Since its inception, Kazan University has thrived in its role as a pioneer, serving as the easternmost university of the Russian Empire and as the birthplace of many original Russian scientific schools.
Kazan University owes its founding to Emperor Alexander I, who since the beginning of his reign was expected to make great achievements. Upon coming to the throne, Alexander I realized that the once immaculate order of the estate society was being disrupted by the emergence of commoners as a social force. It was thus necessary to launch a series of reforms that would support the principle of social mobility and provide citizens of the Russian Empire the opportunity to choose their own destiny. Thus, the focus would be on achievements and ranks, not on the careers of one’s parents. As a training apparatus for the mind, education served as a lever that could be used to dramatically turn one’s life around.
Kazan University opened in 1804 on the basis of a gymnasium whose pupils became university students upon graduation. At the time, a specific charter for the university was established. The values enshrined in it were the same as those of Moscow and Kharkov University.
The universities declared themselves to be special schools dedicated to preparing youth to serve the state.
Alexander I’s outward liberalism does not contradict itself here, as the priority was to create a source of manpower. The concept of a “student republic” that had developed in Europe since the 11th century did not correspond to the state of things in the Russian Empire.
Still, there was still some room for freedom and originality at Kazan University, for several reasons. The special position of the empire’s “most eastern” university meant that the strict implementation of reforms eroded when confronted with the reality of multinational Kazan and its class barriers. Second, Kazan University had the smallest number of scholars from abroad. While Moscow University students grumbled about the strict German instructors, who demanded cramming and rote memorization, Kazan teachers developed their own, unique teaching programs and paid the way for the development of their own scientific schools.
The rector of Kazan Imperial University had the important mission of creating a solid foundation that would support the newborn higher education system. For many years, the university’s crown jewel was its Eastern Department, which served as the foundation for the influential Institute of Oriental Studies. With its help, Kazan became a center of cultural communication and retained this position for well over a century. Today, the value of experts on Eastern cultures is again on the rise, largely thanks to the support of a branch of the Confucius Institute.
Eastern Studies was not the only area of scientific progress among the scholars of Kazan University, though. During the mid- to late-19th century, Kazan University served as the home to emerging physics, mathematics, and philological schools as well as its first scholarly dynasties, including the Adamyuk doctors, the Kovalevsky orientalists, and the Bekhterev chemists.
Nikolai Lobachevsky, the first graduate of Kazan Federal University, who in 1827 was elected its rector, laid the groundwork for this progress. The growth of his scientific and public career can be directly attributed to Kazan University. He expressed his gratitude in the best of ways, laying a foundation for the university’s best students to achieve similar success.
Lobachevsky devoted many sleepless nights to study of geometry while he spent his days tending to administrative matters, promoting relationships between different departments, reading lectures to the public, raising funds for the construction of new buildings, and expanding the university library.
The main building of the university, the central image of Kazan Federal University, owes its design to Lobachevsky. Construction was carried out under the close supervision of the rector and eventually came to embody its present image of a temple of science. Architect Peter Pyatnitsky remade the building in the spirit of Russian classicism. His work earned high praise from the university administration, which concluded that the building was faithful to how such an imperial institution should look.
The architect faced great challenges in reworking the extended façade of the building. Its proportions almost prevented his ability to retain its austerity and classical appearance. Pyatnitsky appealed for help to Nikolai Lobacehvsky, who recalculated the distance between the columns and redrew their proportions. By slightly pulling the columns downward and making them more barrel-shaped, Lobachevsky preserved the harmony of the façade. Thus, at least one of the great scholar’s geometric discoveries was recognized during his lifetime, whereas most became known only a century later.