The Demidov Palace was built in 1836 by August Montferrand for one of the richest families in Russia at the time – the Demidov family, a dynasty of Russian industrialists and landowners who, in the 18th and 19th centuries developed the Ural region, setting up iron foundries and arms factories and building whole cities around their ventures.
The architect was quite proud of his work – in a letter dated 1836, he writes: “The building will be completed this summer and will become another attraction in Saint Petersburg”.
A granite socle, marble caryatids and atlantes, winged figures on the façade, and a grandiose interior with malachite columns. The malachite used there was taken from Demidov’s own Siberian quarries. The family was fabulously rich and lived in the lap of luxury.
The house was like an oriental palace full of untold treasures – antique vases, Rembrandt paintings, mahogany furniture and Ludovic XIV silverware.
It was Peter the Great who had first brought into notice the family of the Demidovs destined to fill so great a position in the records of Russian mining. The story of the rise of this family, now so wealthy, is worth telling, even at the cost of a digression. In 1696, when going to Voronezh, Peter had passed through Tula, and sent his attendant to ask the Tula blacksmiths if they could undertake in the course of a month to make three hundred halberds after a pattern which he had brought with him. Only one man responded to the appeal, the peasant Nikita Demidovich Demidov. When he was presented to Peter, the latter was much struck with the tall stature, manly visage, and symmetrical build of the man, and said to the nobles who were present, "What a fine fellow, he would just do for the grenadiers of the Preobrazhenski regiment." Nikita, considering the words of the Tsar to be meant as a command to him to become a soldier, fell at Peter's feet, and with tears asked him to excuse him on account of his aged mother whose only son and support he was. The Emperor, smiling at the terror of Demidov, said to him joking, "I will excuse you if you will make the halberds like the pattern." Nikita answered that he hoped to make them better than the pattern, and that he would bring them to Voronezh by the appointed time. When within a month Demidov presented himself with the halberds, Peter was so pleased with the way in which the work had been executed that he paid him thrice as much as he asked, gave him a silver mug, and promised to come and see him on his way back. When he came again to Tula, Peter remembered his promise, and paid a visit of inspection to Demidov's humble establishment, and asked him about his business. Demidov offered the Tsar a glass of excellent Rhine wine. "Ah ! Demiditch," said the Emperor, "you ought not to keep such expensive wine as this." "Your highness," said his host, "I never drink such wine. I have got this foreign wine only for you." "Take it away," replied the Tsar, "and give me a glass of our national Russian drink." The wife of Demidov hastened to gratify the wish of the Emperor, who drank up the vodka, ate a piece of cake, and turning to Nikita, said, "Follow me, I want to speak to you about something." Going back to his lodgings, the Tsar then showed Demidov a gun of foreign manufacture and asked him if he could make anything like it in his establishment. Demidov answered that he would try but could not guarantee the result. "Well, I rely upon you," said Peter, "and when you have done it come to me at Moscow." Demidov went heartily to work, and after some unsuccessful attempts, produced six guns with which he made his appearance before the Tsar. Peter examined the weapons carefully, and when he saw that they were no worse than the foreign specimens, he made Demidov a present of a hundred roubles, and said "develop your business, Demiditch, and I will stick to you." In this way began the fortunes of the house of Demidov, which in the course of the eighteenth century developed into almost fabulous wealth. In this story Peter shows himself, as indeed he always was, a typical Russian man of the people, with his humour, his straightforwardness, and dexterity. It is interesting to think that the greatest sovereign whom Russia has produced, should have been such a typical specimen of the race.
A History of Russia, William Richard Morfill