5 million rouble bonus, above his regular fee of 20 million roubles.
His philanthropic efforts began in the late 1860s, with his establishment of a college of railroad trades and a gymnasium, both in Yelets, a city in Lipetsk province. He also set up a college and a school of mining. For his contributions, Polyakov hoped to be named a baron, but the highest honor he attained was the Medal of the Order of St. Vladimir, third class.
Together with Jewish businessmen Horace Guinzberg and Nikolai Bakst, Polyakov was also one of the founders of what became the ORT organization, the Society for Society and Agricultural Labor, which today still operates a chain of vocational schools in Israel.
Polyakov established his home in St. Petersburg, where he purchased the palace on the English Embankment that today houses the Russian constitutional court. He also participated in construction of the Grand Choral Synagogue, one of the largest in Europe.
He died young, of a sudden stroke suffered at age 50, while attending a funeral, on April 7, 1888.
A half-year later, Polyakov’s reputation suffered posthumous damage, when a train carrying the czar was derailed while traveling on the Kursk-Kharkiv line, near Borki station. Twenty-one people died, although the Alexander III and his family survived. In the public imagination, it was Polyakov, no longer around to defend himself, who was held responsible for shoddy construction on the line.