Time travel: Tsarist Russia

by abbamoses

St Nil Monastery, Tver

A friend recently reminded me of this amazing collection of color photos taken throughout the Russian Empire in the first decade of the twentieth century — decades before the development of color film. Sergei Prokhudin-Gorsky developed a technique that made three images, each through a different color filter, on a black-and-white photographic plate. When the images were recombined, also using color filters, a color image could be projected.

Tsar Nicholas II commissioned Prokhudin-Gorsky to travel throughout the Empire and make a photographic record of its diversity. The photos — of monasteries, mosques, peasants at work, Turkic chieftans — give a poignant view of the rich world that was lost in the revolution that soon swept away Imperial Russia.

The image of the beautiful St Nil Monastery illustrates a fascinating cycle in Russian history. St Nil Sorsky was the best-known spokesman for a monastic party called the “Non-possessors,” who believed that  monks should live in great simplicity and that monasteries should own a bare minimum of property. Yet after his death his monastery eventually became the elegant structure shown here.

Russian Peasant Girls, about 1910

This process repeated itself in many places: a single monk, or a small band, would retreat to an isolated spot to live in seclusion and uninterrupted prayer. In time, others would join them, then a settlement would spring up when Russian laymen sought to be near the holy site. In time there would be a new town with a “proper” monastery. Sometimes at this point a few monks would set off from there into the wilderness to seek greater peace and deeper prayer, and the cycle would begin again. Thus was “Holy Russia” built.

I’m grateful to the Library of Congress, whose researchers did the hard work of digitally reconstructing these photos from the original plates. They’ve given us a kind of time machine to visit a world that we never imagined we could see this vividly.