Brain Pickings

Ethnic Diversity in Russia 100 Year Ago, Restored in Color

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From peasants to emirs, or nomads have to do with the political cornerstones of world history.

The Library of Congress is a treasure trove of archival gems — from antique maps of the universe to the vintage design gems of the Works Progress Administration to fascinating films from the 1940s romanticizing bookmaking. Today, we turn to The Empire That Was Russia, a curious online exhibition of life in Russia in the beginning of the 20th century. Culled here are some remarkable archival images of ethnic diversity in Russia during that period, which at the time included not only all the countries that would eventually become the Soviet Union, but also present-day Finland and Poland. With its 150 million people, of whom only about half were ethnic Russians, the country was home to some fascinating subcultures, captured here in restored and colored negatives by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii , photographer to the Tsar, with captions by the exhibition team.

The Emir of Bukhara, 1911

The Emir of Bukhara, Alim Khan (1880-1944), poses solemnly for his portrait, taken in 1911 shortly after his accession. As ruler of an autonomous city-state in Islamic Central Asia, the Emir presided over the internal affairs of his emirate as absolute monarch, although since the mid-1800s Bukhara had been a vassal state of the Russian Empire. With the establishment of Soviet power in Bukhara in 1920, the Emir fled to Afghanistan where he died in 1944.

Russian Peasant Girls, 1909

Young Russian peasant women offer berries to visitors to their izba, a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River near the small town of Kirillov.

Nomadic Kazakhs on the Steppe, 1911

Many Central Asiatic peoples, for example the Kirghiz, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks, lived nomadic lives on the steppes, valleys, and deserts, migrating seasonally from one place to another as opportunities for obtaining food, water, and shelter changed. Shown here is a young Kazakh family in colorful traditional dress moving across the Golodnaia (or 'Hungry') steppe in present-day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Profile of a Nomad, ca. 1907-1915

In this portrait, Prokudin-Gorksii captures the traditional dress, jewelry, and hairstyle of an Uzbek woman standing on a richly decorated carpet at the entrance to a yurt, a portable tent used for housing by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. After conquering Turkestan in the mid 1800s, the Russian government exerted strong pressure on the nomadic peoples to adopt a sedentary lifestyle and settle permanently in villages, towns, and cities.

Portrait of a Dagestani Couple

A couple in traditional dress poses for a portrait in the mountainous interior region of Gunib on the north slope of the Caucasus Mountains in what is today the Dagestan Republic of the Russian Federation.

Prisoners in a Zindan with Guard, ca. 1907-1915

Five inmates stare out from a zindan, a traditional Central Asian prison--in essence a pit in the earth with a low structure built on top. The guard, with Russian rifle and bayonet, is attired in Russian-style uniform and boots.

Jewish Children with their Teacher, 1911

Samarkand, an ancient commercial, intellectual, and spiritual center on the Silk Road from Europe to China, developed a remarkably diverse population, including Tajiks, Persians, Uzbeks, Arabs, Jews, and Russians. Samarkand, and all of West Turkestan, was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the middle of the nineteenth century and has retained its ethnic diversity up to the present. Prokudin-Gorskii captures here a group of Jewish boys, in traditional dress, studying with their teacher.

Chinese Foreman at the Chakva Tea Farm, ca. 1907-1915

A Chinese foreman poses with established tea plants and new plantings at a tea farm and processing plant in Chakva, a small town just north of Batumi. The semi-tropical climate of the Black Sea coast in modern-day Georgia was ideal for growing tea.

Study of a Dagestani Man, ca. 1907-1915

Dagestan, meaning 'land of mountains' in the Turkic languages, contains a population consisting of many nationalities, including Avars, Lezgi, Noghay, Kumuck, and Tabasarans. Pictured here is a Sunni Muslim man of undetermined nationality wearing traditional dress and headgear, with a sheathed dagger at his side.

Russian Children on a Hillside, ca. 1909

Children sit on the side of a hill near a church and bell-tower in the countryside near White Lake, in the north of European Russia.

Russian Settlers in the Borderlands, ca. 1907-1915

Ethnic Russian settlers to the Mugan Steppe region, south of the Caucasus Mountains and west of the Caspian Sea, established a small settlement named Grafovka. The region is immediately north of the border with Persia. Settlement of Russians in non-European parts of the empire, and particularly in border regions, was encouraged by official government policy and accounts for much of the Russian migration to Siberia, the Far East, and the Caucasus regions.

Learn more about the fascinating process of making color images from Prokudin-Gorskii’s negatives, a technique known as “Digichromatography,” made all the more challenging by the fact that no known replica or illustration of the camera that Prokudin-Gorskii used exists today.

Hat tip @brennanyoung

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