Created on: December 24, 2012 Last Updated: December 28, 2012
Ioannis Varvakis was a man with many names. Born in 1745 on the Greek island of Psara to a ship captain named Andreas Leontidis and his wife Maria, Varvakis, whose real name was Ioannis Leontides, was, according to the Encyclopedia of the Hellenic World, also known as Ivan Andreevich Varvatsi, Yan Varvats, and Yan Vorvats. The surname Varvakis was a nickname given to him by his comrades during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774.
Varvakis received little formal education, but was self-taught during a long apprenticeship as a sailor and pirate. During the Russo-Turkish War, Varvakis was on a ship that was attached to the Russian fleet in the Aegean. At the end of the war, his skipper offered the services of the ship to the Russians, and it was during his time in Russia that Varvakis made perhaps his most significant contribution to the world.
A penniless veteran of the war, and a Greek at that, Varvakis petitioned Russian Empress Catherine the Great, and received money and the right to duty-free fishing on the Caspian Sea. Varvakis based his operations in Astrakhan, and despite having no experience in commercial fishing, managed to build an enterprise that made him a very wealthy man. His fishing fleet caught sturgeon, white salmon, and other commercially valuable fish, but it was the eggs of fish that made him famous.
Knowing the Greek love for caviar, Varvakis sought to export Russian caviar to Europe. He developed a number of innovations and inventions that made it possible to ship caviar for long distances economically. Among these innovations was the invention of a solution that would preserve the freshness of the eggs during long shipments. Until Varvakis came along, it had been the practice to preserve caviar in caves until it was sold for consumption, which meant it could not be shipped far. He built waterproof shipping crates which were constructed in such a manner they did not interact with the eggs which would alter the taste. Along with his preservation compound, he was able to begin commercial shipping of caviar to a ready market in Greece by boat or camel. His contributions to the development of the caviar industry, and the introduction of caviar to the world as a delicacy, also included standardized production and conservation methods to assure the sustainability of the industry.
Varvakis’s empire employed more than 3,000 workers, an extremely large commercial enterprise for its time. He also financed the building of a channel linking the Volga and Kutum, during 1810-1817. Tsar Alexander I gave Varvakis the title of hereditary nobleman, complete with family coat of arms, and made him Court Counsel. While these accolades were due to his other services to the Russian empire, his actions to make Russian caviar an international rather than merely a local product have had a more long lasting impact on the world.
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