Home Biography Scientific Heritage Medals Leontief Readings Leontief Centre

Biography » BIOGRAPHIC PERIOD » Petrograd Period

Petrograd Period

Wassily Leontief is a great scientist who made a tremendous contribution to economic development not only in Russia but also in various countries of the world. He was born in Munich in 1906 as his parents moved to Germany especially for the delivery to be in one of the best clinics. Right after the born of the baby the Leontiefs moved back to Russia and aged three weeks he was baptized in St. Petersburg, in Spaso-Preobrazhenskaya Kolotyshinskaya Church. The young family settled down with the grandfather, an owner of a textile mill, in the house where non-bourgeois climate reigned.

The young family settled in His father, professor of social science, and his mother, historian went home right after his birth. The young family settled down with the grandfather, an owner of a textile mill, in the house where non-bourgeois climate reigned.

Wassily Leontief-senior would even organize strikes on the family factory in his days, still family conflicts never occurred, he became a professor of economics of Saint Petersburg University, seriously studied Marxism and held the doctorate about the economical state of workers in Russia.

The childhood and youth of the scientist passed in Saint Petersburg. His family lived on the Krestovskiy Island in the house of father’s brother, who was the chief of the Leontiefs’ factory. The parents of the scientist socialized with many actors of the artistic bohemia of that times, and the well-known painter Petrov-Vodkin drew a portrait of 8-years old Wassily (“Wassya Leontief. Back View”).  From time to time the Leontiefs helped different illegal parties either by giving money or offering their summer house on the Karelian Isthmus to the illegal politicians, who made their way to Finland.  It might be possible, that mother of Wassily followed not only typical for intelligentsia of those times opposition moods, but also some personal reasons as one of her brothers was executed for participation in rebellion of prisoners. But all in all raging external world did not touch the family life of the Leontiefs.

Wassily Leontief-junior was infatuated by revolutionary disorders when he was 11 years old, he would even participate in protest marches, but rather for curiosity and ambition than for his views.   The stories about this experience, even slightly embroidered, would raise his prestige among his gymnasium-fellows and at home. Especially, when famous mischief-makers’ names were added to his emotions. It is said that he even listened to Lenin once.  

For their class affiliation the Leontief family was accepted into the “bourgeois” group, which actually meant that from the Bolshevik point of view that they deserve nothing more then “the tail of a herring”. Nevertheless Wassily Leontief, being an expert in financial and economic questions continued teaching in the University.   In 1919 the Leontiefs were offered to move from their own house in 24 hours. A seaman, standing in the doors told them what of their belongings they could take along, and what they were to leave. In those times the portrait of Wassily by Petrov-Vodkin disappeared. Soon afterwards the father said to his son: “We had enough money to give you good education abroad. Now it’s all gone and you have to try to do everything by yourself”. But in fact Wassily did not have to educate himself. In the period of 1917 — 1919 either his mother or tutors were his teachers. Other 2 years he studied in the 27th Soviet Union Labor School, though it was made only to receive the testimonial, as the knowledge gain there could not be compared with that, gained at home.    Finally, 1921 Wassily Leontief junior easily passed the final exams and received a diploma of secondary education. He was only 14, but he had to determine his future. And than he chooses the path, which , as it seemed at that times, has only copied his father’s.

He was so well educated by his 15 that the Petrograd University enrolled him.  The faculties at that time were not separated strictly, that allowed Leontief to study philosophy, sociology and gradually, according to his own words, “descend” to economy while perceiving increasingly critically the then situation in Russia.  His public speeches and unofficial talks were becoming (or seemed to someone) more freethinking and dangerous.  His analytical summarizing of real economic statistics was not to political commissars liking either. They were not able to grasp the value of his researches but it was clear that the words about public development benefit did not persuade them.

Eventually, the meticulous and scrupulous researcher was several times invited for speeches at the notorious house in Gorokhovaya Street as an enemy of revolutionary proletariat.  His visits to this place Leontief saw as a kind of adventure, and night time conversations were as an intellectual puzzle for him.

In 1925 Leontief graduated from the Leningrad (former Petrograd ) University and received the diploma of economist. He was only 19, but the talented graduate was highly valued and he was able to stay within the University- at the department of economic geography and teach.

Parallel to that he continued his thinking about the ways of science development. He wrote an article on this theme to the “Annals” magazine, but, this absolutely innocent article was prohibited for publication due to ideological reasons. Apparently this fact played its role in Leontief’s decision to leave the country. “This was an article about casual and normative attitudes in science. I took this two attitudes development in works of several philosophers, starting from 18th century, through Kant and Hegel, and to Bergson. That was a historical and analytical article, far from politics or ideology. And if even it was forbidden, I realized that it was impossible to do serious science in Soviet Union. And my work is the most important in my life. And when I realized that I decided to leave.”

Leontief started writing claim for the government to let him go abroad to make a PhD course in University of Berlin. The case could have taken much time, but Leontief got into serious trouble with his health: the doctors recognized sarcoma. So he got another reason for applications- he had to go abroad to receive medical treatment. Therefore, the young economist and statistician was set free and let go to Germany to die, as they thought.  W.W. Leontief: “I got sick, I had a swelling on my face. The doctors made s surgery and decided that it was a sarcoma. So they gave me my passport. They decided- let him go, anyway, he’ll die soon. And when I came to the doctors in Germany they said it was not a sarcoma and I staid alive. So sarcoma helped me a lot. Will you agree- sarcoma does not regularly help people.”


Copyright © ЗАО «Международный центр социально-экономических исследований «Леонтьевский центр», 2010–2021