Ioannis Varvakis (Yan Varvats, Yan Vorvats, Ivan Andreevich Varvatsi) was born in 17431 at Psara. His father was the Aegean skipper Andreas Leontis and his mother was Marou or Maria, whose surname is unknown. Ioannis’ surname derived from the vernacular name of the predator bird Falco eleonorae. He was poorly educated and probably self-taught. His professional and social maturing is related with his long apprenticeship in seamanship, sea trade and lucrative piracy.
2. Participation to the war of 1768-1774
A landmark to Varvakis’ life was his attachment to the Russian plan of operations in the Aegean and his subsequent voluntary enlistment in the Russian fleet. With his cruiser he took part at the sea battle of Çeşme (26th July 1770), gaining for this the rank of the lieutenant (21st October 1772). During the Russian-Ottoman war (1768-1774) he took part in many naval operations and battles. He participated in the siege of Beirut, the siege of Patras, at the bay of Naupaktos joining the force of the squadron of Voinovits and at the sea-borne storming of the forts of Stanco and Bodrum.
With the end of the war and the validation of the terms of the treatise of Küçük Kaynarca, the skipper, corsair and at the same time officer of the Russian fleet decided to continue his service under the Russian flag and moved to Russia. He went to Constantinople to join the regime of protection declared by the Russian authorities. The protection he sought was offered to him thanks to the strong personal support of the proxy ambassador of Russia at the Ottoman Empire prince Nikolai Vasilevist Repnin, who had signed the treatises of Küçük Kaynarca and later of Iaşi (1791). Repnin made sure to organize Varvakis’ escape from the Yedikule prison by using bribery. He supplied him with the necessary travelling documents and, with full secrecy, helped him to escape, putting him on board a merchant ship bound for Russia.
3. The migration to Russia
In summer of 1775 Ioannis Varvakis reached Hatzibey (Odessa), from where in September he continued his long and tiresome journey until his final destination, Saint Petersburg. In the beginning of 1776 he appeared in Saint Petersburg, having with him the letter which Pepnin had written himself, and sought to find the letter’s receiver, i..e. Nikita Ivanovits Panin, a diplomat and the undisputed architect of the Russian foreign policy during this age, who was also the tutor of Paul, son of Catherine II. Panin was informed by Repnin’s letter of the distinguished actions and fighting spirit Varvakis had presented in the Aegean Archipelago, but also of his strong will to continue his military service in Russia.
Thanks to Panin’s mediation Varvakis contacted the powerful Potemkin. He suggested, based on their mutual profit, that he should to go to Astrakhan, which was about to become the knot of the trade in Central Asia and a base of the Russian attacks to the Persian lands. Keeping in mind the initial discussions, Potemkin thought it would be better to present Varvakis, according to custom, to the empress. The result of this hearing, aided by Potemkin’s opinion, was very positive for Varvakis, since he received from Catherine, as a reward for his action and as a compensation for the material losses he had suffered due to the Russian-Ottoman war, one thousand tservontsi,2 the right to practice fishing and fish trade in the Caspian Sea for ten years without paying any taxes. Later he also received his war diploma, signed by Catherine, with the date 23rd December 1776.
A leading parameter of the discussions with Potemkin was his initiation to the secret plan of the Caspian Sea and the confidential entrusting of Varvakis with part of the execution of the plan, a duty highly honourable for the nobles as well as for the people coming from lower social classes.
4. Settlement to Astrakhan
In winter 1776 Varvakis found himself temporary living in Kerch (Crimea), where his ship “Agios Nikolaos”, which with the approval of the empress was bought by the state for 5,000 roubles had sailed from the Greek waters, arrived. Then he received the ship “Aetos”, equipped with two canons, ammunitions, a pilot and a sailor and left for Astrakhan. Later, in May of 1779 another warship was launched for Varvakis; this was a perfect copy of “Agios Nikolaos”, which cost to the state treasure 5,920 roubles. Varvakis returned “Aetos” back to the Kerch shipyard and went back to Astrakhan.
The choice of Astrakhan as a place of permanent residence for Ioannis Varvakis was not dictated only by his personal expectations –in deed, the times and the region allowed a great margin of profit due to the great need for ships and mariners-, but was also depended on the important targets of the Russian policy for the development of merchant relations with Asia. Catherine believed that the unification of the Black Sea with the Caspian Sea and both of them with the Northern Sea, as well as the conveyance of the great scale trade of China and of the East Indies through Tataria, would mark the upgrade of Russia as an even stronger power amongst the other states of Europe and Asia. During this period the Caspian Sea had emerged into a neuralgic, considering geographical and strategic interests, place for Russia: the war of the American Independence and the Anglo-French clash forced many countries to seek new trade roots towards India through Persia, which remained politically unstable since it was plagued by continuous civil wars and as a consequence the shah’s authority was powerless. However, since Russia steadily sought to divert the trade of the Eastern Indies through the Caspian Sea to Volga and then to Petersburg, there was a need for an experienced war and merchant-nautical personnel. For this purpose, A.V. Souborof was chosen; he was entrusted with the duty to chart the land coastal routes and to reorganize the naval fleet of the Caspian Sea. Ioannis Varvakis was appointed as his most proper collaborator.
The arrival, in the early autumn of 1776, of Varvakis to Astrakhan was actually prepared by Potemkin, who, as a general military and political governor of Novorossiya, made sure that the governor of Astrakhan I.B. Yakobi received the documents of appointment and was informed for the impending arrival. Varvakis’ arrival was known also by the Russian consul in Persia Georg Merk, who, based on directions from the Merchant College was obliged to support the capitalists who lived under Russian protection, to gather and to elaborate useful merchant information, since all these brought great profits to the state as well as to the private businessmen.
5. Secret activity
Ioannis Varvakis’ activity, especially during the first years (1776-1782) of his sojourn at Astrakhan, was not limited only to the care and organization of “personal” business activities and the profitable trade in Persia and its vassal khanates located around the Caspian Sea, but was a secret aspect and a continuation of his authorized service he owned to the queen and as a consequence to the Russian state.
Varvakis completed many missions directly connected with sectors of the secret diplomacy and of the merchant-military-political espionage, acting effectively under the cover of his intense business mobility. Already from 1778 he would sail the Caspian Sea, becoming a perfect connoisseur of the sea’s southern coasts but also of the Persian dialects, whereas his merchant ships, armed with cannons, entered most of the Persian harbours. Since in this country, 61 years after the assassination of Nader shah (1747), perfect disorder was still reigning, Varvakis with a masterly ability built and maintained balanced relations of trust with the local leaders who were fighting each other over the central authority. A result of his abilities was also the successful operation (1778) of the ransoming of “the Russian prisoner Makar Romanov, son of Laptev, from the province of Viatska”, who was actually one of his “eyes” within the Persian lands.
In April 1779 from the harbour of Astrakhan a merchant ship sailed for Persia, the commander of which was the “Greek veteran captain Varvakis”. Under an order of the Russian authorities “she is carrying working personnel, a cargo for the undertaking of trade, 6 puts3 of gunpowder for fire arms” and the yearly money mission for the Russian consulate of Rest. With the end of 1779 and because of the violent riots which broke out at Rest, with the subsequent pogrom and the total burning of the consulate, Varvakis was entrusted with the operation of rescuing the Russian consul Ivan Vanslov along with the whole diplomatic personnel and the consulate’s archives. Varvakis managed to transport the people and the archive with the same ship to Astrakhan.
When in November 1780 the new consul of Russia in Persia Ivan Vasilievits Toumanofski was appointed, Ioannis Varvakis was “invisibly” appointed as his right hand. Equipped with a Russian passport, the “merchant captain” Varvakis along with his “worker and fish embalmer” second lieutenant-pilot Vasili Sizof managed, under the eyes of the Persians, to complete the hard work of the precise and scientific sounding of the coasts. Furthermore, he undertook the scouting of the Persian coasts in order to locate a leeward point, safe, unreachable from mountain or sea bandits, in order to allow the College of Commerce in Petersburg to choose the most convenient site for the establishment of the Russian diplomatic authority as well as for the harbouring of guarded merchant ships, always according to his substantiated suggestions. The final aim was to undertake safe trade under the protection of a convoy. Varvakis suggested Astrabad (modern Gorgan) as the most suitable site.
Varvakis, knowing since 1776 about the top secret plan of Potemkin which foresaw the creation of a factoria,4 “without any festivities” collaborated closely with Souvorof and Toumanofski. In perfect secrecy he organized and coordinated the intelligence networks, which he successfully developed amongst foreigners, mainly Armenian, Hindu and Tatar merchants trading within the Persian territories. As a connoisseur of many parameters of the Persian issues he prepared the ground and further cultivated a climate of trust, sometimes pacifying and sometimes agitating the local enmities, always with the profit of the Russian interests as his main target. Authorized by Souvorof he started secret negotiations with Gadaet Chan, fathoming his dispositions and the possibility that the former would seek refuge in Russia, in order to return at the proper time and supported with the power of the Russian arms and politics “establish himself” in Persia’s central government. Souvorof took the most valid information from Varvakis, something which he does not forget to add in the footnotes of his reports to the inspirer of the eastern policy and common employer Potemkin. When however Varvakis, right after his return from Persia, without informing Souvorof, left immediately for Petersburg (1780), where Potemkin had called him, the marshal felt that he was being pushed aside. This he directly stated in a letter to P.I. Tourtsaninof, Potemkin’s secretary, calling Ioannis Varvakis “first minister” with a mixed tone of bitterness and irony.5
The arrival of Varvakis at Petersburg (1780) had as a sole subject the activation of the final phase of the plan of a secret naval mission which involved the descent of a flotilla to the Caspian Sea. Varvakis met Potemkin, the count Ivan Grigorevits Tsernisov, who directed the College of the Admiralty and in whose private mansion-house all the secret discussions for the final details of the plan took place, as well as lieutenant-commander Marko Ivanovits Voinovits, who was appointed as the commander of the Caspian flotilla. The Montenegrin and former subject of Venice count Voinovits was an old acquaintance of Varvakis from the years of the Russian-Ottoman war. Ivan Voinovits’ brother, on the other hand, took part along with Varvakis to the sea battle of Çeşme.
On the 11th June 1781 the flotilla descended to Astrakhan under Marko Voinovits and along with him Varvakis returned there, already appointed as the mission’s interpreter, since he knew Turkish and Persian. Also the ten semi-warships of Varvakis joined the force of the flotilla; these were constructed with funds from the public treasury and apart from ammunition they also carried large cargos of iron which was to be traded with the Persians.
For the beginning of the nautical operation Potemkin ordered full secrecy and the final details were only known by Voinovits and Varvakis. Not even Souvorof –whose military genius was recognized but whose diplomatic flexibility was questioned by Potemkin- was informed. Furthermore Varvakis systematically misinformed him and the marshal not only did he not know the exact date of the launching of the mission but on the contrary believed that the whole endeavour had been postponed. When on the morning of the 29th June 1781 the signal was given for the flotilla to sail towards Baku, Sovourof felt at least surprised and deeply insulted since he considered that this treatment of him was caused by the plots of the foreigners serving within the Russian state.
Varvakis’ role in the secret naval mission of 1780 was decisive: he piloted the flotilla with safety, organized naval manoeuvres and cannoning drills during its trip, led the scientific team which was occupied with the correction of the old English maps in situ, the soundings, the hydrological researches, the observation and description of the flora and the fauna. He also indicated the points in which he had located the petroleum deposits (the much-needed for the Russians “black butter” of the Turkmens) and, finally, led Voinovits until Astrabad’s gulf. Varvakis sustained, based on his previous autopsies that the place was geographically as well as politically suitable, since he had secured from Astrabad a preliminary agreement for the support of the Russians in order to establish their small factoria there.
Since Voinovits was preparing to start his official negotiations with the Chan of Astrabad Aga Mahmed, it appeared that the former was at Isfahan in a campaign against Chan Ali Murat. Thus Ioannis Varvakis was sent, supplied with official documents, to find the Chan of Astrabad, whom he located encamped near the city of Kasbin. The result of the meeting was satisfactory for the Russian side, since Varvakis in September returned to Astrabad bringing to Voinovits the Chan’s written message, in which he stated his intention to sign a friendly pact with Russia for the ceding of part of Astrabad’s gulf to the empress of Russia.
Marko Voinovits in perfect collaboration with Varvakis proceeded to the creation of the necessary substructures: near the coast barracks, baths, bakeries, a lazaretto and warehouses were built; these were surrounded by earth ramparts and ditches, fort batteries were built and a quay was established. With these works the site was soon to emerge into a buzzing merchant knot. Voinovits informed Astrakhan and Petersburg for the amazing progress of the works and the success of the plan asking for a permission to raise the Russian flag to the factoria.
However, the laborious, expensive effort will have a tragic end, since Aga Mahmed Chan broke his promises and, under his orders, a military force attacked the fort and captured Voinovits with 50 Russian officials, soldiers and “merchants”; meanwhile he ordered the total demolition of the buildings, the departure of the fleet and the abandonment of the site.
Varvakis saved the honour of Russia by undertaking the liberation of Voinovits and of the rest of the prisoners. By using in combination interpersonal relations, confidential discussions and bribery practices, Varvakis’ daring effort was successful: on 1st January 1782 he returned with the liberated prisoners to Astrabad, where in these days the permission to raise the flag in the factoria which had in the meantime been demolished had arrived from Petersburg.
On 8th July 1782 the flotilla finally arrived to Astrakhan. Voinovits returned to Petersburg. Notwithstanding the unsuccessful end of Potemkin’s plan, he was rewarded from Catherine and continued his successful career in the Russian fleet.
The vital participation of Ioannis Varvakis in the military mission of 1781/1782, in which “he was used in every verbal negotiation with the Persian lords”, was recognized in a favourable mention and a promotion in the military grade of the eighth class, as a “sekud mayor” (second major).
6. Varvakis and the Persian wars (1796-1797, 1804-1805, 1811)
15 years after the “unfortunate” outcome of the secret mission, Catherine declared war to Persia (January 1796) under the pretext of the “insult” Voinovits had suffered. The war’s actual cause was the invasion of the Persians to Georgia, which Russia considered to be her protectorate. In the meantime Varvakis was establishing his trade in Persia, pedantically obeying the existing regulations, whereas he had never stopped to monitor the Persian issues with great attention. In the new political-military situation he became the trusted assistant and secret consul of Valerian Zubof, a very young commander-in-chief of the Russian troops in the Persian campaign, whom he also entertained in his house. For the needs of the war in Persia Varvakis made a deal with the state, on behalf of which he hired 10 armed cargo ships for the transportation of ammunition and supplies in order to cover the needs of the provisioning of 35,000 soldiers. From this business Varvakis suffered a great financial damage due to the death of Catherine (1796) and the subsequent withdrawal of the troops (1797) by her successor and son Paul. However during the following Russian-Persian conflicts (1804-1813) Varvakis managed to balance his financial losses, since he undertook, based on new contracts with the state authorities, the provisioning with ammunition and various other issues.
Ioannis Varvakis’ career within the Russian sea and land trade was achieved thanks to political conditions, the opportunities offered by to the financial and social reformations and the ingenious exploitation of personal talents and merchant-nautical skills, which gave multiple returns as they were combined with the state plans.
During the 1781-1782 mission as well as after it, Varvakis unceasingly and systematically occupied himself with and directed his business issues, which were related with the renting of vineyards, the trade of wine and the distillation of spirits (raki, vodka), pottery industry, the exploitation of salt pits and the trade of salt, ship-ownership and sea-fluvial transportations (being the owner of 10 cargo ships) and, finally, his famous fishing business in owned, ceded or rented fish ponds, the systematic production, conservation, standardization, trade of caviar and of embalmed species. The successful organization of networks of trade in and outside the country (Russia, Turkey, Persia, Mediterranean) for these products was an important source of profit.
Ioannis Varvakis in 1789 received a life-long personal Russian citizenship, the privileges of which his large family also enjoyed. The Varvakis family was comprised of two children from his first marriage, which were born at Psara, whereas he did not have any children with his second wife.
Although after Catherine’s death he stopped being obliged to offer a personal service to the throne, he continued to faithfully serve the Russian state with zeal and dedication. For his important services he received high material, as well as symbolic rewards and honorary social distinctions (1807: decoration of the Equal-to-Apostles Vladimir class IV, 1810: court councilor, 1810: knight of the decoration of Saint Anna 2nd class, a hereditary title of nobility and a coat of arms).
He undertook a plethora of beneficent works with which, as it is widely known, he became famous as the Maecenas of Russia and a great benefactor of Greece. With his own bequest the Varvakeio Lyceum and the Varvakeios Market were built in Athens. The total amount of the money he offered to Russia reached the number of 3,500,000 rubles and to Greece the number of 1,500,000 rubles. With the width and the multiform of his benevolent works he proved “very willing to act for the good of the reign”, i.e. to substantially contribute to the support of the social, educational and religious needs of the state. Ioannis Varvakis’ beneficent activity in Astrakhan and Taiganio (works of public benefit, social care, ecclesiastic, educational substructure) followed and was coordinated with the financial, social and religious politics of the Russian state, it contributed to the prevalence of the Russian power in these regions, whereas in the same time it operated as a moral duty, it raised his personal authority and strengthened his social position and supported his personal and social strategies.
8. Social relations
Ioannis Varvakis during the long time he spent in Astrakhan (1776-1815) developed, apart from social relations, lucrative financial exchanges with powerful noble landowners, administrative or military officers. Amongst them were the trustful people of Catherine, the Zubof brothers, princes Dolgoroukof and Kourakin, the count Vorontsof. The mediation of some of them had often strengthened Varvakis’ ability to receive loans from the public treasury as well as the favourable arrangement of his possession cases in the senate or the governor’s house.
At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century the merchant world of Astrakhan was at the peak of its prosperity. In the three classes of the merchants there were 427 families enlisted (1,189 men and 63 women) with a capital of 1,091,791 rubles. In the first class of the merchants (available capital required 20,000 rubles), which comprised 17% of the total, 9 families (40 people) are numbered, constituting the group of the Russian citizens and in which Ioannis Varvakis along with members of his family belong.
Ioannis Varvakis was particularly popular in the multinational lower social classes (Russians, Armenians, Tatars, Kalmyks, Turkmen, Kazakhs), which continued until the end of the 18th century to colonize the region with continuous migrations. Through personal contacts, professional relations, social contracts and multifarious beneficent interventions he had a substantial influence on the numerous groups of workmen and peasant schismatic-Old Calendarist Russians who had settled to Astrakhan and to the wider area. This operated totally in support of the materialization of the policy of proselytism which derived from the state and the church and without any doubt strengthened catalytically the activity the archbishop of Astrakhan Nikeforos Theotokis and his successor Plato Lioubarski had undertaken.
The presence of Ioannis Varvakis in the public social life was active, powerful, multidimensional and was widely accepted and recognized by his contemporaries. In his social relations he was charismatic, with a fully recognized impact to the urban and to the rural surrounding. He was distinguished by an exceptional ability to penetrate and to adjust to the diverse environments of the ethnologically composite population stratification of the city, which comprised representatives from the environment of the merchants, the professionals, the artisans, the workers, the state employees, the military officers and the nobles. In his wider circle of acquaintances important generals, politicians, administrative officers, ecclesiastic prelates of various dogmas, financial authorities, scientists and scholars were included. He was a friend of the scholar archbishops of Astrakhan Nikeforos Theotokis, Plato Lioubarski, Anastasius Bratanofski, the governor and descendant of an old aristocratic family of Petersburg Michael Zubof, the Italian, citizen of Austria, Alexander Digbi, the architect of the city’s plan and of many other public and private buildings, and the tycoon and philanthropist but also stable partner in many business great merchant Peter Sapoznikof, who had an impressive self-taught education and was a friend of the arts with an excellent collection of paintings, amongst which the today famous Madonna Benois of Leonardo da Vinci. Ioannis Varvakis was a very close friend of Dimitrios Agathis, graduate of the universities of Pisa and Padua and member of the Academies of the two cities, who served as the director of the General Public School. Agathis had a humanistic education, an acute social problematic and became a distinguished member of the closed progressive intellectual circle “Friends of humanity”, in which state, military officials and merchants influenced by the declarations of the Greek enlightenment participated. Ioannis Varvakis’ close interference with the “Friends of humanity” decisively contributed to the upgrade of his educational level and his ideological formation. Apart from his fellow countrymen Nikeforos Theotokis, Dimitrios Agathis and Theodoros Leonardos, the influence of illuminated personalities was important; such were the director of the postal service of the governor’s office and active martinist Fedor Klioutsaref, the court councillor, follower of Novikof, who had taken part in the Archipelago campaign, Ivan Rovinski and the supervisor of public education of the governor’s office, an arduous friend of the books and voltairist Ivan Toulinski.
The interaction of Varvakis with the cultivated social-education groups and the circle of the Freemasons aided the comprehension of the idea and the practice for social altruism, the interest for the personal-communal illuminative upgrade through education, theatre, music and art. He became a participant in important social, philosophical, constitutional issues and armed his conscience for a more active intervention in issues of moral-religious patriotic duty, social emancipation for his adopted country and participation in the laborious preparation of the Greek national formulation.
10. The resettlement to Taiganio and his return to GreeceIn 1815 Ioannis Varvakis moved along with the members of his family to Taiganio of the Azov Sea. The settlement of Varvakis to Taiganio, one of the most prosperous centres of the organized presence of the Greek Diaspora in southern Russia, was dictated by matters concerning the translocation of the centre of the family business, the condition of his health and –mainly- his initiation to the patriotic plans and activities of the apparent Filomousos Etaireia, the secret Filiki Etaireia and its successor Filantrhopiki Etaireia. Ioannis Varvakis financial contribution to the support of the illuminative and educational needs of the nation and to the offer of the necessary supplies in arms, ammunitions, ship armament, supplies and provisioning of the fighters in Moldo-Wallachia and Greece was uniquely magnificent. Ioannis Varvakis, being politically experienced and perfectly informed for the international and inner situations, came (1824) to the revolutionary Greece seeking not only to support the struggle with generous offers but also to contribute to the settlement of the inner conflict which had taken the form of a civil political and military war. His intervention with a specific proposal in favour of Ioannis Kapodistrias was not welcomed. He prepared to return to Russia, but due to his depleted health he died on 12th January 1825 at the age of 82, at Zakynthos, where he was also buried.