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Kunst and Albers - the legend of Priamurye

Essay by Leonid Blyakher on the history of Far Eastern merchants: "The Beginning"

Far East Atlantis - a region once surfaced from the dark waters of a beautiful and mysterious land, and sunk into them. The end of the XIX - the beginning of the XX century became not just a time of economic prosperity of the Amur and Primorye. It was a time of bright and strong people, bright deeds. I also wanted to tell about such people.

Kunst and Albers - the legend of Priamurye

Leonid Blyakher

Professor, Head of the Department of Philosophy and Culturology of the Pacific State University, Doctor of Philosophy
If a person first comes to any city located in the southern part of the Far East, then, most likely, he will be shown a solid two or three-storey building, built in the Art Nouveau style, stretching for an entire block. In Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, in Ussuriisk and Blagoveshchensk and in 18 other cities of the region. All of these are the trading houses of the Kunst & Albers company, one of the richest commercial enterprises, which existed from 1864 to 1930. In addition to 22 huge stores, warehouses, purchasing offices, schools, hostels, a bank and an insurance company, there were representative offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Odessa and Riga, Germany, Japan and China. The turnover of the trading empire at the turn of the century was 16 million rubles a year. And it all began more than modestly ...

The spring of 1864 in Shanghai, which became one of the centers of penetration of foreign capital into China, met two Germans. One of them was called Gustav Kunst. By that time he had already wandered around the world. In search of a "place under the sun" from his native Hamburg, he crossed to Constantinople. But there did not succeed. I traveled almost the whole of Siberia, where I also could not find an application. After long ordeals on the accumulated money, he opened a small store in the Shanghai Settlement.  

There were not many Germans in Shanghai. Much less than the British, Americans and French. The Shanghai Municipal Council included only 2 German nationals and 1 Italian. Approximately the same level of business was distributed. Huge concessionaire enterprises and small business for everyone else. It seemed that here, too, a young man with great energy and determination, but, alas, he waits nothing without money and connections. After all, to open a small shop, which barely made ends meet, it was not necessary to climb to the ends of the earth. It was possible to stay in his native Hamburg. Probably, it was such sad thoughts that visited young Kunst, when fate brought him together with countryman and namesake Gustav Albers.  

Gustav Albers, it would seem, was a man of another biography. A thirty-year-old sailor who for more than a decade has plowed the waters of the World Ocean far from the German coast. The navigator with a more or less distinct and already almost held fate. However, an adventurous vein was present in it. Although, probably, it would remain so "veined" if the ship on which Albert was navigating, did not crash off the coast of China. The team was saved on the shore, being in a strange world with not quite clear chances of returning home. The meeting of the navigator with the fellow-merchant turned out to be decisive.

There is no place for them in China, the friends decided. But I really didn't want to return home with my tail between my legs. It was then that a distant and almost empty country in the North - Russia, Siberia - came to Gustav Kunst's mind. After the Aigun Peace Treaty, according to which vast lands were ceded to Russia, the already not particularly warm relations with France and Britain became especially strained. On the contrary, the empire favored the Germans at that time. The authorities of the new governor-general were also in favor. And now, having folded what remained in their pockets, two young men decide on an adventure.

Through German acquaintances in Vladivostok, where there were about a thousand people, the store was bought for rent. And 16 September 1864, on the schooner "Meta", the companions themselves arrive with the first batch of goods. Gunpowder, weapons, matches, sugar, threads, fabrics, canned goods. Everything that could be needed by the residents of the “city”, where hunting and fishing were no less significant than the “urban” forms of farming. Such is the "shop in the wild West" (East). I must say that the assortment of the shop was little different from the traditional list of goods traded in the region. That's just not enough stores. Fairs were held once a year, and between them ... half a year of emptiness, off-road.

There were not enough trade people in Primorye, which Russian immigrants were just beginning to learn. Here the enterprising Hamburgers turned out to be "in the court". However, there were enough problems too. Freight schooner, to deliver goods from Shanghai to Vladivostok and Posiet, where soon there is another store, was not a cheap pleasure. Goods were imported for the whole year. And the population grew. Not so fast, but enough to make it necessary to organize additional shipment. Otherwise, the store will be idle. And renting? And life in this forgotten corner of the gods was many times more expensive than, say, in European Russia, not to mention Europe. How to be?  

Here the navigator, and maybe the merchant, recall that sea kale, trepangs, scallops in China are extremely demanded goods, not cheap. Whereas here, their great variety. Once you can import goods, you can export them. Between Shanghai and Vladivostok, schooners chartered by future "first traders" begin to shuttle. There are gunpowder, rifles, matches and the like in Vladivostok. Back to the seafood. Turnovers grow. Near the shops are built warehouses, shopping and purchasing offices. And the city is growing.
In 70-ies of the XIX century more than 8 thousand people live here. Together with him, the company's turnover is also growing. Slowly, but growing. Instead of renting a hut, there is a store on its own land. In 80-s the chain of shops "Kunst and Albers" covers already many cities of the region.

Kunst and Albers become respected members of a small German community, from which they mainly recruit workers. After some time, the partners began to invite employees from Hamburg. One of these workers in 1874 year is Adolf Duttan. With his name and associated the highest flourishing of the firm. And not only. It is Dattan who makes the German enterprise Russian, Far Eastern. Meanwhile, a modest, but unusually neat and smart young man quickly makes a career. In 1881, he is an accountant. And in 1884-th year is already a companion, who besides the salary is laid and 20% of the firm's income, as well as the right on its behalf to conclude trade agreements.

This event was preceded by the trip of G. Kunst and G. Albers to Hamburg, after which they decided to return home to Germany. The company was doing well. All they lacked was a good manager to whom they could entrust the business, which by that time had already amounted to a dozen stores and purchasing offices. Adolf Dattan became such a manager, Adolf Vasilievich in Russian citizenship.

So the founding companions are gradually retiring. Adolf Traugott Dattan, the son of a pastor from old Naumburg, begins to run the company. I do not want to tell a "sensitive" story about his youth and disasters. The son of a poor pastor followed the path followed by tens and hundreds of start-up entrepreneurs. In his hometown, he becomes a trainee's apprentice with a minimum salary. Of course, I would like more, but then they taught that. The path was clear: years of study, a junior partnership in the company and, with luck, eventually, his own trading company. But the enterprise will be small. To match the town, although old, but not particularly significant. And I want more, much more. Adventurism excites blood, excess of strength does not make it possible to reconcile with years, and maybe decades of gray existence.

America became the traditional refuge for such young people. Our character goes there too. More precisely, he goes to Hamburg to find a ship going to New Lands. While the ship is gone, a young man, whose parents were not at all happy about his decision, gets a job as an accountant in a jewelry store, whose owner (oh, fate!) Is called Fritz Albers. In a letter to his distant and unexpectedly found relative in Russia, he speaks of Adolf in the most flattering way and ... the young man receives an offer. The offer is fantastic. Salary - 50 rubles a month, food and shelter at the expense of the company. For reference, we note - this, at that time, was the allowance of an officer in considerable ranks. Dattan goes to Vladivostok. 

With his coming to the management of the company, commercial policy begins to change. Despite their adventurous streak and Shanghai experience, the founders did business in German. They played on the difference in prices between China and Russia, Russia and Europe. Dattan, who accepts Russian citizenship, begins to conduct business both "in a European way" and "in a Russian way" at the same time. The German community of Vladivostok was small and closed. Despite the growth in turnover and importance, the previous owners did not go beyond it. Dattan decisively breaks with this tradition. He gets to know all the Vladivostok and, later, the provincial "light", makes friends with top officials and ... almost immediately receives a state contract. The treasury paid and paid generously in those years. State orders are becoming one of the most important areas of the firm's activities. Dattan knew how to be friends. And friendship made him his own and understandable, helped to "do things".

Another important innovation introduced by the new manager was the activation of financial transactions. Getting a convenient loan in that period, as, indeed, today, was available to the largest gold miners and government contractors. Not only small traders, but also medium-sized businesses turned out to be beyond the interest of financiers. Duttan organizes a credit institution that actively finances trade people, industrialists, old peasants and Cossacks. Moreover, loans are given for the purchase of goods supplied by the same "Kunst and Albers". These loans largely gave impetus to the cooperative movement in the region, covering up to 80% of the peasants, initiated the emergence of large farms in the region, armed with advanced agricultural machinery.

The Amur and seaside peasants were rich. They not only received their "one hundred acres" (hectares) per family, but were exempt from taxes, poll tax, other taxes. Until 1910 year they were not drafted into the army. Work, and make yourself and the world rich for joy. Duttan helped them to become even richer. Not at a loss, of course.   

Vladivostok is becoming an increasingly large port. Trade is growing, whaling is taking place. After them, there are firms that insure shipping. One of the first was an insurance company, created with the participation of Duttan. The turnover and income of the firm did not just grow. They grew fantastic. First of all, thanks to his ability to be friends and business acumen to Adolf Vasilievich.

But there was something else in him, besides the ability to "get along with people", a kind of super task, a super-goal, for which the growing turns were only a means. Of course, here we are invading the field of human desires, in the field of guessing and guesswork, but it is painful it seems.
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