Agustín de Betancourt: From Immigrant to Icon (Eleanor Morrison)

Within the necropolis of the eighteenth century cemetery plot of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg stands an elegant, dark gray grave dedicated to “Avgustin Avgustinovich Betancourt.” Biographer Amílcar Martín Medina explains that one’s worth is truly recognized in Russia if you are buried at this ‘National Pantheon’ along with other recognizable names such as Lomonosov, Euler, Rimsky Korsakov and Mussorski. (Medina, 11) Not only is Betancourt buried there, he has even been awarded the honor of having his grave highlighted as a site of interest on an informational map adjacent to the entrance of the cemetery’s plot. How did a man born off the coast of the Iberian Peninsula in 1758 come to be buried in such a prestigious site in Russia? Agustín Jose Pedro del Carmen Domingo de Candelaria de Betancourt y Molina was born into an aristocratic family in the town of Puerto de la Cruz of the Canary Islands, Spain. Throughout his early life, Betancourt studied engineering extensively throughout Europe, including Madrid and Paris. Both the Spanish and French governments quickly recognized his talent. He facilitated the establishment of the “Escuela de Caminos y Canales” in Madrid as well as select students for the prestigious “École des Ponts et Chausses” in Paris (Egorova). Throughout the late 1700s and into the early 1800s, Betancourt made a name for himself as one of the greatest engineers in Europe.

This reputation gained him the attention of the Russian Tsar Alexander I. Betancourt traveled to Russia for the first time in November 1807 and stayed until April 1808. He was later given the opportunity to join the Russian Military service and in November he was appointed the rank of General-Major (Egorova). In September 1809, Betancourt was appointed the Inspector of the Institute of the Corps of the Waterways and Land Transport Engineers in order to establish the country’s first educational institution dedicated to engineering in St. Petersburg (Pavlov). The Institute of Corps of Engineers of Routes of Communication was established in November 1809. The Institute’s first building was the Yusupov palace, which Betancourt selected because of the surrounding park and lake where students could rest between classes and the large and bright rooms used for instruction (Egorova). The Yusupov palace, which is located behind the Central Railway Museum, exalts Betancourt’s accomplishment in the field of railroad engineering and recognizes him as the Institute’s first rector.

At this Institute, Betancourt worked to formulate an engineering educational system based on Western models, but adapted to the specifically Russian environment (Egorova). Eventually Betancourt’s innovative educational model, which coupled mathematical theory with practical training, became internationally recognized. His idea was not only innovative for Russia at the time, but also progressive by European standards. It subsequently became a system on which other higher technical institutions were based throughout the 19th century (Egorova). The Institute was moved in 1823 (and it has changed its name several times) but it is still in operation today as the Petersburg State University of Transport. The scope of Betancourt’s engineering influence within Russia extends far beyond the establishment of the Institute of the Corps of the Waterways and Land Transport Engineers. Throughout his sixteen years in the country, Betancourt oversaw countless other projects in the cities of Tsarskoe Selo, St. Petersburg, Tula, Kazan, Warsaw, Tver, Moscow and Nizhniy Novgorod, leaving his mark of engineering genius on them all (Egorova).

Without the work of Betancourt, the major metropolitan centers of Russia would not be as accessible as they are today. He organized and chaired the Committee on Construction and Hydraulic Works, which supervised the large-scale urban planning of all major Russian cities (Pavlov). This committee was responsible for several sites within the city of St. Petersburg specifically, such as Dvortsovaya, Senatskaya and Mikaylovskaya Squares and the Mars Field (Pavlov). He is responsible for the completion of the Moscow Highway, connecting Moscow to St. Petersburg, as well as the by-pass Obvodny Kanal (Pavlov). In 1813, Betancourt designed the first permanent wooden arch bridge in St. Petersburg, Kamennoostrovsky Bridge, which spans the Malaya Nevka. (Pavlov) One of Betancourt’s other important bridge projects was the renovation of Saint Isaac’s Bridge between 1819 and 1821. Located directly across from one of the city’s most identifiable buildings, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the bridge had undergone several physical renovations since it was first constructed in 1727 as the first bridge across the Neva River. (“Исаакиевский мост”) However, today, a monument to the bridge and Betancourt has been erected along the railing of the Neva acknowledges Betancourt’s role in the bridge’s history and reads:

“The first bridge in the city was located here
The floating Isaac’s Bridge
The shore abutments were constructed from 1819 to 1821
Through the project of A.A. Betancourt.” (Author’s translation)

St. Isaac’s Cathedral itself is an excellent example of how Betancourt’s talents were employed far beyond his prescribed role as the project’s engineer because he had a demonstrable talent for architecture and for recognizing that gift in others. He designed the foundation, the scaffolding and the mechanisms used for column placement during the construction of the building (Pavlov). Crucially, it was Betancourt who proposed the primary architect of the famous building, Auguste Monferrand, to Tsar Alexander I. (Pavlov) Betancourt’s recommendation was an inspired choice, as Monferrand proved to be extremely talented and dedicated to the project. Monferrand committed his life to the construction of the Cathedral, dying soon after its completion in 1858 following 40 years of devotion. (“Saint Isaac’s Cathedral of St. Petersburg”)

As his involvement in the construction of St. Isaac’s demonstrates, Betancourt was capable of executing commissions for beautification and leisure purposes, as well as projects of utility. In 1817, Betancourt also designed the Riding Hall, or the Manege, in Moscow. This enormous wooden structure was created as an indoor riding horse school and included an unsupported roof span of 44.7 m (Egorova). Betancourt worked extensively on diverse projects at the lush Imperial retreat of Tsarskoe Selo, such as the design for the granite tank in Babolov’s Palace from 1811 to 1818 and the reconstruction of the Taitsky water pipe that supplied potable water to both Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlosk (Pavlov).

Milkmaid Fountain (Wikimedia Commons)

In fact, the famous Milkmaid Fountain at Tsarskoe Selo was Betancourt’s first engineering project in Russia under Alexander I (Pavlov), although it is not an accomplishment for which he is well-known. In 1810, the tsar commissioned the sculptor Pavel Sokolov to create a statue to decorate the gardens of Catherine Park based on La Fontaine’s fable “The Milkmaid”. In this story, a milk-girl named Peretta drops her pail of milk on the way to the market to sell it. She had been daydreaming about how she would spend her earnings (Vilʹchkovskiĭ). Betancourt completed the engineering beneath, which involved the use of wooden pipes to manipulate the underground natural spring (The National Library of Russia). The Milkmaid Fountain has become a symbol of the Imperial Gardens and the surrounding Pushkin neighborhood. Located on the left bank of the Great Pond in Catherine Park is a figure of a girl looking dejectedly at her broken pitcher, from which water flows from a natural spring. The significance of the fountain has been recognized long before it became a popular tourist attraction on the checklists of St. Petersburg sightseers. The site owes a considerable amount of its fame to the poet Pushkin who composed the work “The Statue of Tsarskoe selo” in 1830, which includes the lines:

“The maiden dropped the urn against a rock and smashed it, the maiden sits sadly, holding the useless remains.

Behold a miracle! The water, which is, pouring from the broken vase, does not stop, and the maiden forever sad, sits

over the everlasting stream.”

The government of the Soviet Union also recognized the importance of the site, going to some lengths to protect and preserve it. During World War II, before the German forces were able to reach the Pushkino neighborhood of St. Petersburg, the statue of The Milkmaid Fountain was buried in the ground and consequently left undamaged (The Tsarskoye selo State Museum-Preserve). The bronze original of the statue is housed in the Tsarskoe selo Museum-Preserves and Sokolov’s original plaster model is stored in the State Russian Museum; the statue that is seen in Catherine Park today is a copy, cast in 1990 (The Tsarskoye Selo State Museum-Preserve). Although the fountain as an image is easily recognizable, few know the hidden history and significance of the site, and the role played by a Spanish engineer.
Some of Betancourt’s other projects include the Journal des voies de communication, a bi-lingual French-Russian publication which quickly became popular within the Russian scientific community after the first issue appeared in 1826 (Pavlov). In 1818, Betancourt directly oversaw the commission for the Expedition for the Provision of Public Securities, a factory that produced banknotes, which is still in operation today as the Goznak mint of St. Petersburg (Pavlov). Betancourt himself designed the two factory shops, developed new methods for paper production, proposed the drawings of banknotes and created machines for numbering and signature imprinting (Pavlov). Unfortunately, due to the influence of jealous rivals, towards the end of his life and his 16 years in Russia, Betancourt fell out of favor with Tsar Alexander I (Pavlov). Betancourt’s final project was the Nizhnii Novgorod Fair in 1823. In 1824, five months after his return to St. Petersburg, Betancourt died in the city on July 14 at the age of 66. He was originally buried at the Smolensk Lutheran cemetery, but in 1979 his remains were moved to the respected Alexander Nevsky Lavra (Pavlov) in recognition of his genius.

Betancourt’s long-term impact on Russia has manifested itself in several ways and the country has slowly acknowledged his contributions to Russian engineering and design. During his lifetime, Betancourt was awarded both the St. Alexander Nevsky and the St. Vladimir Orders. (Pavlov) In 2003, at the request of the scientific community of St. Petersburg, a new planet in the Minor Planets Register of Solar System No. 11446 was named after Betancourt (Egorova). However, perhaps the highest form of commemoration that Betancourt has received from Russia is that his brainchild, the Petersburg State University of Transport, continues to be one of the leading Russian educational centers for higher education in engineering (Egorova). On July 24, 2003, the Petersburg State Transport University unveiled a monument dedicated to “Avgustin Avgustinovich Betancourt” in front of the main administrative building of the University. This historic ceremony to commemorate the founder and first rector of the University was even attended by the Spanish hereditary Prince Felipe of Asturias, now the King of Spain. (Pavlov).

Agustín Betancourt’s very first commission, The Milkmaid Fountain, foreshadowed the way in which he would impact the country he came to call home. Like the wooden pipes of the fountain, Betancourt’s extensive engineering influence does not always appear above the surface, but without his contributions the waters St. Petersburg and Russia as a whole would not flow.

Works Cited