Railroad king Samuel Polyakov
Samuel Solomonovich Polyakov was an outstanding representative of the new generation of Jewish businessmen who dared to leave the Pale, with its traditional Jewish businesses like tax-collecting, money lending, and wine-selling, in order to embark on new activities - railroad construction, banking etc. Born into a merchant's family in Dubrovno, Byelorussia, Samuel Polyakov started his career as a railroad-building contractor, distillery manager at count I. Tolstoy's estate, and then, having accumulated capital and established useful contacts, started his own railroad construction business. Thanks to his contacts in bureaucratic circles, Polyakov received government subsidies on preferential terms. He acted as the builder, promoter and, finally, owner of the Kursk-Azov, Kozlov-Voronezh-Rostov, Tsarskoye Selo, Orenburg, Fastov and other railroads. Polyakov was rightfully called the railroad king of his time.
In 1870 Polyakov acquired from the heirs of the Counts of Laval a house on the English Embankment rebuilt in 1800-1806 to the design of architect Thomas de Tomon. A center of St. Petersburg cultural life in the first half of the 19th century, the famous house of the Lavals was visited by well-known men of literature and art, foreign diplomats, and members of the royal family. The purchase of this house by the Jew Polyakov shocked many of St. Petersburg aristocrats, but some of them still attended gala luncheons and private parties held by the new owner. By that time, Samuel Polyakov had been awarded for his charities (first of all, for establishment of a classical gymnasium, railroad school in Yelets and a generous donation to the Katkov lyceum) the title of privy counselor and nobleman. His brothers Lazar and Yakov also purchased houses on the English Embankment (No. 12 and 62 respectively).
Samuel Polyakov was not an active Jewish leader like the Gunzburgs but still played a noticeable role in the St. Petersburg community. He made a generous contribution to and directly participated in the construction of the choral synagogue. The Polyakov bench occupied a place of honor in the St. Petersburg synagogue. He also made contributions to other Jewish charities. In 1880 he became a founder of the Society for the Spread of Handicrafts and Agricultural Work among Jews (ORT). His son Daniel continued in his father's path and was also ORT's chairman.