Nineteenth-century Russian entrepreneurs whose activities included railway construction, banking, commerce, and philanthropy. The family included three brothers, Ya‘akov (Yakov), Shemu’el (Samuil), and Eli‘ezer (Lazar); they came from a merchant family in Dubrovna (near Vitebsk) and received traditional Jewish as well as modern educations.
Ya‘akov Poliakov (1832–1909) began his career in the liquor business. At some point he joined his brother Shemu’el’s railway construction company and settled in Saint Petersburg, where he worked in banking and international commerce and founded the Azov-Don Commercial and the Don Land-Estate banks. He also cultivated trade relations with Persia and gained the concession to open a bank there that was later bought by the Russian government. Ya‘akov Poliakov’s business enterprises suffered during the crisis of 1900–1903, and though he initially recovered, he lost his assets in the recession that followed the 1905 Revolution.
Poliakov was benevolent to both general and Jewish institutions. Among other organizations, from 1891 he assisted the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA). Recognizing his achievements, the Russian government awarded him with the title of privy counselor, but nobility committees in Saint Petersburg refused to register him. Only the aristocracy of Azov (where he had extensive business dealings) agreed to accept his title.
Shemu’el Poliakov (1837–1888), like his brother Ya‘akov, started his business career as a liquor merchant. He later worked as a contractor in road construction. Supported by Count Ivan Matveevich Tolstoi, who was the minister of post and telegraphy, Poliakov was granted rights to build railways. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, he built significant ones, including the Kozlov–Rostov, Orlov–Griazskii, Kursk–Kharkov, and Azov systems. During the Russian–Turkish War (1877–1878) he built tracks for the army in Romania. For his achievements, Shemu’el Poliakov earned the title of privy counselor. Nonetheless, his activities raised suspicions (entangled with antisemitic overtones) about the quality of his construction.
Poliakov donated funds to build the first Russian school for training railway workers (1867); he also subsidized high schools. In the 1860s, he settled in Saint Petersburg and served on the Jewish community council where he helped to build a synagogue and provided assistance to needy Jews. In 1880, he was one of the founders of ORT, and he also funded religion courses for Jewish students studying in Russian high schools near Vilna. With his son Daniel, he built a housing project for Jewish families in Bobruisk (Bobruysk).
Eli‘ezer Poliakov (1842–1914), the youngest brother, began his career as a partner of Shemu’el Poliakov in railway construction. After 1870, he worked independently without totally breaking off commercial contacts with his family. He settled in Moscow where he built up a financial empire consisting of five banks, including the Poliakov Bank (formed in 1873). With his three sons, he owned a variety of company shares, and with his brother Ya‘akov he developed trade relations with Persia. He was recognized as a leader of the Jewish community in Moscow, and also subsidized vocational schools in the Pale of Settlement. In his hometown of Dubrovna, he built a textile factory to employ Jews whose jobs had been forfeited to industries in Poland. As was the case with his brothers, Eli‘ezer Poliakov lost his assets during the recession of 1908, and his commercial projects were ruined by the policies of the Russian government that discriminated against Jewish-owned businesses.
Valerii Gessen, K istorii Sankt-Peterburgskoi evreiskoi religioznoi obshchini: Ot pervykh evreyev do XX veka (Saint Petersburg, 2000); Vadim Sekhovich, “Bylo u ottsa tri syna . . . ,” Belorusskaia delovaia gazeta, no. 445 (26 February 1998), available online at www.ort.spb.ru/history/poliakov1.htm; Iurii Snopov, Istoriia moskovskoi obshchini (2001), available online at www.jgs.ru/dor/moscow.htm.