The St. Petersburg Academy

Academia Scientiarum Imperialis Petropolitanae, 1725-1803

Académie Impériale des Sciences, 1803-1836

Académie Impériale des Sciences de Saint Pétersbourg, 1836-1917

Российская  академия  наук (Russian Academy of Sciences), 1917-1925

Академия  наук СССР (USSR Academy of Sciences), 1925-1991

Российская  академия  наук (Russian Academy of Sciences), 1991-present

The founding of the St. Petersburg Academy (Academia Scientiarum Imperialis Petropolitinae) in 1724/25 was the culmination of years of work by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz and Emperor Peter I of Russia. In the early years of his reign (specifically 1697-98), Peter began a major tour to Western Europe, one goal of which was to observe Western science and culture. During this trip, he met with Leeuwenhoek and Ryusch in Holland, and visited Parliament, Oxford University, and the Greenwich Observatory in England.

Around this time, Peter began corresponding with Leibniz regarding the state of Russian science. In particular, Leibniz wanted to promote education and scientific inquiry in Russia; one part of this push was the establishment of a scientific academy in St. Petersburg. Leibniz gave instruction and advice to Peter with respect to these goals, including suggestions that he obtain more books, machines, and artistic objects; open libraries, museums, and botanical gardens; and most importantly, establish new academies and schools in a Western European style.

The genesis of the Russian science reform movement was a 1716 letter from Leibniz outlining his suggestions for education reform in the Russian Empire, including a three-tiered division of institutions into schools, universities, and academies. The next year, Peter visited the Paris Academy, and attended one of its meetings. Finally, on 22 January 1724, Peter approved a plan to establish an academy of sciences. In this document, Peter chose a structure modeled after the Paris Academy (a small group of scientists with direct royal support), rather than the more decentralized style established by the Royal Society of London. That year, his advisors undertook the task of persuading foreign scientists to join the new academy, and the first members began to arrive in mid-1725.

However, Peter died on 28 January 1725, before he could see his academy come to pass. His widow, Catherine I (now Empress), carried out the formation of the Academy, and issued the formal decree that established it. The first meetings were held in November of that year.

Some of the initial Academy members were Daniel and Nicolaus Bernoulli, Christian Goldbach, Johann Duvernoy, Christian Gross, and Gerhard Müller. Euler arrived in St. Petersburg in 1727 to take up a post in physiology, a field in which he had little experience. Before long, though, he was transferred to other areas of study; he was made full Professor of Physics in 1731, and Professor of Mathematics in 1733. Euler also took on another role as a member of the Academy's Geography and Cartography department.

It was around this time that the political atmosphere in Russia began to change for the worse. Catherine I died in 1727, almost immediately after Euler's arrival in the city, and was succeeded by Peter II, grandson of Peter I. The new Emperor was only 12 years old, and was often sickly. Under the influence of his more conservative courtiers, Peter moved the imperial capital to Moscow, and began a reign that allowed the the Russian science movement to decline along with the Academy. Before long, Peter died, and was succeeded by Anna Ivanovna, grand-niece of Peter I. Anna had lived most of her life in Courland (a German duchy on the Baltic Sea), and was largely disliked by the Russian public. Many of her advisors were German, and some of her personal activities were seen as unjustifiably decadent and expensive. Over the course of her reign, an increasingly xenophobic public became hostile to the Empress and to the largely-German faculty at the Academy.

The conflicts within the Academy at this time were also socially motivated; specifically, differences arose between the lower-ranked faculty (mostly Russians) and the higher-ranked faculty (mostly Germans). Euler, by now the most eminent member of the faculty, stayed out of the fray, instead pursuing academics with his characteristic prolificacy.

With Anna's death in 1740, the throne passed to her grand-nephew, Ivan VI, who was only an infant at the time. Acting as regent was Ivan's mother (and Anna's niece) Anna Leopoldovna. However, the regency was an unpopular one; the years 1740-1741 were characterized by uncertainty and political turmoil. In the midst of this chaotic situation, Euler and his family moved to Berlin, where he took up a position at the new Academy there.

Not long after, in December 1741, the Leopoldovna regency was overthrown and Peter I's daughter, Elizabeth, was declared Empress. This coup was successful largely because of the unpopularity of the previous pro-German regimes and pro-Russian sympathies in the imperial guard; unsurprisingly, Elizabeth's government took a more pro-Russian (i.e., anti-German) stance in domestic and foreign policy.

The most notable change in Russian science during this time was the issuance of the Academy's first charter in 1747. Some of the broader changes included the devolving of some functions of the Academy into an associated University, reorganized scientific departments within the Academy proper, and the pronouncement of Russian and Latin as the Academy's official languages. Academy faculty were quite displeased with restrictions on their activities as well. According to Vucinich, "Working hours were now strictly prescribed and the violators were fined." He continues, "The Academicians were forbidden to read journals while scientific papers were being delivered at the meetings." This situation was to continue for roughly twenty years.

While the members of the St. Petersburg Academy were seething in a newly restrictive environment, Euler was in Berlin, enjoying the full fruits of a vibrant scientific community and an attentive ruler. However, King Frederick's enthusiastic support of the Academy was contrasted with his aggressive and militaristic foreign policy. In 1756, Frederick invaded Saxony, precipitating war with Austria, France, and Russia. He was initially successful, capturing Bohemia and defeating the invading Russian army in 1757. Before long, however, Prussian prospects in the war had taken a turn for the worse. After major defeats at the hands of the Austrians, Russian troops captured Berlin itself in October 1760.

The only thing that saved Frederick from total defeat was the death of Empress Elizabeth in 1761. She was succeeded by her nephew, Peter III. Peter, a longtime admirer of Frederick, immediately ended the war with Prussia. The new emperor's decision, which came against the counsel of all his advisors, reflected a certain erratic character in his leadership. Peter was seen as a weak emperor, and many of those in government and the military were dissatisfied with his rule. This is seen most clearly in the fact that Peter's own wife, Catherine, led a coup against him and later (probably) ordered his murder. She became Empress Catherine II in June of that year.

Catherine's accession marked a return to the pro-Western policies of Peter I, making for a more favorable environment for scientists. In 1766, for example, she replaced the direct bureaucratic rule of the Academy with a commission composed of Academy faculty. This and other changes failed to improve the German-Russian conflict among the faculty. The conflict had its roots in more than one area: one of these was certainly the social aspect described above, another was the nationalistic differences in the faculty, and another had more to do with a difference in opinion regarding Westernization of the Academy. After years of oppressive measures against the Academy, and a with faculty fractured by dissent, it seemed unlikely that Russia would become a major European scientific center.

In spite of these troubles, Catherine scored a major academic coup, persuading Euler to return to the St. Petersburg Academy. While Euler was quite unhappy with his situation in Berlin (his relationship with King Frederick had grown quite sour by this time), Catherine still had to offer several perks to seal the deal. According to Bell, "Catherine received the mathematician as if he were royalty, setting aside a fully furnished house for Euler and his eighteen dependents, and donating one of her own cooks to run the kitchen." She further gave Euler top-ranking among faculty and pledged to resolve the Academy's ongoing internal disputes.

Euler would remain in St. Petersburg until his death in September 1783. With regard to administration, Euler made some headway against an increasingly anti-reform Catherine, arranging for Caspar Wolff, Samuel Gmelin, and Simon Pallas to join the Academy's faculty. Scholastically, Euler's second tenure in St. Petersburg was one of his most productive. During this period, Euler wrote nearly half of his 856 catalogued works. The Academy published most of these posthumously, finally exhausting their supply of Euler's works in 1830.

Later in her reign, and especially after the French Revolution of 1789, Catherine abandoned many of her pro-Western and pro-Enlightenment policies, seeing them as a threat to her long-crafted autocratic system. After Catherine's death in 1796, her son and successor, Paul I, went to great lengths to not only refrain from reform, but to dismantle it altogether. In the five years of his reign, Paul decreed that no Russian could attend Western-style schools, attempted to prevent foreign books from reaching Russia, and cut off all funding for academic institutions.

Unsurprisingly, the Academy entered a period of serious decline which was only ended by a coup against Paul and the accession of his son Alexander I. The new Emperor immediately reversed his father's draconian policies, and in 1803/4, presided over a major reorganization of the Academy. A new charter, prepared by a faculty-composed committee, was promulgated in 1803. The most important outcome of this charter was that the Academy and its members now had a good deal of power in administrative matters.

Moreover, French was allowed in Academy proceedings for the first time; this is reflected by the change in the Academy's name from Academia Scientiarum Imperialis Petropolitanae to Académie Impériale des Sciences, and the change in the name of its major annual publication from Nova Acta Academiae Scientiarum Imperialis Petropolitanae to Mémoires de l'Académie Impériale des Sciences de St. Pétersbourg.

The succeeding years were to see great changes in the administration and organization of the Academy. A new, more restrictive charter was issued in 1836, though with little harmful impact on Russian science. The 1917 Revolution and the consequent Russian Civil War led initially to a decline in the Academy's fortunes. Later, in 1925, the Soviet government moved the Academy to Moscow.

The St. Petersburg Academy, while no longer in St. Petersburg, still exists today as the Russian Academy of Sciences.


  • Bell, E. T. Men of Mathematics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.
  • Vucinich, Alexander. Science in Russian Culture, vol. 1, 2. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1963.
  • Euler's St. Petersburg publications, a comprehensive listing of the articles by Euler which were published in one of the St. Petersburg journal (many posthumously).
  • The Russian Academy of Sciences home page (Russian).
  • Calinger, Ronald. "Leonhard Euler: The First St. Petersburg Years (1727-1741)." Historia Mathematica 23 (1996): 121-166.