Portrait of Imperial Russia

Prokudin-Gorskii-15 “Melon Vendor” –Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.

We typically do not associate the Russian Empire with images like this one. Taken in 1911 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, this photograph depicts a man at work as a melon vendor, dressed in the traditional Central Asian attire of a turban and flowing tunic. In the waning days of the Romanov Dynasty, Prokudin-Gorskii was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II to capture–through photography–the vastness, diversity and rapid modernization of the Russian Empire.

This photograph was taken in Samarkand, which has always been something of a crossroads. Located in modern-day Uzbekistan, it flourished due to its location on the Silk Road, and was the capital of Tamerlane’s powerful Islamic empire in the 14th century. It was gradually incorporated into the Russian Empire and eventually the Soviet Union.

This image is representative of the fledgling modernization of the Russian Empire. At a time when advances in transportation and technology allowed this vividly colored photograph to be taken, the subject matter is decidedly unmodern and un-Russian–the melon stand looks more like something Indiana Jones would hurtle through than a depiction of life in the twilight days of Imperial Russia.

More than anything though this photograph draws attention to the complexity of the Russian world. Russia has always suffered something of an identity crisis–touching Europe, Asia and the Middle East–it is composed of a complex amalgamation of people, religions, cultures and ideologies. On the eve of war and revolution, Russia found itself pulled in multiple directions by these competing facets. Prokudin-Gorskii’s photograph lends a distinct spice of diversity to a Russia on the edge of dramatic and rapid change.