Between the winters of his native Puerto de la Cruz and those of Saint Petersburg there are a few degrees of difference; but neither that, nor the change in culture, language or landscapes scared the engineer Agustín de Betancourt when in 1808 he decided to pack his bags and move to the Russia of the czars. He had fallen into disgrace in the eyes of the almighty Godoy, in Spain he had nothing left but family and memories, he had been in Paris for some time and had influential friends, so… What could he lose?
So it was.
His steppe adventure would bring significant profits to him; but above all to Russia itself. So much so that if you walk around St. Petersburg you will find several statues in his memory.
The country of the tsars, the country of the Alexanders Y Nicholaswhich today we associate with pageantry and alembic constructions, would probably have been somewhat less brilliant had it not been for the genius of Agustín Betancourt, the inventor who during the early stages of the 19th century shaped his particular “Russia made in the Canary Islands”. Especially in the capital, St. Petersburg.
From Augustine to Augustinovich
Agustín de Betancourt y Molina (1758-1824) is one more name in the long list of native geniuses that Spain —before and after him, for one reason or another— did not know how to take full advantage of. It happened to Isaac Peral, Mónico Sánchez, Ángela Ruiz, Emilio Herrera… and to Betancourt.
In his case, yes, in a peculiar way.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the situation of the Canarian engineer in Spain was, in its own way, enviable. He came from a good birth, had made a career between Madrid, Paris and London, earning the trust of the counts of Floridablanca or Aranda and enjoyed a well-established prestige with his work on steam engines or the optical telegraph which he had designed with Claude Chappe.
As well as being a man of action, he was also a man of letters, Betancourt had also encouraged the creation of the School of Paths and Canals, inspired by the École des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris.
Despite all that prestige and status, his situation at the dawn of the 19th century was not what one would say comfortable. In 1805, a report bearing his seal on the Genil River had earned him the suspicion of none other than Manuel Godoy himself, a strong man in the reign of Carlos IV. That circumstance and the scenario that was outlined at the international level encouraged Betancourt to liquidate his properties in Spain and move first to Paris —where Napoleon came to tempt him— and then to Russia.
There, in St. Petersburg, he was able to gain the favor of the best godfather imaginable: Tsar Alexander I, who probably saw in the canary a more than valid genius for the development of his country. What Spain had let go, they would take advantage of in the Russian empire. If the future was not tempting for Agustín in Madrid, perhaps he would be. 3,000 kilometers from there.
So he packed up his gear, settled pending business in France, and set sail for St. Petersburg. There they waited with open arms for Agustín “Agustinovich” Betancour.
Persuaded perhaps by his prestige or the interviews with Agustín himself, the tsar soon showed his confidence in the canary. One of his first commissions was the modernization of the Tula cannon factory, a strategic gear in the military apparatus of the Russian Empire. For Betancourt, the encomienda was not new to him and he knew how to take advantage of his knowledge of double effect steam engine and the operation of the Yndrid factory to turn around the ancient Russian system.
The result must have convinced the Tsar. This is the only way to understand that throughout the following years Augustine was in charge of tasks of capital importance for Russia and accumulated greater and greater prestige. In a matter of a few years, the former engineer at odds with Godoy became a lieutenant general in the Russian army and general director of Communications.
In Moscow, he took on the task of erecting in record time a new Equestrian Exercise Room and more or less around the same time he was in charge of what may have been his greatest contribution —and the one with the greatest depth— to Russian urban planning: designing a new commercial area capable of taking over from the fair that had been held since the 16th century near the Makaevsky Monastery. Its old center had burned down in 1816 and the Russian government wanted to recover it… but with greater packaging and in a better place, more accessible and capable of achieving greater projection.
The responsibility of deciding where and how and of coming up with the overall design fell on the shoulders of the canary. The enclosure opened its doors in July 1822 with a huge fair that brought together more than 200,000 merchants and helped for years to develop the Volga region and the wealth of the empire. That Betancourt did not do badly in his endeavor is shown in any case by the fact that at his death the Russian merchants installed a plaque of thanks on his grave. two hundred years later the imprint of Tenerife in Nizhny Novgorod is still deep.
Although the Nizhni Novgorod complex is perhaps its great urban heritage, the city in which it was used most extensively and in which it left the greatest impact is Saint Petersburg. There, in the capital of the empire, he showed his talent in at least half a dozen capital works for the metropolis: the new paper money factory, the dredging of the port, several bridges and Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.
As the Orotava Foundation recalls, Betancourt assumed in March 1816 the task of setting up a new paper money factory in Goznak, on the banks of the Fontanka canal, and for two years he was in charge of supervising the works. His involvement was not limited to the building: he organized its areas and machinery, designed banknotes and favored the modernization of the antiquated Russian ruble manufacturing system, which until then had made it an easy target for counterfeiters.
Over the years, he also built several bridges over the Neva River and helped Saint Petersburg today boast one of its most photographed buildings: Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. Although the father of the temple is the architect Auguste de Montferrand, a collaborator of Betancourt, the Canarian took on the task of completing the foundation with piles, designing the scaffolding and the complex system of cranes that allowed the red granite columns that distinguish the building to be raised. .
It was not the only time that Betancourt put his mechanical ingenuity at the service of the capital. In order to dredge the embankments of the port of Kronstadt, the fortified island that acted as a maritime defense for the capital, Betancourt designed special machinery. His mechanism, which operated thanks to a steam engine, premiered in 1812 and did not require repairs until 1820. His good eye allowed him to understand the potential of waterways of Russia and, from his position in the government, encouraged him to reinforce them with docks, retaining walls, locks and dredgers.
Ironies of history, his years in Russia did not end very differently from what had happened to him in Spain. Despite the success of the Nijni Novgorod fair, his expenses and the irregularities of one of his collaborators, added to other factors, such as his sympathy for the liberal revolutions in Spain, clouded his relationship with the czar in the early 1820s.
The Agustinovich who in his day did not even need to make an appointment to meet with the Tsar ended up dismissed on a practical level and in 1824 requested a retirement that was granted to him without problem.
That yes, his mark remains in Saint Petersburg.
the one that helped give luster to the city of tsars.
And Spain was lost along the way.
Pictures | Алексей Трефилов and Wikipedia (1 and 2)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism