Russian peasants were a completely separate class from the land owners and nobility, many of whom must have considered their underlings less than human. Most peasants were actually serfs – individuals owned by or legally tied to their masters – before The Peasant Reform of 1861. The first major liberal reform in Russia, it freed serfs to marry without consent and to own businesses and property. About 23 million people were affected.
Yet life was still tough for the peasants. They made their living working the land or were employed in unskilled jobs. The 1905 Russian Revolution may have been on the relatively distant horizon at the time these photographs were taken – in the 1860s and ’70s – but the seeds of revolt had surely already been sown by the harsh living conditions in which these people were forced to live.
The character pictured here looks a bit like a butcher – and a scary one at that – or else he brings to mind the popular image of Fagin in Dickens’ Oliver Twist. In actual fact, though, the man was a Mordvin, a member of one of two sub-ethnic groups from the middle Volga area of Russia, in the Mordvinian Republic. Carrick and his partner went on expeditions to places like the Simbirsk province, where he took many pictures of Mordovian and Russian peasants.
Image: William Carrick
Chimney sweeps were much needed at a time when almost all houses were heated by fires in hearths. Large houses may have had more than a dozen rooms with fires burning inside them. Cleaning the chimneys was a filthy job, and, as was tradition in many countries, chimney sweeps hired boys who could climb and forced them to go up the often deadly shafts. Getting stuck up a chimney was the kind of occupational hazard few today can conceive of.
William Carrick, who authored these images, was a Scottish-born Russian who pioneered ethno-photography in Russia. W. R. S. Ralston wrote that “whenever a particularly Russian representative passed underneath their windows they [Carrick and his partner John MacGregor] immediately rushed out and secured his portrait for their gallery.” Thus was provided an irreplaceable record of Russian men and women in the late 1800s.