29 May 2017
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SMIRNOV IAKOV IVANOVICH

IAKOV IVANOVICH SMIRNOV, also known in Britain as James Smirnove, was born in a priest’s family in Kharkov in 1754.

After studies in Kharkov and England he was posted as the priest of the Russian Embassy Church in London in 1780 and remained in this position until 1837, when he retired due to poor health. Besides his duties as priest, he was involved in almost all the activities of the Embassy: he took care of the Russian students studying in Britain and even paid their fees, helped the Ambassador to compile the diplomatic dispatches. He made many contacts in the British ruling circles, convincing them to be more friendly towards Russia.

Iakov Smirnov was a true polymath, had a deep interest in science and agriculture and made sure the British achievements were known in Russia. He made sure the Russian Academy of Sciences was subscribed to new British scientific works and arranged for William Herschel's telescope to be shipped to St. Petersburg.

As the Russian Emperor Paul I struck an alliance with France, the relations with Britain worsened. In 1800 Smirnov was appointed as Russian Charge d’Affaires, as the only member of Embassy staff left in London after the departure of the previous Charge d’Affaires Lizakevich, and served in this capacity until 1801. It was a unique case in Russian diplomatic history. Between 1807 and 1812, while state of war was declared between Russia and Britain, he took care of the Russian community in London and of the Embassy assets and papers, once again acting as Russia's diplomatic representative in London. After Napoleon's invasion in summer 1812 Russia and UK were allies again. But it was only in December that year when Smirnov transferred the keys of the Embassy to the new Ambassador, Prince Lieven, whose descendants now live in London and are prominent scholars of Russia.

Iakov Smirnov, noted by contemporaries for devotion to Russia and deep respect for England, received many awards for his work. He was ennobled in 1804 (as no portrait of Smirnov survives, this article is illustrated with his coat of arms), was awarded Russian orders of St. Anne and St. John of Jerusalem, as well as a special cross for clergy in memory of the 1812 War and a diamond ring as gift of Emperor Alexander I. He retired due to poor health in 1837 and died in 1840. The Christian cross on his gravestone in Kensal Green is that used in the Order of St. Anne. The monument was restored in 2012 with donation of the Russian Embassy and individual contributions from Embassy staff and Russian community.