Carusel Tours
16 November 2020

History of Nobel Family in Russia. Virtual Tour of Nobel Town in St. Petersburg

Lesnoy Avenue with Former Nobel Buildings
We have all heard about the famous Nobel Prize, but not everyone knows that the history of the Nobel Family, full of talented inventors and businessmen, is very closely linked to Imperial Russia and, of course, to St. Petersburg!

Let us discover together the former lands of Nobels in St. Petersburg with the factory, mansions and Art Nouveau living quarters that they constructed for their workers with the help of brilliant architects.

Nobels were among the first manufacturers to introduce high standards of living and education for workers and their families, but it did not help them to avoid the revolution and nationalization of their properties in 1918. But let us talk about everything one by one!

Map of Nobel Town Walk
Lutheran Church of St. Catherine on Malaya Konyushennaya Street in Central St. Petersburg
Lutheran Church of St. Catherine on Malaya Konyushennaya Street in Central St. Petersburg

The First Nobel in St. Petersburg

Three generations of Nobel Family lived and worked in St. Petersburg for around 80 years.

The first one to come to Russia was Immanuel Nobel. In 1833 he went bankrupt in Sweden when his barges drowned and the family house burnt down. He first moved to Turku, then part of the Russian Empire, where he set up the new business, and later to St. Petersburg.

In the capital of the Russian Empire Immanuel settled down in the modest wooden mansion on Petrogradskaya Embankment, his wife and children joined him in a few years. That house was dismantled for firewood during the Siege of Leningrad in the 1940-s, but today there is a monument to Alfred Nobel, one of Immanuel son's and the founder of the Nobel Prize, nearby. The monument, created by Russian sculptors, was mounted there in 1991 upon the the initiative of the Nobel Foundation and the International Fund of the History of Science.
Monument to Alfred Nobel on Petrogradskaya Embankment in St. Petersburg
Monument to Alfred Nobel with the Nobel Mansion across the river

In St. Petersburg Immanuel quickly gained success as a talented inventor and manufacturer – he started producing various artillery items and machinery at the small foundry near Liteyny Bridge.
Liteyny Bridge is now one of the main drawbridges of St. Petersburg. Liteyny means Foundry in Russian. The adjusting area was used for metal production in the first half of the 19th century, hence the name of the bridge.
In 1842 Immanuel founded a larger foundry near the place where he lived with the family on Petrogradskaya Side. There he also produced the equipment for the first central heating systems of the city.

Emperor Nicholas I appreciated the quality of manufacture produced at the Nobel's enterprise and Nobel became the important supplier of land and sea mines for the Russian Empire. It allowed Nobel Family to live a more well-off life than in Stockholm and provide excellent home education for their children.

However, as Nicholas I died in 1855 and the Crimean War was lost by the Russian Empire, the orders for land mines and other war items came to an end. New emperor Alexander II cut the military expenses significantly and the Nobel's Enterprise went bankrupt. Immanuel Nobel with his wife and youngest son, Emil, returned to Sweden, while his elder sons stayed in St. Petersburg.

Nobel Brothers

Immanuel and his wife Andriette had 8 children, but only 4 boys survived to adolescence. The youngest, Emil, died young in an accident, but 3 others, Robert, Ludvig and Alfred, lived longer lives and were all very successful in their business ventures and as inventors.
Ludvig Nobel Portrait
Ludvig, the middle son, took care of the bankruptcy procedures of his father's company between 1859 -1862 in St. Petersburg, and he did that so brilliantly that he gained enough funds to rent another foundry factory in the city. It was situated right across the Petrogradskaya Embankment on the other bank of Bolshaya Nevka River, on Vyborgskaya Side. Ludvig soon bought that factory and adjusting lands to found there his own business, Ludvig Nobel Factory.

In this industrial district Ludvig also constructed the beautiful mansion in Italian palazzo style for his family and later his son created the whole town for Nobel Factory workers with a school, palace of culture, library and residential buildings. I will write about the Nobel Town in more detail further on!
Robert Nobel
Robert, the eldest son, helped Ludvig with his factory in St. Petersburg. In 1861, he married a Finnish lady and moved to Helsinki where he got into another business venture, not successful. In 1864 Robert came to Stockholm to help his father and the younger brother Alfred to deal with their newly established Nitroglycerin Company, and settle a family dispute about who should own it.

In 1871 Robert returned to St. Petersburg to direct Ludvig Nobel's factory while his brother embarked on a 1 year journey with his new wife. Later Ludvig sent Robert to Caucasus to search for proper wood material for the manufacture of Berdan rifles. Robert did not find it, but on the money that he received from Ludvig as the compensation for the journey he found a much more profitable substance – oil near Baku on the depth of only 25 m. This is how an epic history of Branobel Oil Refining Company, founded by Robert, starts. It became one of the major oil production companies in the world.
Former Branobel Headquarters in St. Petersburg
Former Branobel Headquarters. 6 Griboedova Channel / 2 Italianskaya Street

The main stakeholder of Branobel Company was Ludwig Nobel with 53,7%, among others were Alfred Nobel with 3,3% and Robert Nobel with 1,7%. The headquarters of Branobel were situated in the beautiful Art Nouveau Building on Griboedova Channel in St. Petersburg, designed by F. Lidval
Ludvig and Robert did a lot to improve working conditions at their factories and provide their workers with better social conditions. Thus, several Nobel Towns were created near their factories in Baku, St. Petersburg, Astrakhan and other cities where Branobel operated.
Alfred Nobel
Alfred, the third son, studied with the famous Russian chemist Nikolai Zinin in St. Petersburg as an adolescent and he showed an interest to chemistry at a very young age. At 17, he met the inventor of nitroglycerin, Ascanio Sobrero, the explosive substance that Alfred later used to create dynamite. When Alfred was 18, he studied in the USA for one year in the workshop of John Ericsson.

In 1863 Alfred moves from St. Petersburg to Sweden and continues his experiments with nitroglycerin at the factory that he establishes with his father. The same year Alfred invents detonator. In 1864, his youngest brother Emil dies in the explosion at their factory in Stockholm. It does not stop Alfred from work on a new explosive and soon he patents dynamite.
In 1888 Ludvig Nobel dies while on a treatment in Cannes and one French newspaper mistakes him for Albert - in the obituary it writes "The Merchant of Death is Dead. Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday". Albert was so shocked to read it that he decides to bequeath the largest part of his fortune to Nobel Prize Foundation.
Alfred lived in various locations throughout Europe and returned to St. Petersburg only once in his later life. The Nobel Prize Foundation, founded by him, made a positive shift in how Alfred's figure has now been perceived and supported so many talented scientists, writers and public activists since then.

The large part of Alfred's fortune came from his modest share in Branobel company, which, in turn, earned most income from its activities in the Russian Empire. But, as we already know, the share of Ludvig Nobel in Branobel was many times larger. Ludvig's immense capital was inherited and augmented by his children, but in 1918 its greatest part was nationalised by the new Soviet Government.
Nobel Town in St. Petersburg
Nobel Town in St. Petersburg

Our virtual tour starts with the oldest buildings in the Nobel Town that are presently in much worse condition when the living quarters and other houses of the town. Most buildings of the Nobel Town are situated very close to Vyborgskaya Metro Station.

See map of the walk for details!
Ludvig Nobel Mansion on Pirogovskaya Embankment
19 Pirogovskaya Embankment

This once beautiful mansion looked like an Italian palazzo. It was built to the design by Carl Andersson in the 1870-s and enlarged by Robert Meltzer in the 1900-s. It served both as the living quarters and the office for Ludvig Nobel and his family. It housed the board partnership of Branobel company before a separate building in central St. Petersburg was constructed as Branobel Headquarters in 1910.

There in 1917 famous Finnish statesman Gustav Mannerheim was hiding after the February Revolution from the temporary government – as an officer of the Russian Imperial army he was worried about his fate and not without reason. In 1918 when all Nobel's property was nationalised, it became the administrative building of the former Ludwig Nobel Factory.

Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union almost all the factories in the area went bankrupt, and the mansion was deserted. It still stands neglected, with boarded-up windows, falling down wing facades and state-of-art interiors with imperial pianos in there. Some history lovers get inside to take painstaking photos of these treasures that are getting more and more shabby each year.
As the building is actually under the control of the state, the local Committee for the Protection of Monuments takes this case to the court regularly, together with the case of neglected Nobel Factory Buildings, but with no results up to date. Nevertheless, we hope that they will be saved!
Cast Iron Foundry Workshop of Ludvig Nobel Factory
30 Bolshoy Samsonievsky Avenue / 2 Fokina Street

Now it is covered with a green net and overgrown with small trees, but you can still feel its mightiness and see beautiful industrial architecture beneath it. The workshop was built to the innovative design by Henry Johnson and Fyodor Lidval in 1912-13.

The son of Ludvig Nobel, Emanuel, bought the license on producing Rudolf Diesel internal combustion engines in 1898 and started mass production of diesel engines in his father's factory. Immanuel was a talented engineer himself and he made some changes to this engine so that it could work on raw oil instead of kerosene. As you remember, Nobels had plenty of oil thanks to their Branobel oil extraction business in the Caucasus and Middle Asia, and this modification allowed them to save money.
Portrait of Emanuel Nobel by Valentin Serov
Portrait of Emanuel Nobel by Valentin Serov

Another important achievement of Emanuel and his engineers was the change in the design of the diesel engine to reverse, which made it possible to use diesel engines for ships. This is exactly what the factory continued producing in the Soviet Era, since it was nationalised after the revolution.

It was renamed into Russian Diesel and if you take a look at the red and white brick building to the left of this foundry workshop, you will see Russian letters R and D on its façade - it is the abbreviation for Russian Diesel. That building was designed in the 1930-s and it is a nice example of Soviet Constructivism, that we are writing about a lot in our Instagram and Facebook.

Unfortunately, Russian Diesel went bankrupt in the 1990-s and the impressive industrial buildings of Nobels were neglected, but we hope that they will be reconstructed nevertheless. There were ideas to use this foundry workshop as the recreational centre, so we will see...
Arches of Lidval Building in Nobel Town St. Petersburg
Living Quarters and School of Nobel Town
Along Nobel Lane, between 27 Bolshoy Samsonievsky Avenue and 20 Lesnoy Avenue

Emanuel Nobel continued developing his father's initiatives on improving living and social conditions for the workers of Nobel factories. He attracted the most renowned architects of St. Petersburg of that time during the construction of the Nobel Town in St. Petersburg.

This town is now conveniently located along the Nobel Lane between Bolshoi Samsonievsky Avenue and Lesnoy Avenue. Unlike in central St. Petersburg where many yards were very densely built up with no space for trees and lawns, Nobel Town from the very beginning was designed with spacious recreational areas around the buildings. It combines 2 and 3 storey buildings in Brick Style, Art Nouveau and Northern Romantic Style.
By the way, Nobel Lane got its name only in 2011, before that it was nameless, therefore all the buildings along it have either Bolshoy Samsponievsky or Lesnoy Avenues in their addresses.
Skilled workers of Nobel Factory could rent spacious modern apartments in the buildings of the Nobel Town for a modest fee. Their children could go to a school in the town, while the workers and their wives had the opportunity to continue their own education and enjoy various cultural activities in the so-called People's House, built for them across the street.

Most of these buildings still contain the flats and it is curious to see the locals talking to each other as old friends, as if they don't live in St. Petersburg, but in a small town where everyone knows each other! It is particularly true for the residents of 2 and 3-storey buildings – they retain this good-neighbourly atmosphere and seem to know each other for their whole lives.
Nobel Town in St. Petersburg
First houses were designed by V. Shröter, the main master of Brick Style in St. Petersburg, in the 1890-s. You can tell these buildings from the others by the brick platbands and eaves under the roof, and somehow Russian industrial style.

Shröter' own mansion and tenement house are situated along the Moika River and you can see them very well from the New Holland Island.
Nobel Town St. Petersburg
Another prominent city architect, Robert Meltzer, continued working on the Nobel Town in the beginning of the 20th century and he somehow united Shröter's brick style with Art Nouveau, predominant at that time. Some of the houses for workers and the school, designed by Meltzer, are strikingly similar to Shröter's style, while the residential building that faces the Bolshoy Samsonievsky Avenue and the ones behind it are designed in "modest" Art Nouveau.

The school, that was functioning until the 1970-s, now belongs to the local police office, therefore don't be surprised to see police cars parked nearby.
The real gem of the town is that arch and the front façade of the building facing the Lesnoy Avenue. It was designed by Fyodor Lidval in the 1910-s and finished the ensemble of the town.

Lidval is one of the most famous architects of St. Petersburg of that epoch and many of his buildings are now subject to admiration and numerous tours for the locals and guests of the city. Like Nobels, Lidval also had Swedish roots and he designed a lot of buildings for Emanuel Nobel in Russia.

We wrote about Lidval's works in our post about Northern Romantic Architecture in St. Petersburg.

That building was meant for highly skilled workers of the factory - those that we would now call top managers. It contained the most spacious and up-to-date apartments with all the necessary amenities.

In the inner patio of the buildings you can still see the fountain, it is the element that Lidval loved to use in his projects. The magnificent arches with chain lanterns that frame the entrance to The Nobel Town from Lesnoy Avenue are seen as far as from the Samsonievsky Avenue. Lidval also decorated the so-called Tolstoy residential block along the Fontanka River and Rubinstein Street in central St. Petersburg with the same arches and lanterns, but he first used them there.
Facade of Lidval Building in Nobel Town St. Petersburg
Apart from the apparent Renaissance influence, the building has some typical features of the Northern Romanticist Style, such as the abundant use of local materials, such as granite, and mythical creatures decorating its facades. Unfortunately, many of the stained-glass windows on its front façade are now missing, but the building still impresses us.
People's House of Nobel Factory in St. Petersburg
People's House
19 Lesnoy Avenue

This building was erected between 1897-1901 to the design by R. Meltzer and it became one of the first "culture houses" for workers with a spacious audience hall for 700 persons and a stage, library and numerous meeting rooms. The main idea behind it was to offer workers various opportunities for self-development and cultural leisure instead of heavy drinking and revolutionary activities that many of them were practising in their spare time.

Later in the Soviet Union the idea of "culture houses" for workers was actively implemented – with a lot of such institutions created for every factory.

Many famous scientists and artists performed or gave lectures in this house and Emanuel Nobel presented on its stage his new model of diesel. There workers could pursue their hobbies in various societies and clubs – from playing musical instruments and singing in choirs to chess, billiard and scientific research.
Nobel's People's House and Mansion in St. Petersburg
The territory adjusting to the building was actually a park with various fun activities for children, such as tennis grounds in summer, skating ring and ice hill in winter.

The house's library offered books of all genres in Russian, French, German, Swedish, Finnish and Estonian.

During World War I People's House was turned into the war hospital that was funded by Nobels. Emanuel's sister Marta, a surgeon, worked there. In that hospital wounded soldiers could master other professions, so that they would still be able to earn for a living after they return to normal life after the war (but as we know from history, the normal life did not come for far too long to our country after World War I).

In the Soviet Era, the building still functioned as the Culture House until the 1970-s, now it belongs to one institution.
 Mansion of Emanuel Nobel and Marta Nobel-Oleinikoff
Mansion of Emanuel Nobel and Marta Nobel-Oleinikoff
21 Lesnoy Avenue

It was designed by R. Meltzer (1902-1904) and later expanded by F. Lidval (1910). This exquisite mansion is united with the People's House of Nobel by the same fence. Its décor has no similar elements – even the windows are different in size and style.

The mansion initially belonged to Emanuel, but he later expanded it to provide there enough space for his sister Marta and her husband, doctor Georgy Oleinikoff.
Marta Nobel-Oleinikoff
Marta Nobel was the younger sister of Emanuel, he was 21 years her senior and throughout her adolescent life he took care of her. Marta married Russian doctor Georgy Oleinikoff who had very modest income and was 17 years her senior. This was quite unconventional for the predominantly Swedish Nobel family, but Emanuel supported her decision and ask F. Lidval to expand his mansion to accommodate the new family of his sister.

Marta studied at the Women's Medical Institute, the only place in St. Petersburg where women could receive high medical education at that time, and graduated from it as a surgeon. Georgy Oleinikoff worked in the oldest medical institution of St. Petersburg, the Military Medical Academy, that is situated on Vyborgskaya Side, very close to the Nobel Town and Factory.

Marta granted large sums of money on charity and with her help the Eye and Surgical Clinics for the Women's Medical Institute were constructed. In the Soviet time the institute was turned into the medical institution for both men and women and now it is the Pavlov University on Petrogradskaya Side – one of the mayor medical institutions in the country.
Although Nobels did a lot for the well-being of their workers, expressive speeches of Bolsheviks and other revolutionary groups where they promised lots of opportunities for happy life won in the end – Nobel Factory workers supported revolutionary protests during the February Revolution of 1917
In 1918, all members of the Nobel Family left Petrograd (the name of St. Petersburg during World War I) and their property was nationalised, but they left a huge impact on the life of our city and country.

This post is a very brief journey through the history of the Nobel Family in Russia, that has still not been studied in detail and probably new facts will be revealed soon. And I do hope that it will inspire you for a quiet walk in the Nobel Town in St. Petersburg – not far from the historical centre, but with a totally different ambiance.

Vybogskaya Side has a lot of historical buildings, and not only from the industrial period. There one of the oldest cathedrals of the city, St. Samson Cathedral, is situated, as well as the oldest medical academy of St. Petersburg and such constructivist gems as the Kitchen Factory, all in the walking distance from the Nobel Town.

Do let us know if you want to find out more about this area or take a thematic walk with us there! And have a look at our other tours for inspiration.

Text by Alexandra Lyukina
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