Russia, 100 years ago – in color

While we’re on the topic of history, I’d like to take a moment to tell you about one of my favorite historical image collections: the Prokudin-Gorskii exhibit at the Library of Congress.

Beginning in 1909, a Russian photographer named Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii was given, by Tsar Nicholas II, an “all-access” pass (in order to be permitted to enter otherwise restricted areas) and a railroad car outfitted with a darkroom so that he could travel throughout the Russian Empire and document it with color photos.  For most of the next six years, he traveled extensively throughout Russia – ending up with well over 3,000 negatives.  Some 2,600 of these negatives were purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948 from Prokudin-Gorskii’s heirs, and they are now available for viewing on the web.

These photos provide a striking glimpse into all aspects of life in Russia in the very early part of the 20th century.  From the decadent opulence of the royal palaces and the stunning architecture of Russia’s cathedrals and churches to panoramic views of towns and portraits of rural farmworkers, these vivid color photographs provide a fascinating insight to Russian life 100 years ago.

These photographs were taken  on the eve of World War I and very shortly before the Russian Revolution – they are images of a country that was about to be changed forever.  The juxtaposition of these tranquil images and the chaos that was to immediately follow adds to the mystique of this collection – they depict a way of life that is long gone from the Western world.

In addition to the photos themselves, the exhibit website provides biographical information about the photographer; details about the techniques and equipment used to take the photos and the processes used to restore and digitize them (Prokudin designed his own camera); and provides historical information and context for the images.  In addition, the images are organized by subject area (Architecture, People at Work, Ethnic Diversity, Transportation, etc).

I know that everyone has a lot of homework to do, but if you get a chance I highly recommend taking a few minutes to travel back in time and peruse this collection.  You won’t regret it.  If this exhibit piques your interest about Russia (or anything else!) then feel free to check out some of the Library’s databases or stop by and see us – we’re always glad to lend a hand to your research.

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, from the Library of Congress exhibit