Biography of Semyon Efimovich Desnitsky
Letter from Simeon Desnitzky and Ivan Tretjakoff, 1765
Semyon Efimovich Desnitsky graduated from the University of Glasgow with an MA in 1765 and an LLD in 1767 before becoming Professor of Russian Law at the University of Moscow (1767-87).
Desnitsky was born in 1740 in Nizhyn, in modern-day Ukraine, the second son of a meschanin, a member of the petty bourgeoisie. Before coming to Glasgow, Desnitsky was educated at the seminary attached to the Troitsko-Sergievskoy monastery, the secondary school attached to Moscow University, and finally at Moscow University (founded in 1755). Together with his fellow colleague, Ivan Andreyevich Tretyakov, he was chosen and sponsored by Empress Elizabeth II to complete his studies abroad. Desnitsky and Tretyakov became the first students to study in Britain.
They attended the classes of Adam Smith, the pre-eminent economist and philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, who held the chair of Moral Philosophy, and those of Smith’s former student and colleague, John Millar, Professor of Law at the University of Glasgow (1761-1801) and one of the fathers of modern sociology and a pioneer of political science.
In 1767, Desnitsky was involved in a violent altercation involving Professor John Anderson over his rejected request to sit in choir seats, for which he wrote a letter of apology. Despite this altercation and continued financial hardships, Desnitsky successfully completed his MA in 1765 and was awarded an LLD in 1767.
Returning to Russia as Professor of Russian Law at the University of Moscow (1767-87), one of the first Russians to hold the chair of law at Russia’s first University, Desnitsky was the first academic to deliver his lectures in Russian language rather than in Latin. Through such lectures, Desnitsky became a highly influential figure in eighteenth century Russia, introducing ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment to Russian society, based on Adam Smith’s ideas and concept of a civil society, and in doing so faced difficulties with the secular and ecclesiastical authorities.
Desnitsky became known as an outstanding Russian social and political theorist, and has been recognised as "the father of Russian jurisprudence."