top of page

The man who sold caviar to the world

Ioannis Varvakis - A pirate that became national benefactor

Ηe is an internationally famous figure who started as a pirate, then found himself protected by Catherine the Great in Russia and very quickly became rich in the Caspian Sea. He is the man who made caviar fashionable. He was a multifaceted personality of pre-revolutionary Hellenism, who gave his soul and money for Greece and the Greek revolution when it broke out. In his long journey he went from selfishness to vast generosity.

Ηis story could well be the subject matter of an action-packed novel. He was the incarnation of what one would call “a national benefactor”, as the term has been understood through the ages.

He began as a shipowner and pirate and ended up as a nobleman in Czarist Russia. Previously, he had distinguished himself during the Orlov events (“Orlofika” in Greek) but also for his financial support towards the Greek struggle for independence in 1821. Though penniless and wanted by the Ottomans, he would eventually succeed on a grand scale in Czarist Russia by creating a vast empire, the result of his intelligence, persistence and, above all, his most famous discovery: caviar.

This is the story of Ioannis Varvakis.

Ioannis Leontis, his real name, was born in 1750 on the island of Psara and died on January 12th, 1825 in Zakynthos.

His father Andreas Leontis owned a ship and earned a living from maritime transportation between the Aegean islands.

Ioannis’s mother was Maria Morou. His name derives from birds of prey that the inhabitants of Psara call “varvakia”. His peers, who noticed his penetrating gaze and his intense character, called him “varvaki”. It seems that he warmed up to this nickname and ended up keeping it, until it became the name under which he earned a placed in history.

From trade to piracy and to the Russian-Turkish War

Though semi-literate and practically self-taught, he was destined to show exceptional seafaring abilities, bravery in the face of danger and fortitude whenever he had to endure hardship and deprivation. Still a boy, he worked on his father’s ship as a deck-hand, but later his father made him a shareholder in his boat. At the age of 17, Varvakis built his first lugger.

Initially, he engaged in trade, but then turned to piracy, as was the fate of most of the Psara islanders in the seafaring environment of the time.

After the Russian-Turkish War broke out, Varvakis –a revolutionary to the core– took part in a number of naval operations and battles throughout its duration (1768–1774). He volunteered as an artillery commander and fought with the army of Catherine II against the Ottoman Empire.

He did not hesitate to spend his entire fortune equipping his ships with canons and crews for the purpose of fighting the Ottomans. Varvakis travelled initially to Mykonos and then to the southern shores of the Peloponnese in early March 1770 looking for the Russian fleet. From there, he went on to Koroni where he found the fleet’s commander, Alexi Orlov, who proceeded to ask for his help. Help was indeed provided, to extraordinary effect. From there, Varvakis sailed to Psara to track down the Turkish fleet and give its coordinates to the Russians. Having found the Turks opposite Chios, he informed the Russians whose ships proceeded to the area and threw anchor.

On the night of June 26th, 1770, Varvakis’s ship took part in the operation to set ablaze the Ottoman fleet in the bay to Çeşme. Having devised a daredevil plan, he turned his own ship into a fireship and maneuvered it right next to a large Turkish vessel, possibly the fleet’s flagship, lit the torch himself and blew it out of the water. This was an achievement of historic significance, which led to the decimation of the Turkish fleet, whose vessels were in particularly close formation.

Russian sailors rushed to retrieve Varvakis who was injured. Admiral Alexis Orlov, the operation’s chief officer, mentioned Varvakis’s heroic act in an official report to Empress Catherine II, who by decree made him First Lieutenant of the Russian Army and issued an order that he be assisted in the purchase of a ship similar to the one destroyed in the operation.

When the war ended through the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji on July 21st, 1774, Varvakis returned to Psara. Though wanted by the Ottomans, he traveled to Constantinople, indifferent to the hostility towards him at every stage of his journey. There, the Ottomans arrested him as he negotiated the sale of a three-masted boat and confiscated his property. However, the plenipotentiary ambassador of Russia at the Ottoman Empire, Prince Nikolai Vasilyeich Repnin, a signatory of the Kuchuk-Kainarji treaty, secured bribes for the release of Varvakis from the Yedi Koule prison. Varvakis was now free but had lost everything. His toils throughout the long years had come to nothing.

A penniless Greek at the Russian royal court

It was then, whilst in a state of despair, that he left his wife and daughter in Psara and set out for St. Petersburgh to mend his life. Yet, an extraordinary turn of events awaited him there.

Varvakis, now penniless, exhausted and wearing borrowed clothes and shoes, made his way to a coffee shop. There, he narrated his turbulent life to a complete stranger, who urged him to seek an audience with Catherine the Great.

In Varvakis’s own words: “Persuaded though I was, I set out devoid of all expectation and hope, but, alas, upon pronouncing my name, was ushered in by the aide-de-camp. And, without delay, I am ordered to present myself to the Empress. I enter, and lo and behold, what do I see? The plain gentleman, with whom only yesterday I had become acquainted at the coffee shop, clad in a magnificent uniform and adorned with a multitude of metals, presently accompanying the Empress. I cower but am ordered to speak my mind freely. I recount everything, laying bare the same despair that had seized me in the coffee shop. But I am comforted and sent off, accompanied by hope and promise. The next day I receive 800 gold rubles for my immediate needs, along with a document allowing me to fish in the Caspian Sea unburdened of any official levy. Upon learning that the coffee shop patron was the mighty Grigory Potemkin [the prime minister], I made immediate haste. I returned my borrowed garments and shoes, purchased new ones along with fishing appurtenances and embarked upon my journey to Astrachan”.

The right to fish in the Caspian Sea without paying taxes was a golden opportunity for Varvakis to remake his fortune. An entire vista of time and space opened up before him, allowing him to make the best of his business plans.

In Astrachan, instead of going into fishing, he initially bought a distillery to produce raki, which brought in substantial profits. But he soon realized that fishing was much more profitable than alcoholic beverages.

And, indeed, as a native of the sea from an early age, but also because of his skill in building big advanced vessels, Varvakis was the unquestionable master of the game compared to the Russian fishermen on the shores. In the northern Caspian, “operation fishing” brought in wealth and a fleet of ten transport vessels. But what made him even richer was the caviar business.

Bringing caviar to the world

One day, as Varvakis was strolling along the banks of the Volga, he noticed a muzhik eating a black substance that he had never seen before. When he approached him to ask what it was, the muzhik responded by saying “Ikra”, which in Russian means caviar, and offered him some to try. Varvakis was thrilled and asked of its origins. It was now only a matter of time.

There was, however, one problem. This singular delicacy would not keep long enough to travel far in the day’s wooden boxes. So Varvakis brought in the experts and soon found a way to preserve it without compromising its taste.

Now that the solution had been found, Varvakis would become a tycoon who turned caviar into an international trend and the first person to export it in preserved form.

Up until 1788, his business employed more than three thousand workers for processing and packaging.

Though slaves were common at the time, Varvakis was adamantly against it and regarded it as inhuman.

Gradually, his reputation spread and in 1789 Ioannis Varvakis was given permanent Russian citizenship becoming Ivan Andreevich Varvatsi. The privileges of his citizenship were shared by his family milieu, which was in fact extended: two children born in Psara from his first marriage and three born in Astrachan to his second wife. He married a third time but had no more children.

From 1815 he settled permanently with his family in Tangarok, where he moved all his assets so as to be near Odessa, the center of the Society of Friends (“Philikí Etaireía” in Greek), of which he was a leading figure and funder. In fact, in the Society’s various documents, he is the only one who appears under his real name.

His charitable activity had intensified turning him into a major benefactor: he donated part of his vast wealth to hospitals, bridge and canal construction in Russia and funded the construction of a school in Sinasos (Mustafapasa, Turkey), the old town of Nazianzus, home of Saint Gregory the Theologian. For this he was decorated by the Czar and was granted a title of nobility through the surname Komninos Varvakis. At Tangarok he built a school, paid for the construction of the Varvakis Baths and, in 1809, the famous Varvakis Canal of Astrachan, a monumental project.

Then came the years of the Greek Revolution.

Initially, Varvakis helped in various ways the Greek communities in Russia and personally paid for the expenses of arming anyone fighting under Alexandros Ypsilantis. Furthermore, through the Patriarchate, he secured ransom for the release of many Greek prisoners.

Above all, Varvakis contributed to the struggle of his compatriots in Psara by sending food and other supplies. After the destruction of Psara in 1824, he settled in Greece so that he could provide more immediate help. Though at an advanced age, he nevertheless wanted to witness firsthand the creation of the New Greek nation.

In Nafplion, the official seat of the provisional revolutionary government, he presented himself to Parliament on October 27th 1824 as the nation’s fate hung in the balance. He offered to fund the construction of a central school in Argos and to deposit 300,000 rubles in the Royal Treasury of Moscow for its expenses and the indefinite payment of salaries for its teachers.

It is no coincidence that during his stay in Nafplion, a vote in Parliament declared him “great benefactor of the Nation”. Besides, in his will –which his heirs tried unsuccessfully to contest– Varvakis left the greater part of his wealth, at the time in a Russian bank, to the Greek state for charitable causes.

It is through a donation of his that the Varvakeion Lyceum was built near what is today Athinas street. This was founded in 1857 and operated as a Practical Lyceum that was dedicated almost exclusively to the study of the positive sciences. It was the country’s only Lyceum of its kind for many years. The old building was destroyed during the December events in 1944 but today the famous “Varvakeio School” operates as a high school in a new building in Paleo Psychiko, Athens.

It is through his funds that the closed market of Athinas, also known as the Varvakeio Market, was built in 1886.

Yet this palpable love for Greece would prove to be fatal to Ioannis Varvakis during his trip to the country in 1824. A few weeks after being named “national benefactor”, he suddenly fell ill and departed for the quarantine station in Zakynthos. He arrived on December 21st 1824 but the infectious disease that had struck him overcame him and he died on January 12th 1825.

During a parliamentary session on February 26th 1825, a vote and decree led to the declaration of a period of national mourning.

It was a just and honorary recognition of the service of this charismatic personality that had helped the Greek state in its first steps towards nationhood.


bottom of page