Century-Old Historical Photos Show The Russian Empire In Its Final Days

Have A Bite Of Borscht

In 1909, three peasant women offer plates of traditional dishes to the crown’s photographer, Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky. The women lived north of Moscow, in a village called Kirillov along the Sheksna River. Many may still picture the Russia of the Soviet Era, but Prokudin-Gorsky’s photos from the waning days of the empire tell a different story.

Get Off My Field

Prokudin-Gorsky was one of the earliest adopters of color photograph technology. With Czar Nicholas II’s blessing, he began traveling the empire in order to document its diverse lands and people. The Czar not only approved of the project, but even gave Prokudin-Gorsky a railroad car that had been fitted with a state of the art dark room, and Prokudin-Gorsky would continue to criss-cross the empire for six years. This photo was taken in Chakva, Georgia, depicting female workers harvesting tea.

Cheers To The Governor

In the depths of Central Asia, in the area that falls within the borders of modern-day Uzbekistan, stands an ancient city called Bukhara. Established long before the common era, Bukhara has weathered the change of empires, having been a part of the Persian Empire, conquered by Genghis Khan, and being a key stop on the Silk Road. The last Emir or ruler of the region of greater Bukhara, Alim Khan, was photographed by Prokudin-Gorsky, a decade before he would flee from the Soviets.

Camel Of A Different Color

Unlike many of its central Asian brethren, Turkmenistan is mostly covered by the Karakum or ‘Black Sand’ desert. With tribal origins that stem from Mongolia,  Turkmen life for the greater part of history has been characterized by nomadism. Even once the territories came under the control of the Czar, the Turkmen continued to go about their lives, transporting goods, such a grain or cotton, across their territories. Given its largely desert climate, its no surprise camels were the transportation animal of choice.

The Windmills Of Winter

Even in the heart of Siberia, local residents needed to generate power in order to run their mills. For those who have seen the many photos of Dutch windmills, these Siberian mills in the Tobolsk definitely stand out for their unique design. Perched atop wooden cages, the mill houses are all reached only by a rickety ladder, though the structure’s height still allows the sails to turn without hitting the ground. Several years after the photo was taken, the royal family sought refuge in Tobolsk.

Home On The Range

Much like the Great Plains of the United States, the Mughan Plains of Azerbaijan became a sight that saw groups of ethnic Russians migrating to open land. The family shown in the picture is speculated to have been part of the Molokan religious group, an offshoot of Russian Orthodoxy that was a branch of Christianity but followed many customs of their own. Sometimes called Spiritual Christianity, Molokan practices often differ significantly from one community to another.

Working On The Railroad

Located close to the majestic city of St. Petersburg, Petrozavodsk, a city sitting on the shore of Lake Onega, has roots that date back to ancient times. The oldest district in the current city was established in the 16th century, but the boom really began under Catherine the Great. A group of men here are seen traveling by handcar along the Murmansk Railroad, which only runs between St. Petersburg and the northern port city of Murmansk.

Down And Underground

Taking a cue from its Persian background, these men, who were most likely in the city or province of Bukhara, sit peering through wooden slats from the doorway of what was known as ‘zindan,’ meaning either prison or dungeon. In this case, it seems the structure is serving as both, as the foundation has been partially dug into the ground. What their crimes were is hard to glean from the picture, but it was most likely to have been captured around 1910.

Quite Frankly My Dear

As much as people figured out long ago that it was best to settle close to a source of fresh water, they soon realized that using ever-evolving engineering techniques would benefit their cities in towns by helping to control that water. Outside of the town of Beloomut, a team of men, their managers dressed in fancy uniforms that seem out of place in such a labor-intensive environment, work to lay a foundation through which they would pour concrete for a sluice gate.

High On A Hill

Rising above the green hills of Mozhaisk is the magnificent Russian Orthodox cathedral dedicated to St. Nicholas. The brightly colored structure, heavy with ornamentation, stands in stark contrast to the modest cabins tucked into the nearby hills. The cathedral itself was only about a century old at the time this picture was taken, having been constructed between 1802 and 1814. The town’s patron saint was said to have saved the population after they prayed to him during a Mongol invasion.

The Land Of Mountains

Before officially embarking on his empire documenting journey, Prokudin-Gorsky was implored to take a portrait of this couple living in the mountains of Dagestan, taken from Turkish and Persian to mean ‘mountain land’. Prokudin-Gorsky took several different images of the family wearing traditional dress, which have ended up in the rest of his collection that’s been digitized by the Library of Congress. Situated along the border of Azerbaijan and Georgia, Dagestan is the southernmost province in Russia.

Hookah Line And Sinker

It seems there are some past times that never get old. Though the man’s location isn’t noted in the archives, he seems to be living in one of the Central Asian territories that were annexed to Russia during the 19th century. Prokudin-Gorsky had learned the craft of early color photography with other pioneers of the form in Germany. It’s likely his background as a chemist also helped his quest, which allowed him to capture the vivid colors of the empire.

Mosquing The Truth

Russia may have a vast collection of incredible cathedrals scattered throughout the empire, but practitioners of Orthodoxy weren’t the only ones who liked to build colorful houses of worship throughout their lands. The photo of this madrassa, which is more of a school than a mosque, was taken in Samarkand, one of the oldest cities in the region now known as Uzbekistan. There are many such buildings in a similar style dotting the area, which has seen itself ruled by some of the largest empires in history.

World Cut In Two

With traditional lands straddling the Ural mountains, the Bashkir people are a ready example of the divide between Russia’s more European population, and the many Asian populations that call the vast region home. The Bashkirs are descended from another tribe of Turkic origins, meaning their ancestral language is more closely related to Kazakh and Tatar, and of course, the most well known Turkic language, Turkish, than it is to Russian. Here, Prokudin-Gorsky captured an older Bashkir woman sitting on her steps in traditional dress.

As Strong As Iron

Even more so than traditional ironwork, like smithing, cast iron molding takes on considerable more danger. The metal isn’t simply heated and wrought but needs to be melted entirely and poured into molds before being cooled and put to use. These men were iron artists, rather than simple functionalists, who rendered magnificent cast iron sculptures at the Kasli Iron Works facility, which sprang up in the Middle Urals during the 19th century. Its artistic pieces gained worldwide fame.

Return To The Dagestan System

Lounging against this rock with a sheathed dagger in hand, another man from the same Dagestani family posed for Prokudin-Gorsky. Dagestan is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in all of Russia, to an extent that there is no single ethnic minority located within the region’s borders that form a majority. Unlike other regions in Russia, the ethnic Russian population is particularly small. This has also resulted in an area with a high density of linguistic diversity.

Kolchedan Comes Calling

The tiny village of Kolchedan, tucked into a remote area of the Ural Mountains that was unconnected to the rest of the empire by the emerging railway, was the perfect representation of a life untouched by the industrialization that was taking place around the rest of the country. Prokudin-Gorsky wanted to create a record of a life that he figured was already living on borrowed time, hence the landscape of a rural town, that characteristically revolves around a grand cathedral.

Sitting The Fabric Throne

This textile merchant was captured by Prokudin-Gorsky sitting in his natural element. Surrounded by towering bolts of different colors and textures, this portrait is a vibrant look at the life of early 20th century Samarkand. Given its position in the crossroads of the world, Samarkand merchants likely had access to the best textiles in the vast majority of the world. Like Bukhara to its east, it was another major stop on the Silk Road during the Middle Ages.

Dressed To Impress

On the verge of stepping out of her home for a party, a well dressed Russian woman shows her clear love for modern European fashion. The delicate complexion and graceful posture show that she was likely from a well-to-do family in a more modernized part of the empire. The photograph also seemed to have been given second life as cover art for an edition or two of Anna Karenina, whose author, Leo Tolstoy, was also famously photographed by Prokudin-Gorsky.

Worth A Melon Bucks

The markets of old seem to be far more concerned about merchant comfort than those we shop in today. Another scene from the fantastically named Samarkand, a melon merchant displays his singular product while sitting comfortably among them. Many western countries now favor enclosed, climate-controlled markets, but in the Middle East especially, the outdoor markets in each city are still king. However, many of said markets have been upgraded with slightly more modern roofs and tables.

Lessons In Learning

Far from the scenes depicted of early 20th century Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement, the Bukhari Jews of Samarkand developed a culture and style of Jewish practice that was all their own. Some say the first Jewish settlement in the region dates back to King David or was founded by several of the lost Israelite tribes. Many brought with them a language based on Persian, which transformed significantly as it was touched by the many other languages that flooded the area.

Just Around The Railroad Bend

Standing just steps away from the railway, this man is a switch operator for the revolutionary Trans-Siberian Railroad. This stretch of rail happens to be situated in the small town of Ust- Katav, another village that was hidden away by the Ural mountains, close to the region of the Bashkir people. The town became well known for being the place that the most common type of streetcar, the UKVZ, was manufactured. Though the line runs through the village, there is no stop.

Doing Their Civic Duty

Like many women all over the realm during a time of war, the Romanov women were compelled to step out of the palace and into the hospital. During the First World War, before Russia backed out due to the revolution sending the country into turmoil, Czarina Alexandra and her three eldest daughters, Olga, Tatiana, and Maria donned the costume of religious nurses and took to tending the wounded men who’d been sent back from the front.

The Bordering Steppes

Traditionally a group of nomadic people, the Kyrgyz lived in various parts of Central Asia, often close to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Their ethnic name seems to have some historical reference to being forged from some forty separate tribes, a claim that happens to be somewhat consistent with their genetic markers, though they have the most East Asian ancestry of any of the other Central Asian groups. Despite the waxing and waning of various different empires in the region, the Kyrgyz were often geographically protected from drastic changes.

Salt In The Wound

The Saltinskoe Gorge in Dagestan is a particularly dramatic example of the mountains that give the region its name. Considering the elevation that is consistent throughout the republic, many cities have been built near the tops of the mountains, making them the highest cities in Russia. Awe-inspiring in a way that takes your breath away, one can only imagine the inherent danger such geographic formations posed to the ancient peoples who settled throughout this incredible land.

You Can’t Sit With Us

With the mountains lingering in the background, these Dagestani women were used to battling the elements when Prokudin-Gorsky came through their village. To the right of the women, hints of ancient stone houses can be made out, making it possible that the women are from the somewhat predominant Avar group. The Avar group is a North Caucasian people who live in high altitude villages, primarily made up of ancient stone dwellings, though there are subgroups that may traditionally dwell in lower lands.

A Personal Tent

It might not look like it at first glance, but the cloak of fabric is actually covering a woman, who is suspected to be what is known as a ‘sart.’ Though legends vary on the origin of the term, in this case, it seems intended for an Uzbek person living in Kazakhstan. Even so, this woman was photographed in the Uzbek city of Samarkand, while she covers her whole body from the gaze of men in ‘purdah.’

Monastic Musings

On a small island to the northwest of Moscow, 16th-century monks decided to construct a modest monastery. Less than a century later, the followers of St. Nil decided to expand the monastery into the palatial space seen below. The Nilova Monastery would grow to become one of the wealthiest monastic orders in the entire empire, which made them a prime target after the Soviet takeover. The communists barred the monastery for being used for religious functions, and it only returned to its original purpose in the 1990s.

Blades Of Grass

Sitting in the shade of a small grove of trees, a Georgian woman relaxes in melancholy while wearing a traditional costume. The bright green leaves covering her dress are nicely complemented by the green of the grass that is surrounding her. Georgia was one of the first Central Asian kingdoms to be annexed by the Russian Empire, as the Czar took formal control over the territory in 1801. One of the most notorious Georgians in history was Josef Stalin.

Reflections Of The Self

After spending his years traveling from one end of the empire and back, Prokudin-Gorsky still wanted to take a moment for himself. He set up his camera equipment in the middle of the pastoral scene, before sitting down on a rock next to the stream and snapping a photo of himself. Prokudin-Gorsky would not stay in Russia for very long after the completion of his project, as the Soviets began to take control. He fled to Paris shortly before the revolution, with his photos.