Images of the Old Empire

By Zinaida Osipova

The dissolution of the Soviet Union led to the opening of classified archives, which provided a remarkable opportunity for historians who could now use a wealth of previously inaccessible resources. The unprecedented access led to new approaches to research on the USSR, including using diaries and letters of Soviet citizens to reconstruct the past based on individual experiences. These changes could first be detected in publications just before the 1991 collapse, as more and more historians gained access to private papers and even photographs.  In 1989, Pantheon Books published A Portrait of Tsarist Russia: Unknown Photographs from the Soviet Archives, a translated version of the German Das Russland der Zaren. Photographien von 1839 bis zur Oktoberrevolution. The book perfectly captures the changes that were taking place during the last years of the Soviet Union. What could its content tell us about pre-Revolutionary Russia? The collection of archival images opens the door to “seeing” different domains of the Empire, including photography and its interest in depicting daily settings, and urban life and its commerce and transport.

Yosif Kordysh: Village musicians. From the Ethnographic Album of Little Russia. Kiev, 1870-1880

A Portrait of Tsarist Russia features high-quality images of cityscapes, ordinary people, famous literary and theatre figures, and the royal family. The accompanying text was written by Y. Barchatova, T. Saburova, G. Mirolubova, T. Petrova, E. Norkute, T. Shipova, A. Golovina, A. Yukshin, and translated from German by Michael Robinson. The introduction walks the reader through the history of Russian photography and its most prominent figures from 1839 until 1918. The book discusses techniques and developments in the field in detail, focusing on photographs from several archives of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Moscow, and Krasnogorsk.

Karl Karlovich Bulla: Festival on the water-diversion canal. St. Petersbug, c.1908

A Portrait of Tsarist Russia tells us that capturing the daily life of people gained popularity among photographers, with some taking an interest in different peoples of the Russian Empire. The work of Mikhail Bukar and Yosif Kordysh contributed to the collection of ethnographic knowledge. The two photographers staged their photographs to a certain extent, with characters posing in national costumes surrounded by everyday objects. Another photographer, Dmitri Yermakov, traveled through Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and showed provincial life through landscapes and various nationalities and their practices.[1] Photography thus satisfied ethnographic curiosity and served as a tool to convey everyday life, albeit often staged.

Paying attention to the details of everyday life reveals interesting information. Inspired by Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat, it is difficult not to notice that in many photographs, virtually all men are wearing peaked hats.[2] Perhaps not leading to conclusions as intriguing as those made by Brook, the photographs show us trends in fashion. Aside from fashion, these photographs illustrate the common practices of the time. The photographs of grape harvesting and sheep-shearing, for example, demonstrate that these were collective practices as people gathered together to work. However, the grape harvesting scene features an approximately equal employment of women and men, whereas only one man appears among many women in the sheep-shearing picture. Of course, more research would be necessary to see whether this was common practice or an accidental occurrence.

(l) Dmitri Ivanovich Yermakov: Grape harvest. (Historical Museum, Moscow.) Tbilisi, c. 1890.

(r) Ivan Vasilyevich Boldyrev: Sheep-shearing. South-Ukraine, 1875/1876.

Landscape photographs featured in the book provide a more general illustration of street life in Tsarist Russia, which, in turn, provides insight into urban life. Several images depict cityscapes with traces of commercial activity: in Albert Mey’s photograph of a Moscow street, there are many advertisements for businesses: tobacco, tea, shoes, ties, banking, photography and others. Although there are not enough images in the book to make sweeping statements about the most prominent spheres of commerce, its presence provides a good start for assessing urban activity. Karl Bulla’s Nevsky Prospekt is a good illustration of St. Petersburg’s transportation options. There are many people walking with almost equally as many carriages on one of the main streets of the city. We also see several horse-drawn trams as late as 1906, whereas in other parts of the country electric trams had been in operation for ten years by then.[3] The horse trams lagged behind their foreign counterparts too: in 1905, on average, a St. Petersburger took 58 horse tram trips per year; the same year, in Berlin, the number was 113, and in 1890, in Toronto, the number was 111 against St. Petersburg’s 55 in 1893.[4] As we see in another one of Bulla’s images, the ceremonial opening of the electric tram in St. Petersburg took place in 1906. Thus, the images allow us to access parts of the history of urban life and entice us to further explore its aspects.

(l) Albert Ivanovich Mey: Street Scene. From the album Views of Moscow. Moscow. Moscow, 1880-1890.

(r) Karl Karlovich Bulla: View of Nevsky Prospekt with State Duma (left) and shopping arcades (right). St. Petersburg, c. 1906.

Aside from fashion, commerce and transport, the book demonstrates a contrasting image of the capital. The text tells us that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, photo albums recorded constructions of railways, mines and factories.[5] In one photograph we see workers, some of whom are very young, unload a barge. They wear unsophisticated clothing and are covered in dirt – а powerful contrast to the carriages of Nevsky.

What makes the book even more fascinating is its reproduction of several photographs from the State Literature Museum of Moscow, which contains images from famous writers’ private collections. The text informs us that Leo Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya Tolstaya, was an enthusiastic amateur photographer. Anton Chekhov’s private archive contains many photographs taken by Chekhov himself, images of him and portraits sent to him. His private collection contains images from his 1890 trip to Sakhalin, which holds a special value as these are rare pictures of the island and its prisoners.[6]

(l) Anonymous: unloading a barge. St. Petersburg, 1900.

(r) II Pavlovsky: Prisoners are chained before work in Duiskaya jail. (From Chekhov’s private collection.) Sakhalin.

A Portrait of Tsarist Russia is a illustrative example of the profound effect of archival opening. The book offers excellent photographs of pre-revolutionary Russia, which in turn shed light on longstanding questions about the nature of the empire while also opening doors to new historical questions.





  1. Barchatova… [et al.]. A Portrait of Tsarist Russia: Unknown Photographs from the Soviet Archives. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989.

Bater, James H. “The Development of Public Transportation in St Petersburg, 1860-1914.” The Journal of Transport History 2, no. 2 (Sep 01, 1973): 85-102.

Evtuhov, Catherine. Portrait of a Russian Province: Economy, Society, and Civilization in Nineteenth-Century Nizhnii Novgorod. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.

[1] Y. Barchatova… [et al.], A Portrait of Tsarist Russia: Unknown Photographs from the Soviet Archives, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989: 51

[2] Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat, (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2007). In his book, Brook connects objects from Johannes Vermeer’s seventeenth century paintings with events happening elsewhere in the world, underlining their global effects..

[3] Catherine Evtuhov, Portrait of a Russian Province: Economy, Society, and Civilization in Nineteenth-Century Nizhnii Novgorod, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011): 49.

[4] Bater, James H. “The Development of Public Transportation in St Petersburg, 1860-1914.” The Journal of Transport History 2, no. 2 (Sep 01, 1973): 97.

[5] Barchatova, 120.

[6] Ibid., 129, 150-151.

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