This remarkable photograph, taken by renowned Russian photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii, provides a glimpse of Jewish life in Samarkand (modern-day Uzbekistan) during the early 20th century. Five Jewish schoolboys are shown receiving instruction from their rebbe (teacher) in a well-lit courtyard. They
The map above demonstrates Samarkand’s location along the extremity of the Russian empire. Tsar Nicholas II was particularly interested in learning about the distant, newly acquired territories of his empire, which was a primary motivation for commissioning Prokudin-Gorskii’s services in the first place.
The presence of a well-established Jewish community in Samarkand demonstrates the far reaching expanse of the Jewish diaspora.
Having taken place in 1905, one would think that these Jewish citizens faced the threat of pogroms. Just two years prior, the infamous Keshinev pogrom took place, and in 1905, Jews in Russia continued to suffer under a bloody series of pogroms (Freeze 256). However, the rebbe and schoolboys shown in this photograph appear to be rather unaffected by Russia’s violent displays of anti-semitism. Due to their relaxed demeanor and outwardly Jewish garb, it seems that in 1905, Jews in Smarkand may not have faced imminent violence. This would make sense as nearly all of the pogroms took place in the “Pale of Settlement”, an area consisting of parts of Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Poland (What Were Pogroms?).
Based on their brightly colored attire and their ability to focus on education, I would guess that the rebbe and schoolboys depicted in this image were of secure economic standing. In 1905, one’s status was often evident from the quality of their clothes.
As seen in the picture above, those of low economic standing were often dressed in tattered robes, and spent much of their day performing manual labor. This particular picture was also taken in Samarkand in the year 1905.
Because of their attire, my guess is these Jewish citizens are members of established families within the city. Had they not already been established in Samarkand, I find it hard to believe they would have been able to leave the Pale of Settlement where Jews were required to live. I find it much more likely that they had been living in Samarkand prior to its incorporation into the Russian Empire, allowing them to avoid, at least temporarily, the violence Jews faced in Eastern Europe.
By the end of the 20th century most Jews in Uzbekistan had moved either to Israel as part of the Zionist movement, or to America. Thus, it is quite possible that the schoolboys shown in this photograph could have established families in modern-day Israel or here, in America.
Gregory L. Freeze, Russia A History