Early in the 20th century, photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky traveled the length and breadth of Russia’s mighty empire. He immersed himself in an epic task – to document the diverse landscapes and peoples of this huge territory. A century on, in a time of, arguably, rapid homogenization and the near-disappearance of many of the world’s ethnic cultures, his beautiful colorized photos reveal a world that may be lost to time. However, the stories behind these photos are equally compelling.
Historically, the 1800s saw a period of rapid territorial growth in the Russian Empire. In fact, it was considered to be one of the world’s largest superpowers, with the capture of lands along the Pacific coast and borders stretching as far as China and Afghanistan.
With this expansive empire came a plethora of peoples, representing a multitude of different races, cultures and religions. Ethnic Russians, Germans, Poles, Slavs and Asians were all at one time counted as citizens of the Russian Empire. Indeed, the sheer size of the confederation meant that local cultures could flourish – independent from centralized authority.
But that’s not to say that times were idyllic for ordinary people living in the Russian Empire. No, compared to the rest of the world, it was a backward place, with a largely agrarian populace living under a feudal social order.
In fact, most people who worked the land were serfs. They were essentially slaves to the wealthier farmers and landowners, and they could be bought and sold like cattle. Meanwhile, in more far-flung corners of the empire, ethnic minorities increasingly baulked Russian influence.
This was likely exacerbated by the government’s discrimination against the empire’s non-Russian ethnic groups. In 1822, for example, Mikhail Speransky, the Governor-General of Siberia, codified the term “inorodtsy” in Russian law. It was initially intended as a term of classification for non-Russians in the empire, but it quickly took on a more pejorative meaning.
Literally inorodtsy means “of other origin” and, as a more nationalistic sentiment began to ferment in the Russian establishment, it became a derogatory term applied to ethnic groups seen as foreign or alien. Yet in 1907, there would be a startling revelation.
A census taken that year revealed that ethnic Russians were actually a minority in their own empire, unless Ukrainians or Belarusians were included in the definition of who was “Russian.” So after Russia’s military defeat by the Japanese, the establishment was increasingly mistrustful of the various ethnicities in the empire.
This was the world that St. Petersburg-born Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky encountered as he explored the vast Russian Empire during the 1910s. Having come from an aristocratic background and studied photography in Berlin, he used his skill to win national recognition for his art.
Indeed, his famous portrait of Leo Tolstoy gained him an audience with non other than Tsar Nicholas II. In fact, Prokudin-Gorsky explained his ambitions to the royal family, and the tsar commissioned him to journey for 10 years, taking 10,000 pictures of the royal empire.
But money wasn’t the only thing that came with the monarch’s support. Tsar Nicholas also granted Prokudin-Gorsky privileged access to places otherwise off limits to citizens. Crucially, the photographer was also given a permit that allowed him to side-step state bureaucracy.
So, with the intention of educating future generations about the history and diversity of the Russian Empire, Prokudin-Gorsky set off in a railroad car that had been modified to function as a darkroom. Traversing both eastern Europe and central Asia, he set about what would become his life’s work.
What he captured is, to modern eyes, pretty stunning. A kaleidoscope of cultures, practices and lifestyles, so disparate as to render the notion of their unity as citizens of the Russian Empire as arbitrary. Faces of varying race and ethnicity stare back at the camera, with people clothed in a range of distinctive traditional dress.
Some photographs in Prokudin-Gorsky’s collection show the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. These itinerant cultures, such as the Kirghiz, Kazakhs and Uzbeks, would traverse their homelands, following the seasonal drift of food and resources.
Other images in his work document the people of Dagestan, a multiethnic area that included such cultures as the Avars, Noghay, Tabasarans, Kumuk and the Lezgi. Yet perhaps the most dizzyingly diverse area that Prokudin-Gorsky encountered on his travels was the Uzbek city of Samarkand.
This important center of trade along the Silk Road could be described as the archetypal cultural melting pot. Home to Russians, Tajiks, Jews, Uzbeks, Persians and Arabs, it was part of the Bukhara region and ruled over by the Emir Alim Khan in the latter part of the 19th century. However, with revolution in the air, kingships like these were not to last.
When the Communist revolution hit in 1917, the new Soviet government was initially keen to grant ethnic minorities autonomy and roll back the process of “Russification” that had been initiated in the last decades of the empire. They started by dropping the term inorodtsy from state discourse.
They then gave increased self-determination to regions populated by largely non-Russians, giving the elites of those areas important administrative roles within the local Soviet government. Furthermore, in the 12th Party Congress of 1923, Stalin declared that Russian Chauvinism – the dominance of Russia over the smaller Soviet republics – was a greater threat to the Soviet Union than local nationalism.
However, attempts to assimilate regional cultures into the Soviet agenda were not always successful and were sometimes even disastrous. For example, when state authorities demarcated the Islamic veil as a symbol of oppression, their action served only to harden the local antipathy towards the Soviets, who were thought to be stifling Uzbek culture.
Meanwhile, Prokudin-Gorsky had been offered a high-ranking role as a professor by the Soviets, but in 1918 he left Russia altogether. In fact, he never returned to his homeland, dying in Paris during the last months of the Second World War. And though he did not complete the 10,000-print project, he left behind some 3,500 images of Russia’s pre-revolutionary empire in all of its variety.
In 1948 the U.S. Library of Congress purchased from Prokudin-Gorsky’s sons 2,607 distinct images, including glass negatives and prints, and later presented them to the public in an exhibition entitled “The Empire That Was Russia.” Now, the whole collection is available to view online for free, meaning anyone can access this window into a different, perhaps more interesting world.