In 1912, Maillart began working on the first of many lucrative Russian contracts. At the time, engineering work in his native Switzerland was scarce and he sought contracts in countries where industrialisation was increasing. Funding for the projects was provided by Swiss banks, which were keen to invest in countries that were industrially underdeveloped at the time. Maillart was to spend two years travelling between the European offices of his company, Maillart & Cie, and various locations in Russia before settling there.
Maillart was first employed in Russia as a subcontractor to his erstwhile classmate and Russian promoter Benjamin Person (1867-1937). They worked on a refrigerated warehouse
(destroyed 2001) for Gerhard & Hey AG in St Petersburg, to be constructed using the patented beamless flat slab
method Maillart had used in many Swiss buildings.
He arrived in the city on 15th April 1912, and spent six days on site visits and calculations before returning to Switzerland. He was back again in July to oversee the start of construction. Dissatisfied with the local workforce, he put one of his Swiss engineers in charge. Arrays of huge cooling elements, similar to those found on modern domestic freezers but on a much larger scale, were attached to the warehouse ceiling — the beamless slab posing no obstruction to their installation.
The success of the warehouse soon led to commissions for other industrial buildings. In 1912, Maillart won building contracts in Riga (now in Latvia), and Kharkov and Kiev (both now in Ukraine). However, despite his best efforts, he failed to win contracts for bridge design or construction.
Like many of his contemporaries, Maillart wasn't particularly knowledgeable about the political climate around him. However, politics aside, the pace of economic development in Europe and Russia at the time was astonishing and attracting many international investors. Contractors were expected to work collaboratively and to complete projects swiftly. This was a new way of working for Maillart but one that suited his talent for organising complicated site logistics.
The year 1914 was a busy one for him. In February, his wife Maria noted that he had made his first "Russian Million" Swiss Francs (about £3m today). As well as undertaking contracts in France and Spain, he built two more warehouses in St Petersburg and worked in joint venture with a German contractor to construct a rubber tyre factory in Riga. The Fabrik Prowodnik (Explorer Factory, partly destroyed by fire in 1930) was financed by a Russian-French company.
In July that year, the Maillarts took a family holiday in Edinburg (now called Dzintari) on the Baltic Sea coast close to Riga — a kind of precursor to living in Russia — and on 1st October 1914, they moved into a rented apartment in Riga. The fact that World War I had begun, and Germany had declared war on Russia in August, seems to have had little immediate impact on them.
Maillart and Maria travelled to Moscow in January 1915, where Maillart was seeking further contracts. The three children remained in Riga with their Swiss governess. However, as the war progressed it wasn't safe in Riga and the family spent the summer 40km west of St Petersburg, in Person's summer house. By July, Maillart was working on the construction of 12 small bridges for the electric railway line between St Petersburg and Oranienbaum (Lomonosov), about 53km to the west.
Russian losses in the fighting increased and, on 5th September 1915, Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918) took command of the army. Russia's industrial activities were moved eastwards, away from the German advance. Maillart was commissioned to construct a large electrical equipment factory (destroyed in World War II) in Kharkov to replace one in Riga. He was perhaps helped to win the bid by the Swiss manager of the Russian General Electric Company — Kharkov had a large Swiss community.
Meanwhile, Maillart was anxious to secure a good education for his elder son, Edmond, then 13 years old. In September 1915, Edmond was sent back to Switzerland to attend Glarisegg boys' boarding school in Steckborn on Bodensee (Lake Constance). In October the rest of the family moved to Kharkov, renting a large apartment at Hospitalnaya 22, near a park in the centre of the city.
Maillart's office in Riga closed and he opened another in Kharkov to design the new factory complex, bringing in trusted Swiss engineers to assist him. By June 1916, his staff included Richard Wyss from the Riga office, and Hans Bircher, Ernst Eigenheer, Karl Lehr, Max von Müller and Victor Tchiffely from Switzerland.
By the summer of 1916, Maillart had amassed a considerable fortune in Russia. He was also spending more time with his wife and two younger children. But the happiness of his home life was overshadowed by Maria's worsening abdominal illness. In January and February 1916, she spent three weeks unsuccessfully pursuing a cure at the thermal spa of Kislovodsk, in the north Caucasus.
Maillart rented a summer house 8km from Kharkov, and on 1st August the household held a large party there to celebrate Swiss National Day. Only a week later, Maria was admitted to hospital in Kharkov for a gall bladder operation. She did not recover, and early in the morning of 21st, Maillart had to tell Marie Claire and René that their mother had died. He sent a telegram to his family in Switzerland and later wrote a long and unusually tender letter to Edmond.
Maria's funeral was held on 22nd August, at a Roman Catholic church in Kharkov (probably the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), where she was buried. Maillart was a widower at just 44 years old.
At the Kharkov factory site, the concrete work had been completed in mid August, and by October, the buildings were being commissioned. The factory opened on 1st November 1916. Maillart was also involved with the construction of a steel mill in Kamenskoe (Dneprodzherzhinsk), some 240km to the south of Kharkov, for the Russian government.
During the winter of 1916, Maillart and his children moved to another apartment, on Torgovaya Square (now Rozy Lyuksemburh Square). With them were Eva, a friend and refugee from Riga, their Russian cook Masha and Margherite Wicky (d.1968). Margherite, daughter of his sister Rosa (1865-1950), was a Red Cross nurse newly arrived from Switzerland. Part of the apartment was used as an office as Maillart's workload had begun to dwindle as the war proceeded and he was reluctantly reducing his workforce.
Making what would turn out to be a poor decision, and showing his lack of awareness of the realities of the encroaching warfare, Maillart then invested most of his fortune in the anthracite coal mines of the Donets region (south-east Ukraine). He kept only a small quantity of gold and jewels as portable capital. It's not clear whether he had repaid any of the Swiss financing at this point. Perhaps he planned to do so on his return to Switzerland.
In March 1917, the Tsar abdicated, following acute food shortages and rioting in Petrograd (St Petersburg's name from August 1914). Like many people in his community, Maillart merely waited for stability to be restored in the wake of the expected transition from monarchy to democracy. In the summer, he and the children spent a long holiday on the Black Sea coast at Feodosiya in Crimea.
On their return to Kharkov, life changed. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924), had deposed Petrograd's government by force on 7th November (25th October in the Julian calendar). Their action marked the beginning of five years' civil war, which would culminate in 1922 with the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
In 1917 Kharkov was at the centre of a fierce power struggle between Russians and Germans, food was in short supply and violence ever-present. The Maillarts frequently witnessed people being shot in the street. As Switzerland had taken a position of neutrality, the family's Swiss nationality saved their lives.
By 1918, Kharkov was under German control. Maillart and Tchiffely, his remaining Swiss engineer, carried on working at the factory site in comparative safety. When World War I ended with the armistice on 11th November 1918, the Germans withdrew and the Bolsheviks began to advance on the city.
Middle-class prosperous Maillart and his peers represented everything Lenin's followers denounced: capitalism, democracy, religious ideology and individuality. Private assets were being nationalised and Maillart must have realised that his investment in the Donets mines was lost and, far worse, that his own and his family's lives were at risk.
On 30th December 1918, after a tip-off by a loyal foreman at the factory site, Maillart, Marie Claire, René and Margherite fled the apartment with three small pieces of luggage, one of which was a briefcase containing details of Maillart's Russian works.
After a hazardous journey by train and steamer, they arrived in Odessa on 10th January 1919, almost penniless. They lodged in a single room at a squalid hotel, and pressed the Swiss Consulate to grant them passage out of the country. Maillart succumbed to pneumonia and for a few days it seemed his life was in danger.
On 3rd February, with permission to leave, they made their way to the harbour, where Maillart's briefcase was stolen. They travelled on a steamer requisitioned by the French Navy, stopping at Constantinople (Istanbul) in Turkey long enough to visit Hagia Sophia (then a mosque) before disembarking at Thessalonica in Greece.
Maillart, his children and his niece stayed a month in Thessalonica with a Swiss industrialist who kindly looked after them. On 14th March 1919, they boarded an Italian steamer bound for Naples, docking a week later. From there they travelled third class by train north-west to Domodossola, then west to Geneva. Maillart insisted they visited St Peter's Basilica in Rome on the way.
When the group finally arrived, dishevelled and dirty, in Geneva on 25th March 1919, Maillart's mother Bertha, his sister Rosa, brother Paul and 16 year old son Edmond were waiting to welcome them home. Maillart had escaped Russia with his life, and returned to his homeland without the fortune he had amassed there. Now he had to re-establish his reputation and his business.
main reference RM
1910 portrait of Robert Maillart
copyright ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv