View of Suzdal’ from the Kamenka River, 1912

For once I am not sitting down to write about the Spanish flu. This week, while working on another essay (this one on Russia) I started thinking about one of my favorite photographers, and one who I consider to be a transnational actor: Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky.

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, born in Russia in 1863, spent his life photographing the people of the Russian Empire (mostly in color). Perhaps his most easily-recognizable work is that of that of the great novelist Leo Tolstoy, but what I think is far more interesting is the lengthy series of color photographs he took, on assignment from Tsar Nicholas II, of the various peoples of the late Russian Empire.

The photographs are all beautiful and the rich colors make the people in them seem far more real than any woodcut or grainy daguerreotype we are used to seeing in books. The real reason I want to discuss them, however, is because they address something which we have touched upon in our readings and seminars: empire and transnational history. Some of the literature we’ve read argues that imperial history cannot be considered transnational (Jurgen Osterhammel, for example, claims that ‘imperial history in a transnational perspective tends to dissolve into forms of global history’), and other scholars fall along similar lines.

Late imperial Russia, while an empire, cannot be stripped of its transnationality (at least not in my opinion). In the twilight of the Romanovs’ reign, Russia possessed over 150 million inhabitants, of only roughly half of which were ethnically Russian. The 1897 census, commissioned by Nicholas II, shows over eighty different ethnic groups, of which only a minority actually spoke Russian. If we take these ethnic groups as ‘nations,’ then Gorsky’s travels would indeed be considered transnational. If we were to view ‘transnational history’ as only applicable when physical borders are put into place, then this implies that the Russian annexation of Manchuria in 1900, for example, negates the distinct national consciousness of the Chinese people living there.

It is difficult, in fact, when viewing even a limited number of Gorsky’s vast collection of photographs, not to see strong elements of distinct national identities amongst the peoples of the Russian empire:


I realize that this may appear to be just an excuse for me to post a selection of photos that I find interesting. This is partly true. But I legitimately do think Gorsky’s work serves two very real purposes today. The first is a reminder of how important I think photographs can be in studying history. Especially in a society like late imperial Russia – in which a majority of the wider population was illiterate and in which representative government was in its early, stilted stages – it can be very difficult to perceive how the individual peoples of the empire would have in turn perceived themselves. These photos show how the people of the Russian empire dressed, what they did for a living, the roles of women, etc, in a society that might not otherwise record such details.

More importantly, I think, Gorsky’s photos prove what I would argue is his ability to be deemed a transnational actor. Despite the fact that he did in fact stay within Imperial Russia’s physical borders, Gorsky’s photos show an extremely diverse collection of societies and peoples. Scholars of nationalism usually name a shared culture as one of the most significant qualities of a nation. Without analyzing data, language, or even the specific geographic locations of the subjects of these photos, it can still be logically assumed that that the cultures of the respective people shown differ by significant degrees. They thus illustrate the transnational aspect to the late Russian empire. 

N.b. Another very interesting collection of photographs to view is banker Albert Kahn’s project Les Archives de la Planète, in which Kahn sent photographers around the globe from 1909 to 1922 to capture human societies:




Sergey Prokudin Gorsky and his transnational photographs

One thought on “Sergey Prokudin Gorsky and his transnational photographs

  • April 22, 2018 at 3:12 pm

    I really like how you’ve constructed this argument around a series of very powerful images – they say a picture speaks a thousand words, and in this case, the photographs of Sergey Prokudin Gorsky tell a huge tale about the ethnic (and possibly national) diversity of the Russian Empire.

    I think this argument raises a very interesting question though – are different ethnicities synonymous with different nations? Was the Russian Empire transnational because of the different ethnicities that it encapsulated, or does transnationalism require the trappings and institutions of nations as well as ethnic and national identities in order to function. I believe that it’s not just a dialogue across perceived lines of identity – that identity has to be backed up by physically enforced borers and boundaries in order for a group to be worthy of study from a transnational perspective.

    Having said that, I don’t know enough about the Russian Empire to suggest that is not the case.

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