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The Tsar's Photographer and His Amazing Preservation of Russian History

100 photos, 100 years old or older, 100 years after Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky completed his historic quest to capture the beauty, diversity, and spiritual power of Tsarist Russia

This article from our archives was first published on RI in March 2019

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky was a Russian chemist and photographer famous for his pioneering work in color photography in the early twentieth century.

In 1905 Gorsky set himself to the task of photographically documenting the Russian Empire with the primary aim of educating Russian schoolchildren on the diverse history and culture of the realm. After his famous color photograph of renowned author Leo Tolstoy in 1908, Gorsky received an invitation to present his work to Tsar Nicholas II and his family. So impressed was the Tsar that he commissioned Gorsky's plan and provided him with funding and a specially-outfitted dark room rail car for his work.

From 1909 to 1915 Gorsky tirelessly traversed the Russian empire capturing thousands of shots of virtually every walk of Russian life. In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the completion of his historic mission, we are publishing 100 of his best shots, giving a vivid glimpse into Tsarist Russia on the eve of the Communist Revolution.  

'War and Peace' author Leo Tolstoy - 1908


84-year-old Pinkhus Karlinsky was the supervisor of the Chernigov floodgate over the course of 66 years - 1909

Dagestani couple - between 1909-1915

Assumption Cathedral in the Dalmatov Monastery - 1912

Assumption Cathedral in Tobolsk, rampart and part of fence - 1912

Austrian prisoners of war at a barracks near Kiappeselga - 1915

Young boy standing next to a gatepost - 1910

Bukharan bureaucrat - between 1909-1915

Cathedral in Shadrinsk - 1912

Cathedral of the Nativity of the Mother of God at the Ipatevsky Monastery - 1910

Cathedral of the Transfigured Savior and Church of the Entry to Jerusalem in Torzhok - 1910

Foreman of the Chakva tea factory, Lau Dzhen Dzhau - between 1909-1915

Chapel from the time of Peter the Great near the Kivach Waterfall near the river Suna - 1915

Chapel where the city of Belozersk was founded in ancient times - 1909

Children sitting on a hill near a church and belltower in the countryside near White Lake in northern Russia - 1909

Church of the Resurrection of the Blood - between 1909-1915

Church of the Holy Mother of God in Tobolsk - 1912

Church of the Resurrection in the Grove in Kostroma - 1910

View of Dalmatov from the monastery belltower - 1912

Joining of the Irtysh and Tobol rivers - 1912

Courtyard of the Church of the Resurrection - between 1909-1915

Dagestani couple - between 1909-1915

Dmitrievsky Cathedral in Vladimir - 1911

Drying nets on Lake Seliger - 1910

Entrance to the Church of the Resurrection in Kostroma - 1910

Exit from the yard of the Church of St. George at the Riurik fortress Staraya Lagoda - 1909

Carpet merchant in Samarqand - between 1909-1915

Family working iron mines in the Bakaly Hills with shovels and horse-drawn carts - between 1909-1915

Farmers taking a rest from haying - 1909

Russian forest - 1910

Column fresco in the Church of St. John Chrystosom in Yaroslavl - 1911

Overview of Artvin from the small town of Svet - between 1909-1915

View of Liksansky Palace from the Kura River - between 1909-1915

View of Nikolaevsky Cathedral from the southwest - 1911

View of Shakh-i-Zendi Mosque in Samarkand - between 1909-1915

Georgian woman standing next to a tree - between 1909-1915

Girl with berries - 1909

Sergei Gorsky at the Karolitskhali River - 1912

Gospel belonging to the nun Varsanofiya, governess of the Tsarevna, in Trinity Monastery in Alexandrov - 1911

Group of Greek tea harvesters in Chavka - between 1909-1915

Hay storage at the Viazovaya Station - 1910

Iconostasis at a church in Borodino - 1911

Iconostasis at the Winter Church of the Fedorov Mother of God in Yaroslavl - 1911

Treasures in the vestry of the Ipatevsky Monastery in Kostroma - 1911

Borodino Museum - 1911

Jewish children with their teacher in Samarqand - between 1909-1915

Production shop for scabbards at the Zlatoust arms plant - 1910

Boat Yard in Kareshka - 1909

Large gathering of men in Central Asia, possibly for a game of Bayga - between 1909-1915

Workers laying concrete for a dam over the Oka River - 1912

Locomotive and coal car at a railroad yard - between 1909-1915

Horseman on the Golodnaya Steppe - between 1909-1915

Man sitting among bamboo trees - between 1909-1915

Man sitting on a log next to a hut for woodcutters - 1912

Melon vendor in Samarqand - between 1909-1915

Mills in Tobolsk Province - 1912

The last Emir of Bukhara, Mohammad Alim Khan - 1911

Artistic casting at Kasli Iron Works - between 1909-1915

Monks planting potatoes at Gethsemane Monastery - 1910

Mother of God-Odigitria in the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin in Smolensk - 1912

Mullahs at a mosque in Aziziya Batum - between 1909-1915

Sergei Gorsky near the Kivach Waterfall on the Suna River - 1915

Hotel in Gagra with chauffeur in front - between 1909-1915

Night camp by a rock on the banks of the Chusovaya - 1912

Kyrgyz family on the steppe - between 1909-1915

Noviy Afon Monastery Ponds - between 1909-1915

An old man in Samarqand holding a brace of birds - between 1909-1915

Ordezh River near Siverskaya Station in Petersburg Province - between 1909-1915

Handcar outside Petrozavodsk on the Murmansk Railway - between 1909-1915

Skuritskhali River - between 1909-1915

Guests standing near Catherine's Spring at a spa at Borzhom - between 1909-1915

Rafts on Peter the Great Canal in Shlisselburg - 1909

Right bank of the Irtysh River at Tobolsk - 1912

Hauberk and helmet of St. Dalmat - 1912

Sart fields in Samarqand - between 1909-1915

Sergei Gorsky with two Cossaks in Murman - 1915

Settler's family in village of Grafovka - between 1909-1915

Steam engine 'Kompaund' with Schmidt super heater - 1915

Stork in a nest in Bukhara - between 1909-1915

Tile stove in the prince's chamber in Rosta Veliky - 1911

Tow rope bridge in the village of Lava - 1909

Trinity Cathedral in the city of Lalaturovsk - 1912

Trinity monastery in the city of Tumen - 1912

Tsar Aleksei Mikhaelovich's gospel and Tsar Mikhael Feodorovich's sacremental vessels in Trinity Monastery in Alexandrov - 1911

Tsarist gifts to the Goritsky Monastery - 1909

Two men and a woman standing outside the Zlatoust arms plant - 1910

Two men and two boys in Samarqand - between 1909-1915

Two men with a boat in Ostrechiny - 1909

Shir-Dar madrasa in Samarqand - between 1909-1915

Solovetsky Monastery - 1915

View of Tbilisi from St. David Church - between 1909-1915

View of Dalmatov Monastery from the Iset River - 1912

View of Tobolsk from Assumption Cathedral - 1912

Village of Kolchedan - 1912

Weighing station at the Chakva tea factory - between 1909-1915

Woman in Purdah standing next to a wooden door - between 1909-1915

Woman spinning yarn in the village of Izvedod - 1910

Church of the Transfiguration of Our Lord in the village of Pidma - 1909

Young woman in Malorossi (Ukraine) - between -1909-1915

Young women offer berries to visitors to their izbas - traditional wooden houses along the Sheksna River near Kirillov - 1909

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