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Forget Vodka and Chemistry, Thank Mendeleev for Economics

Published: January 17, 2014 (Issue # 1793)



  • A portrait of Dmitry Mendeleev, the renowned Russian scientist now being recognized for this economic views.
    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • The Dmitry Mendeleev statue in St. Petersburg.
    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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, the full impact of his 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.

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.

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