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.