Stunning Color Photos of Life in Imperial Russia


These haunting color images by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky and Piotr Vedenisov show Imperial Russia on the verge of revolution and about to change forever. The two photographers managed to capture life as it was lived by the people – and they did it in full color.

In the early 1900s, Prokudin-Gorskii mapped out a plan for a photographic survey of the Russian Empire, a plan that won the support of Tsar Nicholas II. Between 1909 and 1915, Prokudin-Gorskii crisscrossed the Russian Empire via train, taking photographs of 11 different regions.

Vedenisov worked primarily with aristocratic families, particularly the Kosakovs, and managed to capture a different style of life from the peasants of the Russian Empire.

Imperial Russia, one of the largest empires that the world has ever seen, thrived from 1720 all the way until 1917. It stretched across three continents, encompassed diverse lands and people, and crushed Napoleon when he was reckless enough to attempt to conquer it. But, ultimately, the Russian Revolution of 1917 would put an end to Imperial rule, bringing a long era of history to a close.

Even though color photography, as we understand it today, was not possible at the time, creating a color image for the viewer by completing three separate photographs was indeed possible. The photographers had to take three separate photographs of the same subject – once with a red filter over the lens, once with a green filter, and once with a blue filter (red, green, blue – RGB – is a set of color channels used by many digital images as well). Later on, they projected the three monochromatic images through filters of those same colors onto a screen and superimposed. When viewed through a final filter, they would appear as a realistic color image.

General view of the Nikolaevskii Cathedral from the southwest in Mozhaisk in 1911
Russian peasant girls offer berries to visitors to their izba, a traditional wooden house
A family working in an iron-mine near Ekaterinburg in 1910
Prokudin-Gorskii rides along on a handcar outside Petrozavodsk on the Murmansk railway along Lake Onega near Petrozavodsk in 1910
A dog rests on the shore of Lake Lindozero in 1910. From the album “Views along the Murmansk Railway, Russian Empire”
Greek women harvesting the tea crop in a field in Georgia
Factory in Kyn, Russia, belonging to Count S.A. Stroganov, 1912
An Armenian woman in national costume poses for Prokudin-Gorskii on a hillside near Artvin (in present day Turkey)
A general view of Sukhumi, Abkhazia and its bay, seen sometime around 1910 from Cherniavskii Mountain
A man and woman pose in Dagestan, ca. 1910
On the Sim River, a shepherd boy. Photo taken in 1910, from the album “Views in the Ural Mountains, survey of industrial area, Russian Empire”
Peasants harvesting hay in 1909. From the album “Views along the Mariinskii Canal and river system, Russian Empire”
Isfandiyar Jurji Bahadur, Khan of the Russian protectorate of Khorezm (Khiva, now a part of modern Uzbekistan), full-length portrait, seated outdoors, ca. 1910
A boy leans on a wooden gatepost in 1910. From the album “Views in the Ural Mountains, survey of industrial area, Russian Empire”
A group of women in Dagestan, ca. 1910
A water-carrier in Samarkand (present-day Uzbekistan), ca. 1910
Laying concrete for the dam’s sluice, 1912. Workers and supervisors pose for a photograph amid preparations for pouring cement for sluice dam foundation across the Oka River near Beloomut
A Georgian woman poses for a photograph, ca. 1910
General view of the wharf at Mezhevaya Utka, 1912
A switch operator poses on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, near the town of Ust Katav on the Yuryuzan River in 1910
Self-portrait on the Karolitskhali River, ca. 1910. Prokudin-Gorskii in suit and hat, seated on rock beside the Karolitskhali River, in the Caucasus Mountains near the seaport of Batumi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.
A chapel sits on the site where the city of Belozersk was founded in ancient times, photographed in 1909
A boy sits in the court of Tillia-Kari mosque in Samarkand, present-day Uzbekistan, ca. 1910
Molding of an artistic casting (Kasli Iron Works), 1910. From the album “Views in the Ural Mountains, survey of industrial area, Russian Empire”
A woman is seated in a calm spot on the Sim River, part of the Volga watershed in 1910
General view of Artvin (now in Turkey) from the small town of Svet, ca. 1910
A zindan, or prison, in Bukhara, of modern day Uzbekistan. Zindans were typically built underground.
A couple wearing traditional clothing poses for Gorsky in Dagestan
Nomadic Kirghiz on the Golodnaia Steppe in present-day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, ca. 1910
Jewish children with their teacher in Samarkand (in today’s Uzbekistan), ca. 1910
Russian children sit on the side of a hill near a church and bell tower near White Lake, in Russia, 1909
Emir Seyyid Mir Mohammed Alim Khan, the Emir of Bukhara, seated holding a sword in Bukhara, (present-day Uzbekistan), ca. 1910.
Gorsky captures storks building a nest on what is most likely a mosque in Bukhara.
A fabric merchant poses among his wares on the Silk Road, which stretched from China and India to Central Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean
Gorsky documents travelers with their camels near Sulukta in modern day Kyrgyzstan
Gorsky catches himself in this photo on the right in 1912 at Chusovaya
Sart woman in purdah in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. 1910. Before the Russian revolution of 1917, “Sart” was the name for Uzbeks living in Kazakhstan
Gorsky sits to the right of two guards for the Murmansk railway
A bureaucrat in Bukhara poses in a brightly colored robe for Gorsky
A Turkmen man crouches with camel laden with packs in Central Asia
A young girl in traditional garb poses in what was referred to as Little Russia, now known as Ukraine
Gorsky also catalogued buildings, houses and nature for his project, including this church in Nyrob
View of the Shakh-I Zindeh mosque in Samarkand as the sun sets Currently, just over 11% of Russians identify as Muslim. 
A Kurdish mother sits with her children in Artvin, now part of northeastern Turkey
Gorsky also photographed members of upper class
A Georgian woman dressed in regal attire poses on a rug in the forest
Gorsky had the ability to capture both the strength and vulnerability of the peasant class without being judgmental. His photos are an eye-opening glimpse into an empire on the verge of revolution and war
Peter Vedenisov was a pianist with an interest in color photography. He made color autochromes on glass that he could project onto a wall
Vedenisov worked primarily with aristocratic families, particularly the Kosakovs, and managed to capture a different style of life from the peasants of the Russian Empire
The Kosakovs were friends of the Vedenisovs. Here, the women and children of the family pose
A Crimean patriarch sits for a photo, wearing an eye patch
A Crimean woman of wealth poses in a garden, surrounded by opulent flowers
Vedenisov lived for years in Yalta and captured pictures of ships in the port. A resort town, Yalta sits in Crimea, a now disputed area of Ukraine

Sources: Library of Congress, Smithsonian Mag, Bored Panda, All That is Interesting

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