Imperial Russia in colour: peasants and elites

In the early 1900s, Russian photographer Sergei Produkin-Gorskii decided to take a photographic survey of the Russian Empire and its neighbouring countries. It was an absurdly ambitious scheme which saw him travel thousands of miles over the course of five years, but he managed to get the support of Tsar Nicholas II, who gave him the necessary permits and a special railway carriage fitted out with a dark room. The result was a vivid collection of over 3,000 colour photographs depicting a lost world. The photographs would be interesting enough in black and white, but the fact that they are in colour makes them truly fascinating. However often we remind ourselves that life in the past was lived in colour just as now, it’s very hard to actually internalise that. This is why these photographs are so incredible; it is difficult to believe that we are actually looking back 100 years in time, when many of the landscape shots look as if they could have been taken just yesterday. These images help us to re-imagine the past.

 

Produkin-Gorskii employed the most advanced techniques available in order to create this wonderful collection. He used a special camera to capture three black and white images in quick succession, using red, green and blue filters which allowed the images to later be recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to create near true colour photographs. Thanks to the American Library of Congress, which purchased the glass slides in 1945, thousands of the images are freely available online. I have picked out around a hundred of the best images and sorted them into three different categories, each of which will be the subject of a different post. The theme of this post is ‘peasants and elites’. I have aimed to highlight the rigid social hierarchy of late imperial Russia where peasants lived in rural squalour doing back-breaking work for their feudal masters, whilst the Orthodox church with its gilded buildings was steeped in money and privilege, and the high nobility were dancing the latest Austrian waltzes in their fantastically opulent palaces.
Bashkir woman in folk costume (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Bashkir woman in folk costume (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Isfandiyar, the penultimate Khan of the Russian Protectorate of Khiva (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Isfandiyar, the penultimate Khan of the Russian Protectorate of Khiva (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
At harvest time (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
At harvest time (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Monument to Emperor Peter the Great in Lodeinoe Pole (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Monument to Emperor Peter the Great in Lodeinoe Pole (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Boy leaning against a wooden gate at sunset (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Boy leaning against a wooden gate at sunset (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Peasant girls with bowls of fruit, in a rural area along the Sheksna river (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Peasant girls with bowls of fruit, in a rural area along the Sheksna river (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
The Kharitonov Palace in Ektarinenburg, late 18th century (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
The Kharitonov Palace in Ektarinenburg, late 18th century (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Woman breaking flax, Perm province (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Woman breaking flax, Perm province (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Prisoners in shackles (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Prisoners in shackles (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Evgeniev spring at Borzhom, a resort town in present-day Georgia (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Evgeniev spring at Borzhom, a resort town in present-day Georgia (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Tajik man, Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Tajik man, Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Monastery of St. Nil, Lake Seliger, Tver Province (Produkin -Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Monastery of St. Nil, Lake Seliger, Tver Province (Produkin -Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Miraculous icon in the church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, Smolensk (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Miraculous icon in the church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, Smolensk (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Settler family in settlement of Grafovka (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Settler family in settlement of Grafovka (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Palace in the village of Borodino (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Palace in the village of Borodino (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Orphans in the snow (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Orphans in the snow (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Leo Tolstoy in 1908 (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Leo Tolstoy in 1908 (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Harvest time (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Harvest time (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Mohammed Alim Khan, the last Emir of Bukhara (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Mohammed Alim Khan, the last Emir of Bukhara (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Shepherd in Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Shepherd in Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

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