Burkhard Christoph von Munnich

Portrait of Burkhard Christoph von Munnich

Military engineer, statesman
Born: Neuenhuntorf, Duchy of Oldenburg (Berne, Germany) - 9 May 1683
Died: Dorpat, Livonia (Tartu, Estonia) - 16 October 1767

A military engineer who became one of the most prominent and influential Russian statesmen of his age, Burkhard Christoph von Munnich not only oversaw several major engineering and construction projects in St. Petersburg, but also instigated fundamental reforms of the Russian military, commanded Russian forces against the Turks in Crimea.

Von Munnich came to St. Petersburg in 1721, having served in the armies of France, Hesse-Darmstadt, and Saxony. He rapidly became involved in the development of the city's shipping infrastructure, overseeing the completion of the Ladoga Canal and the construction of the Baltic ports. It was also Munnich who persuaded Peter the Great to abandon his plans for an official residence at Strelna in favour of Peterhof, due to the engineering difficulties of creating the Tsar's desired grand fountain ensembles. After Peter's death, it was von Munnich that took command of his ambitious engineering and construction schemes, while the imperial court transferred to Moscow.

Construction of the Ladoga Canal,  east of St Petersburg, Russia
Construction of the Ladoga Canal
by Alexander Moravov

Becoming governor of St. Petersburg in 1727, and of the provinces of Ingria, Karelia, and Finland the following year, he oversaw the further development of St. Petersburg, Kronstadt and Vyborg, including the construction of stone towers at the Peter and Paul Fortress and the completion of the Twelve Colleges. His work on the Ladoga Canal gave Petersburgers access to reasonably priced produce from Russia's central provinces, while under his administration regular shipping began between St. Petersburg and other European cities, including regular packet-boat services for passengers and mail between Kronstadt, Lubeck and Gdansk. He was also noted for organizing grand public celebrations, the most famous of which was the firework display he staged to mark the coronation of Empress Anna Ioannovna.

The new empress returned the court to St. Petersburg, and awarded Munnich the rank of General Field-marshal, making him president of the Military College (the Ministry of Defence). It was in this role that he modernized and improved the conditions of the Russian Army, introducing garrison hospitals and schools, changing the table of ranks, establishing the first Cadets College, founding the famous Izmailovskiy Horse Guards regiment, and improving the army's dire financial situation.

Historic sluice of the 18th century Staroladozhskiy Canal in Schlisselburg, east of St Petersburg, Russia
Historic sluice of the 18th century Staroladozhskiy Canal

In 1734, von Munnich was dispatched by Ernst von Biron, the empress's favourite, to command the Siege of Gdansk during the War of the Polish Succession. He succeeded in capturing the city, but was criticized at court for how long the siege lasted and the fact that he allowed Stanislaw Leszczynski, the French-supported claimant, to escape from the city. Keen for further military success to improve his standing at court, von Munnich then took command of the Russian forces in Crimea in the Russo-Turkish War of 1735-1739. Despite his tactical skill and bravery, Munnich was beset year after year by epidemics that decimated his troops. His finest hour was at the Battle of Stavuchany in 1739, but soon after Russia's ally Austria withdrew from the war, and the Russians were obliged to settle for the Trety of Belgrade, having made minimal territorial gains, but having the first significant Russian military victory against the Ottoman Empire.

Upon the death of Anna Ioannovna, von Biron became regent to the young Ivan VI. However, he was massively unpopular with the Russian nobility, and it was von Munnich who in November 1740 arranged for him to be arrested and replaced by Ivan's mother, Anna Leopoldovna. When Empress Elizabeth seized the throne the following year, von Munnich found himself under arrest and accused of treason, for which he was exiled to Siberia. He spent 20 years in the remote village of Pelym (Sverdlovsk Oblast), teaching local children, growing vegetables, and sending occasional letters to the capital asking to be appointed governor of Siberia.

On the death of Elizabeth, and at the age of 78, he was recalled to St. Petersburg and returned all his former titles and rewards. Under Catherine the Great, he was appointed governor-general in charge of the Kronstadt, Revel, and Baltic Ports, and the Ladoga Canal. He was also granted the governorship of Siberia, although he remained in the capital. He died in October 1767 in Tartu, and was buried at his estates nearby. Honouring his immense achievements as a civil and military leader, Empress Catherine said of von Munnich: "Not a son of Russia, he became one of her fathers".