Prokudin-Gorskii: Insightful Images of Jewish Life under Nicholas II

Prokudin-Gorskii, Group of Jewish Children with a Teacher. Samarkand, 1905

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

Map of the Russian Empire under Nicholas II (1913)

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?).

Map of the Pale of Settlement

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.

Prokudin-Gorskii, Water-Carrier. Samarkand, 1905.

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.

 

Sources:

Gregory L. Freeze, Russia A History

https://www.wdl.org/en/item/5802/#q=Prokudin+gorskii&page=11

https://www.wdl.org/en/item/611/#q=Prokudin+gorskii&regions=central-and-south-asia&page=3&countries=UZ

What Were Pogroms?

8 thoughts on “Prokudin-Gorskii: Insightful Images of Jewish Life under Nicholas II

  • February 3, 2020 at 5:28 pm
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    You make a good point that Samarkand was far from the Pale of Settlements where the majority of the Pogroms took place. Samarkand was in the wilderness and somewhat unsettled when compared to far Western European Russia. Also the trail to Palestine at that time was far easier to make.

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    • February 5, 2020 at 1:19 am
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      Thanks for the comment! Yes, I am sure that sheer geographical distance played a key role in insulating Jews in Samarkand from the pogroms occurring in the Pale. They certainly appear to be out of harms way in this photograph.

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  • February 3, 2020 at 6:50 pm
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    Hello Ben! Your choice of photograph as well as the direction that you took with your analysis is very interesting. Not only are you addressing the vast geological scope of the Russian Empire, but you also delve into the Jewish national minority within the Empire that is seldom mentioned outside of the Pale. Your post makes me wonder more about the status of ethnic and religious minorities such as the Jews on the outer fringes of the Empire. In the photograph the people seem to be well dressed and at ease. Were Jews outside of the Pale afforded different rights and privileges than those outside of Eastern Europe? Also, you mention that most of the Jews in Uzbekistan moved to Israel in response to the Zionist movement or the United States by the end of the 20th Century. Were they fleeing repression in Uzbekistan or were they motivated by opportunity and/or nationalism (in the case of Israel)?
    This is a very insightful post and enjoyable to read!

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    • February 5, 2020 at 1:14 am
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      Thanks for the response, Eric! From what I have learned from Aaron’s comment, what the photograph implies is true: Jews in Central Asia did not face the same violence as those in the Pale. Apparently, Russia provided local rulers in Central Asia with a certain level of autonomy in how they treated their subjects. I assume from the photo that Jewish families had not only been treated with at least tolerance, but also had likely been established for some decades in Samarkand. These assumptions are largely based on their high-quality attire. As for leaving Uzbekistan, it is likely that the global Zionist movement would have inspired them to what they viewed as their ancestral homeland. Based on the assumption that they were moderately wealthy, I think nationalist and cultural ties would be more likely than economic opportunity to encourage them to emigrate.

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  • February 4, 2020 at 1:48 am
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    Hello, this is Andrew Grant. I feel the Bukharim and Central Asian Jews have an interesting history, that is rarely talked about. Much of the focus of Jewish history is on the Sephardic Jews of Spain and the Ashenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. This blog details an interesting history of their presence in Central Asia during the period of Imperial Russia. I believe their policies in Central Asia towards the Buhkarim Jews reflected much of their views in general towards the region. As long as the peoples of that region submitted to their will, they let them live largely autonomously. Russia was tolerant towards most ethnicities in their empire, Jews were one of the notable exceptions, but in the case of central Asian Jews, it seems Russian policies diffentiated from their treatment of Jews in Eastern Europe. With their expansion in general in the region, Russia largely managed their territories little different from the colonizers of Western Europe. They allowed local leaders and nobles to retain their privileges’. The Russians in general with their expansion, in the 19th century allowed local leaders significant autonomy and let them manage their own affairs. I would assume the Jews of Central Asia, were often more spared from the Pogroms, as the power was largely decentralized in Central Asia, and they were newer conquered territories not fully integrated.

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    • February 5, 2020 at 12:56 am
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      Thanks for the response! The info you provided on Russia’s lenient handling of Central Asia makes a lot of sense. I wondered why the Jewish citizens in the photograph I chose seemed so comfortable and economically well off.

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  • February 4, 2020 at 3:38 am
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    I really enjoyed the picture you chose. I was not aware of the anti-semitism that took place in Russia in the early 20th century. It is very interesting how Prokudin-Gorskii captured photos that do not show the true meaning of the actions that were taking place during the early 1900s. Do you know what started the anti-semitism in Russia?

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    • February 5, 2020 at 12:46 am
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      I am currently taking a class called the Arab-Israeli Conflict where we talk a lot about historical oppression of the Jews. As far as I can tell, the Jews have been discriminated against everywhere they settled following their diaspora. The pogroms I talked about in this post were partially triggered by the Assassination of Alexander II, a Tsar who had put many reforms in place to the benefit of Russian JEws. Following his assassination Jews were used as a scapegoat.

      Reply

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