Stretched across two continents, lies that far-flung spread known in the broadest terms as “Russia,” though it has often been pluralized as “the Russias.” Part European, part Asian, the national anthem memorializes this diverse conglomeration of tribes and ethnicities as “the age-old union of fraternal peoples.”
At its greatest size, Russia and its satellite countries, incorporated as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), covered one-sixth of the earth’s land surface. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the return of many of its republics to an independent status, the Russian Federation still occupies one-eighth of the earth’s habitable land. Russia has always been and continues to be a de facto empire, for its large empty spaces and disparate cultures have always required a centralized government capable of coordinating cultures and ways of life having very little in common.
The Photographic Survey of Prokudin-Gorsky
Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky [Gorskii] (1863-1944), Russian chemist and pioneer in color photography, traveled to over 30 different regions to create his photographic survey of early twentieth-century Russia. Inspired by German photochemistry professor Adolf Miethe, Prokudin-Gorsky preferred Miethe’s three-color photographic process above that of the Lumière brothers’ popular autochrome process.
From 1909-1915 he documented the breadth of Russian culture, history, and modernization using three-color image photography. Russia, the last European country to modernize, was still made up of people groups living as they had for a thousand years. The world was changing, and it was the last gasp before many of these sights would be snuffed out by industrialization. Although his work was officially begun under the auspices of Tsar Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorsky continued until 1918 when he traveled to Norway on assignment and never returned. He eventually settled in France where he died.
Detail Comparison of Pointillism and Autochrome (Click on images below to read full descriptions)
Detail from Parade de cirque. Detail showing pointillism technique. “Instead of painting outlines and shapes with brush strokes and areas of color, pointillism builds up the image from separate colored dots of paint. From a distance, the dots merge to some extent and appear to be areas of shaded tones, but the colors have an extra vibrancy from the juxtaposition of contrasting dots.” Parade de cirque (Circus Sideshow) via Wikimedia Commons. Georges Seurat/Public domain.
Autochrome starch color filters. Color filters made from fine grains of orange, green, and violet-blue starch covering an autochrome glass plate. Simulated with Photoshop. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Magica / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Prokudin-Gorsky’s work stands as a record of the handiwork, arts, and crafts of the Russian peoples of centuries’ long standing. Most of these ways of life were overturned in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the escalation towards mechanization and modernization. As with most countries around the world, industrialization meant mobility, urbanization, and shifting economies, which led to the loss of traditional skills that had been perfected and translated through nuclear and extended families over centuries, from mother to daughter and from father to son.
Prokudin-Gorsky’s work stands as a witness to the high artisanship possessed by common people of the day. It is astounding to think of the skill required to produce many of the textiles, lace work, furnishings, and architectural features that show up in his beautiful photos. It is not even possible to reproduce many of these common items today with the same level of skill — not by machine, at least.
This article serves as an addendum to my husband’s recent magazine article, “The Contrasting Worlds of Tsarist Russia in Natural Color” (page 30) available in Art Chowder magazine (Nov-Dec 2020, Issue 30).
Most of Prokudin-Gorsky’s photographs are now held by the U.S. Library of Congress. In 2000, digitization of his photographs was begun in order to make them available to more people. Most of these photos do not appear in the magazine article. Click on gallery images below to pull up full descriptions.
“The Monastery of St. Nil’ on Stolobnyi Island in Lake Seliger in Tver’ Province, northwest of Moscow, illustrates the fate of church institutions during the course of Russian history. St. Nil (d. 1554) established a small monastic settlement on the island around 1528. In the early 1600s his disciples built what was to become one of the largest, wealthiest, monasteries in the Russian Empire. The monastery was closed by the Soviet regime in 1927, and the structure was used for various secular purposes, including a concentration camp and orphanage. In 1990 the property was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church and is now a functioning monastic community once more.” (Library of Congress)
“The Emir of Bukhara, Alim Khan (1880-1944), poses solemnly for his portrait, taken in 1911 shortly after his accession. As ruler of an autonomous city-state in Islamic Central Asia, the Emir presided over the internal affairs of his emirate as absolute monarch, although since the mid-1800s Bukhara had been a vassal state of the Russian Empire. With the establishment of Soviet power in Bukhara in 1920, the Emir fled to Afghanistan where he died in 1944.” (Library of Congress)
Fruit vendor in Samarkand (Uzbekistan)
“Three young women offer berries to visitors to their izba, a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River, near the town of Kirillov.” (Library of Congress)
The shrine of the Hodegetria in Smolensk, as photographed by Prokudin-Gorsky in 1912. Early color photograph from the Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Collection (Library of Congress)
A steam locomotive with a Schmidt boiler on the railroad between Perm and Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains region in the far eastern part of European Russia. Built at the Bryansk factory, these B-series locomotives were designed for hauling high-speed passenger trains, and, until 1912, were the fastest locomotives on the Russian rail. Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii / Public domain. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii – Night camp by a rock on the bank of the Chusovaia. 1912. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, digital rendering for the Library of Congress by Walter Frankhauser / WalterStudio / Public domain
Father and eldest son stand outside their yurt (house). Bairam-Ali, Turkmenistan.
Gallery in the Church of the Resurrection of Christ. Rostov Velikii. Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii / Public domain
Inside Shir-Dar mosque. Samarkand. Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii / Public domain
Monastery ponds. Novyi Afon [monastery]. Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii / Public domain
At harvest time. (Russian Empire) 1909. Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii / Public domain
Tea factory in Chakva. Chinese foreman Lau-Dzhen-Dzhau. Between 1905 and 1915. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, digital rendering for the Library of Congress by Walter Frankhauser / WalterStudio / Public domain
Hut in the forest, for woodcutters and kuria (coal burning). Small log cabin next to woods with man seated on log nearby. 1912. Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii / Public domain
Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Mozhaisk. Between 1911 and 1912. Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii / Public domain