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Section: History
Leonhard Euler. Based on the Materials of St.Petersburg Branch of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Leonhard Euler. Based on the Materials of St.Petersburg Branch of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences

In his native town of Basel, Leonhard Euler spent only the first twenty years of his life. In Russia, he lived almost thirty—one year... Euler considered Petersburg to be of special value for him

In his native town of Basel, Leonhard Euler spent only the first twenty years of his life. In Russia, he lived almost thirty—one year (1727—1741, and 1766—1783) and in Berlin twenty—five years.

Euler considered Petersburg to be of special value for him. In 1749 he wrote from Berlin: “I and all the others who were lucky to serve at the Russian Imperial Academy have to acknowledge that everything that we have we owe to the favorable conditions in which we found ourselves there. As for me, I am sure that had it not been for this lucky opportunity, I would have had to devote myself to some other occupation, in which I would have been nothing but a scribbler. When his Majesty [Friedrich II] asked me lately where I had learnt what I knew, I truly responded that I owed all this to my sojourn at the Petersburg Academy.”1

The place that “welcomes muses”

Leonhard Euler graduated from the Faculty of Free Arts with Basel University. The University had no mathematics faculty but Euler had a chance to attend lectures on mathematics and basic astronomy delivered by Johann I Bernoulli. Getting professorship in mathematics or in physics was not an easy task because such positions were rare, and Euler was quite young.

In 1727, he applied for a job with the Physics Department at his native University of Basel but did not even pass the preliminary vote, failing to be elected as a candidate.2

Two years earlier, the sons of his teacher – Nicolaus II and Daniel Bernoulli became Academicians with the newly set up Petersburg Academy of Sciences. On Daniel Bernoulli’s recommendation, Euler was invited to Russia. Johann Bernoulli commented that “it is better to bear with the harsh climate of the country of ice that welcomes muses than to starve in a country of moderate climate that despises and offends muses.”3

In all probability, Euler’s personal qualities and his deep involvement in research allowed him to keep out of the conflicts of ambitions that were shaking the Imperial Academy in its struggle against the Academic Chancellery.

He left for Berlin in 1741 but did not break his academic or personal contacts with Petersburg. It is noteworthy that Euler used to establish connections not just with the habitual circle of foreigners – in compliance with the academic contract drawn by Peter the Great, Euler, apart from doing scientific work, supported Russian science by way of instructing Russian students.

His Russian students: future mathematics professor with the Petersburg Academy of Sciences S. K. Kotelnikov; future astronomy professor S. Ya. Roumovskiy; and Academy of Sciences Adjunct M. Sofronov used to stay in his Berlin house, and their teacher treated them with paternal affection. Thinking highly of Kotelnikov’s academic talents, Euler made his achievements known in Petersburg and informed the Russian Academy authorities that in some ways Kotelnikov was above the European mathematicians Kun and Castilion. “However, you should not expect immediate scientific discoveries from this young scholar as they require many years of exercise on top of knowledge”, he wrote in one of his letters.4

Euler was very much concerned about the gifted but drinking Mikhail Sofronov. With bitterness and regret, he wrote to G.-F. Mueller about his disciple’s drunkenness, which brought to naught his good nature and talents and, at the same time, good-naturedly asked Mueller not to report Sofronov to the head of the Academic Chancellery and, in fact, finance manager of the Academy J. Schumacher. Wary of straining relations with the almighty Schumacher, Euler interceded cautiously for M. V. Lomonosov. Very likely, Euler was among the few Academicians of the 18th century who was respected by all his colleagues without exception.

His remarkable capacity for work is truly amazing even by modern standards. According to the well-known science historian Yu. Kh. Kopelovich, before the summer of 1741, Euler used to speak at the meetings of the Academic Chancellery (meeting of all Academicians) tens times a year on the average!

Speaks, reads and writes in Russian

Many of those who have written about Euler often highlight that his talents, capacity for work, and strong spirit make him superior to his colleagues: throughout his life, his eyesight was weakening; the mathematician first stopped seeing with one eye, and then became completely blind, so he dictated his works to his disciples, making in his mind numerous mathematical calculations. Noteworthy is another feature of this outstanding person: he was one of the few foreign scholars who became a Russian-speaking Petersburg Academician. He could not only speak but write in Russian.

Seemingly, he had no particular need to master the language: he had his own a circle of friends and colleagues, his church, his newspaper in German, and his professional occupation required the knowledge of Latin, German, or French. Supposedly, many of his Petersburg colleagues who had come from abroad could read and speak Russian. However, evidence of their ability to use the written Russian language is scarce.

It looks like Euler began learning Russian on his way to Russia. His notebooks contain the Russian alphabet and exercises on declension of Russian nouns and numerals. When the Academy failed to pay Euler the Honorary Member pension, he asked to compensate him for it by sending over to Berlin a few books, some of which were in Russian. For instance, he asked for the Russian edition of Mueller’s book “Description of the Siberian Kingdom…” issued in 1750.

There is evidence that by 1730 Euler knew Russian so well that he could act as a translator. Thus, J. Herman, who had come to Petersburg before Euler but did not master the Russian language, asked Euler to translate to German a letter he got from Moscow. The letter must have been of confidential nature because in the covering note Herman asked Euler not to show either the letter nor the translation to anybody but D. Bernoulli.Interestingly, Euler usually corresponded with Russian grandees like M. P. Bestuzhev-Riumin and M. I. Vorontsov in French, and with his Russian disciples and young colleagues in Latin, though this rule was not strictly observed.

In 1743 the almighty Schumacher came under a threat. In 1742, the “chief turner with Peter I” Andrey K. Nartov filed a complaint against Schumacher, and his example was followed by some other employees at the Academy. Schumacher was put under home arrest and investigation while Nartov was appointed the first counselor with the Chancellery.

The wise Euler, who was aware of Nartov’s fight against “foreign citizens” within the Petersburg Academy, sent the newly appointed official congratulations in Russian.6 Andrey Nartov replied him, also in Russian, to inform Euler that he was awarded the Academy’s Honorary Member, though without a pension, which could be awarded only by the Empress’s special decree.7 The diplomatic Euler responded that the title itself was very satisfactory.8 This was the end of their correspondence, as well of Nartov’s management of the Academy.

Another period of “letters in Russian” began when the 18-year-old Kiril G. Razumovskiy became the Academy’s President in 1746. Euler knew Razumozskiy quite well—when the latter was 15 years old, he made an educational trip to Europe under the supervision of G. N. Teplov, and Euler taught him math in Berlin. Moreover, we know from Euler’s letter that Razumovskiy was the godfather of one of Euler’s daughters.

Like with his other disciples, Euler corresponded with the Academy’s President in German and French, but in 1747—1748, when the new President turned his attention to the Russian component and tended to give jobs primarily to the Russian students, switched to Russian. In 1750, Razumovskiy, acting on behalf of Empress Elizaveta, invited Euler to come back to Petersburg , promising to accept any terms, to keep their negotiations strictly confidential, and to correspond via a courier. Euler managed to talk himself out of it, using his weak health as an excuse.

In the same years, Euler wrote a few letters in Russian to G. N. Teplov, even though Teplov replied him in French. The scholar even wrote out a receipt in Russian, dated October 17, 1747.

Sworn enemy of any discrimination…

Euler’s motives for learning the Russian language were altruistic. He laid to heart education of Russian scientists and agreed that they should occupy prominent positions with the Academy.

He learnt Russian and used it whenever he had a chance not because he wished to take advantage of the situation he found himself in. He observed the tradition set and originally corresponded with his colleague mathematicians (D. Bernoulli, Ch. Golbach) in Latin as those letters looked more like scholarly writing than mere correspondence. French and German were also widely used in academic circles. However, if corresponding in Russian had been common, he would have written letters in the language of the country that gave him the chance to develop his academic gifts, and would have done it more readily than any of his Petersburg colleagues.

The following story confirms that Euler had no desire to ingratiate himself in line with the new (and not long lasting) tendency within the Academy of Sciences to give priority to the national scientists and their native language. On January 31, 1748, Euler wrote Schumacher about the prize Berlin Academy promised to award for the solution of the problem of niter formation. The scholar believed that nobody would be able cope with the task better than Lomonosov and that it would look good if the prize went to a member of the Petersburg Academy, especially if Russian.

Chancellery Counselor, sensitive to the new trends of the tsar court, was very well aware of it. His reply, however, was that even though Lomonosov had sent his book to the competition, they did not have to do their best for him because President of the Academy had no interest in Lomonosov.

Nonetheless, Euler continued to worry about Lomonosov’s book and even mentioned in another letter to Schumacher that Lomonosov’s knowledge did credit both to the Academy and Russian people.9

One of Euler’s disciples, N. Fuss, addressing the meeting of the Academic Chancellery after his teacher’s death, said that Euler was “absolutely truthful and kindhearted. Sworn enemy of any discrimination, he had the heart to condemn it and arm himself against it, irrespective of persons and circumstances”.

A telltale sign is the fact that Leonhard Euler’s departure was taken by his disciples and those who “had the fortune to be instructed by him” — his son J. A. Euler, S. K. Kotelnikov, S. Ya. Razumovsky, L. Yu. Kraft, A. I. Leksel, P. B. Inokhodtsev, Lomonosov’s nephew M. E. Golovin, and N. Fuss—as a great grief.

And Euler’s attention towards the Russian language—the language of his second motherland—is another touch to the personality of this remarkable man.

“Euler’s archive belongs to Russia but a collection of his works is being published in Switzerland. It has been prepared by the outstanding Russian mathematicians A. M. Liapunov, A. N. Krylov, A. A. Markov, and V. I. Smirnov.
Russia’s intellectual elite have made their best to preserve the heritage of this remarkable scholar. “Euler will always be a miracle that is impossible to explain”, said V. I. Smirnov, paraphrasing Goethe’s words about Mozart.
Sixty volumes of Leonhardi Euleri Opera Omnia have been published, and edition of the entire 72-volume collection is planned to be completed this year”. (Prof. S. S. Kutateladze, Institute of Mathematics, Siberian Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences, Novosibirsk)

1 Quoted from the book by Kopelovich Yu. Kh. “Euler – Honorary Member of Petersburg Academy” // Development of Leonhard Euler’s ideas and Modern Science.—Moscow, 1988.—p. 47.
2 See commentary to the text of “Praise to the deceased Leonhard Euler” by N. Fuss Development of Leonhard Euler’s ideas and Modern Science. — Moscow, 1988.—Pp. 379—380.
3 Quoted from the article by Lavrentiev M. A.”Introductory speech at the academic session devoted to 250th anniversary of Leonhard Euler” // “Leonhard Euler: collection of articles devoted to his 250th anniversary, presented at the USSR Academy of Sciences”.—Мoscow, 1958.—P. 9.
4 Same source. p. 192.
5 St. Petersburg branch of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Archive 136, inventory 2, file 4, leaf 5.
6 St. Petersburg branch of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Archive 1, inventory 3, file 31, leaf 202—203.
7 St. Petersburg branch of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Archive 1, inventory 3, file 33, leaf 33.
8 St. Petersburg branch of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Archive 1, inventory 3, file 31, leaf 201 (back).
9 St. Petersburg branch of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Archive 1, inventory 3, file 37, leaf 124—125.

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