Russian Empire in the Early 20th Century: Spectacular Color Photos Reveal a World Lost to History

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky was an outstanding Russian photographer. From 1909 to 1915, he traveled the Russian Empire using a railroad-car darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas II to record its many aspects. While some of his negatives were lost, most were stored at the US Library of Congress after his death. Since 2000, the negatives have been digitized, and the color triples have been digitally combined to produce hundreds of photos of Russia and its neighbors from over a century ago.

Prokudin-Gorsky also created color images by repeatedly exposing one oblong glass plate to three different color filters: red, green, and blue, in rapid succession. The three different color images were then projected through three different lenses, one on top of the other, to present them as slides. A full-color image could be seen when the three images were projected together. Prokudin-Gorskii used this new method to capture over 2,000 images of the Empire, from people to architecture to the Empire’s expanding industrial infrastructure.

Prokudin-Gorskii’s historical photographs portray a lost world: many of his captured buildings were destroyed during the Bolshevik Revolution. Many of his works have been illustrated in his lectures. The photographs he took offer a vivid picture of a lost world on the eve of the Russian Revolution and World War I. His subjects included old Russian churches and monasteries, the railroads and factories of new industrial power, and the daily life and work of Russia’s diverse population. They also depicted different people from all the corners of the Russian Empire; simple peasants, soldiers, officers, laborers, older adults, mothers, and kids.

#14 An engineer Nestor Puzyrevsky, the author of the project of a dam on the Oka River. Ryazan Governorate, 1912

#15 Molding of an artistic casting (Kasli Iron Works), 1910. From the album “Views in the Ural Mountains, a survey of an industrial area, Russian Empire”.

#17 A switch operator poses on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, near the town of Ust Katav on the Yuryuzan River in 1910.

#21 An eighty-four years old supervisor of Chernigov floodgate with sixty-six years of service, 1909

#27 Laying concrete for the dam’s sluice, 1912.

Laying concrete for the dam’s sluice, 1912.

Workers and supervisors pose for a photograph amid preparations for pouring cement for the sluice dam foundation across the Oka River near Beloomut.

#33 Russian children sit on the side of a hill near a church and bell tower near White Lake, in Russia, 1909.

#74 A woman standing on a carpet at the entrance to a yurt, dressed in traditional clothing and jewelry, 1910s

#85 Nikol’skaia [St. Nicholas] Church in Lavrovo village, Shlissel’burg county, St. Petersburg province, 1909

#95 View of Our Savior-Iakovlevskii Monastery, from the tower of the Rostov museum in the Kremlin, 1911

#96 View of the monastery from Svetlitsa [Island, Saint Nil Stolbenskii Monastery, Lake Seliger], 1910

#99 An Armenian woman in national costume poses for Prokudin-Gorskii on a hillside near Artvin (in present day Turkey), 1910.

#100 Self-portrait on the Karolitskhali River, 1910.

Self-portrait on the Karolitskhali River, 1910.

Prokudin-Gorskii in suit and hat, seated on a rock beside the Karolitskhali River, in the Caucasus Mountains near the seaport of Batumi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.

#102 A chapel sits on the site where the city of Belozersk was founded in ancient times, photographed in 1909.

#104 Isfandiyar Jurji Bahadur, Khan of the Russian protectorate of Khorezm (Khiva, now a part of modern Uzbekistan), full-length portrait, seated outdoors, 1910.

#106 On the Sim River, a shepherd boy. Photo was taken in 1910, from the album “Views in the Ural Mountains, a survey of an industrial area, Russian Empire”.

#107 Alternators made in Budapest, Hungary, in the power generating hall of a hydroelectric station in Iolotan (Eloten), Turkmenistan, on the Murghab River, 1910.

#112 Sart woman in purdah in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. 1910. Until the Russian revolution of 1917, “Sart” was the name for Uzbeks living in Kazakhstan

#114 Peasants harvesting hay in 1909. From the album “Views along the Mariinskii Canal and river system, Russian Empire”.

#115 Prokudin-Gorskii rides along on a handcar outside Petrozavodsk on the Murmansk railway along Lake Onega near Petrozavodsk in 1910.

#118 Emir Seyyid Mir Mohammed Alim Khan, the Emir of Bukhara, seated holding a sword in Bukhara, (present-day Uzbekistan), 1910.

#119 A boy leans on a wooden gatepost in 1910. From the album “Views in the Ural Mountains, a survey of an industrial area, Russian Empire

#120 A metal truss bridge on stone piers, part of the Trans-Siberian Railway, crossing the Kama River near Perm, Ural Mountains Region, 1910.

#123 A general view of Sukhumi, Abkhazia and its bay, seen sometime around 1910 from Cherniavskii Mountain.

Written by Aung Budhh

Husband + Father + librarian + Poet + Traveler + Proud Buddhist. I love you with the breath, the smiles and the tears of all my life.

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