Periodic Law? Vodka Formula? Perhaps Mendeleev's Greatest Gift Is in Economics

Wikimedia CommonsMendeleev, who considered himself a great economist, pictured in 1897.
Dmitry Mendeleev is renowned worldwide for his fundamental work, the periodic law of chemical elements.

Among Russians, Mendeleev is also known as the inventor of the ideal formula for vodka, 40 percent alcohol by volume.

But perhaps only today, 180 years after his birth, is the full impact of 's genius finally being felt, economists said.

Mendeleev, born in a Siberian village on Feb. 8, 1834, was more than a leading figure in science. A far-sighted economist with progressive views of Russia's industrial development, he set Russia's customs tariffs, proposed the idea of oil pipelines, and jarred 19th-century thinking by suggesting foreign investment could boost the economy.

"Of the three major schools of thought in Russian economics, the most meaningful today is based on the ideas of Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev," said Mikhail Antonov, an economist at the Moscow-based Institute of Russian Civilization. This school of thought is known as physical economics.

Named After Dmitry Mendeleev

• Mendelevium, the 101st element of the periodic table

• Mendeleevite, a radioactive mineral

• The Mendeleev Rise, an underwater ridge in the Arctic Ocean

• Mendeleeva, a volcano on the disputed islands known in Russia as the Kurils and in Japan as the Northern Territories

• Moscow's Mendeleyevskaya metro station

• 2769 Mendeleev, an asteroid located between Mars and Jupiter

• The large lunar crater Mendeleev

Source: The Moscow Times

The progress of Mendeleev's ideas was difficult, including his periodic table, which received scant attention for 17 years and was scandalously passed over for a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He met fierce attacks from his opponents with antipathy, partly linked to his irascible temper. He stared down a barrage of accusations of economic and financial incompetence.

Mendeleev himself acknowledged that people tended to only appreciate him only for his scientific achievements.

"Do you think I'm a chemist? I actually am a political economist," he once said.

Indeed, about 100 of his numerous scientific works were devoted to economics.

From 1880, at the age of 46, Mendeleev began to examine the issues facing industries in Russia's regions. He was an active member of the Free Economic Society, Russia's first social organization, and traveled throughout Russia and on to Western Europe and the U.S., visiting factories and industrial exhibits. Collecting data, he created a development program for Russia based on industry instead of agriculture, which was dominant at the time. Evil tongues gossiped that Mendeleev was taking bribes from industrialists and entrepreneurs to promote industrialization in Russia.

Industrialization was a revolutionary idea. Many Russians accused Mendeleev of desecrating Russian traditions by declaring that "agriculture is just an overture of an industrial epoch, and on its own it results in poverty."

But by the end of 1890, with the country facing serious economic challenges, Mendeleev started to emerge as an authority figure. The tsarist government invited him to prepare many of the country's international trade agreements.

While his role in developing the vodka formula is wrapped in myth, he did oversee the Russian Empire's vodka standards for a time, a job that he might have landed in recognition for his doctoral dissertation titled "On Combining Spirits with Water."

"The scientist influenced the Finance Ministry's program to develop Russia's trade and industry in 1893, and he took part in calculating customs tariffs in 1891 and 1903," said Maxim Savchenko, an associate professor at the Russian Customs Academy. "Not a single important decision concerning trade and industry was carried out without Mendeleev's approval."

Mendeleev was particularly interested in the oil and coal industries. Publishing his theory on the origins of oil, he predicted that the resource would become a key component of the world economy and was the first to suggest the idea of using pipelines to transport oil.

"Mendeleev — who alone understood the sizable profit that people and the state could make from Transcaucasus oil in Russia and comprehensively studied the theme for decades — finally deserves a little gratitude," historian Mikhail Belenky wrote in his 2010 book "Mendeleev."

Saying that "even a caveman is able to trade in raw materials," Mendeleev helped build Russia's first oil refinery and outlined a long-range program for the exploitation of the country's vast natural resources.

Mendeleev also predicted the huge opportunities in the electrification of Russia more than 20 years before the establishment of the GOELRO plan, the first Soviet program to plug in the country.

While advocating industry, Mendeleev did not forget about agriculture. He called for the wider use of fertilizers, and he tested various fertilizers on his own estate, Boblovo, in the Moscow region. A three-year fertilizer program in Boblovo — the first in Russia — was declared successful but, again, received little support and was not repeated elsewhere.

"Mendeleev suggested transforming agriculture into the industrial sector and organizing small enterprises such as cheese-making and vegetable canning in the countryside," said Igor Dmitriyev, director of Moscow's Mendeleev Museum and Archives.

"But his main idea was that most farmers should link their livelihoods to cities or factories. He did not think about — or at least preferred not to talk about — the social aftermath of forced industrialization in Russia," he said.

Mendeleev died of influenza in St. Petersburg on Feb. 2, 1907, just days short of his 73rd birthday.

Some of his boldest statements sound quaint today. He shocked contemporaries by suggesting that foreign investment should be welcomed into the Russian economy and that employees should share in their companies' profits — notions that are widely accepted now.

Making an appeal that could have come from the modern-day Kremlin, Mendeleev said the country's prosperity was not only linked to the exploitation of natural resources but also the development of people's creative abilities and the spread of science and education. Public education, according to Mendeleev, should be practical, realistic, and be imparted in stages. After every stage, he said, a person should get the opportunity to use this knowledge to earn more money.

"Even with oil, there will be darkness without science," he said.

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