Food Fight!

Crowd of women, led by Mrs. Ida Harris, president of the Woman’s Vigilance League, at the city hall to protest the soaring cost of food. (Source: Independent, 12 March 1917; International Socialist Review, April 1917) Created / Published

Universal suffering was the hallmark of trench warfare during World War I. As millions died from the innovations in warfare and technology, a more subtle affliction plagued the overwhelmingly peasant population of Russia: food shortage. While the roaring machine guns needed only to be fed yet more bullets to the carnage it produced, the millions of Russian soldiers and their civilian counterparts needed bread, which was in serious scarcity. A combination of wartime demands, monopolization of the food supply, and mismanagement by the wartime government exasperated the already high tensions of post-October Revolutionary Russia. The lack of faith in the tsarists government and a string of defeats culminated in the flash point which unseated the centuries old Romanov dynasty and catapulted Russia into a Bolshevik controlled state with the popular slogan “Peace, bread, land” at its head.  It was quite evident by the war’s conclusion that bread, not social reforms or patriotic fervor, was the key to the people’s hearts.

Albert Rhys Williams: A Cry For Bread 1918. An appeal for bread to cities by peasants in Ukraine and the Volga. Library of Congress

Russia’s focus on the peasantry in the early 20th century had proved to be altogether fruitless by the time peasants had stormed the imperial palace. The Third Duma’s efforts at agrarian reform, while optimistic, were too little too late for the riled masses (Freeze, pg. 262-64). When conflict erupted,  neither the government nor the people were truly ready or unified for the demands of modern warfare in Europe, something already proven by the Russian’s bitter defeat to the Japanese ten years prior. To compete against industrialized nations, Russia needed to turn to “total war” which required a call to arms and war production for the entire nation; however, Nicholas’s government failed to fulfill its promise to the people. Only a few years into the war had passed before the government turned to desperate measures to keep the war economy from collapsing (Freeze, pg. 272). Simultaneous inflation, food shortages, and military desertion fueled the growing disaffection with government and hurt the overall war effort (Freeze, pg. 273). It was at this point that the people’s furor climaxed during a bread riot in St. Petersburg and changed Russia’s fate forever.

A starving Chuvash family near their tent in Samara in post-WWI. From The Sun news outlet.

In the aftermath of the February Revolution, radical changes in government, military, and political direction were ongoing, but food remained the top priority to the masses. Rationing had been in place since 1915 with the institution of the Special Council for Food, but this did little to alleviate the effects of Russian scorched-earth policy and the diversion of resources from food to war production (Lewis Seigelbaum, para. 1). Famine and food lines were commonplace by October of 1917 and the newly formed Provisional Government failed to provide any solution to the humanitarian crisis that was brewing. Monopolization of food production was continued by the Duma, but this merely created higher prices and few answers to the dire issue. Petrograd, the seat of Soviet power and a city on the verge of starvation, finally had enough, and the Bolsheviks took control with their cry for peace, bread, and land.

A women watches her partner starve to death. 1920s. From The Sun news outlet.

The consequences of this are well known today as Russia became a Communist state, but the effects of World War I and institutional ineptitude could not be reversed. Famine and the resulting civil war caused millions of deaths and widespread violence across the Soviet state. In the end, the Bolsheviks continued the same policies as previous administrations, though with greater viciousness and brutality to the misfortune of the Russian people (Lewis Seigelbaum, para. 3) . Survival was fought for through anarchy, looting, and even cannibalism as the state once again outstandingly failed to fulfill its promises . Many lessons were learned as the new regime forcefully consolidated its power and subdued the resulting “White’s” counterrevolution. Change was won for by the need for food, and it proved how little ideology or equality can feed an empty belly. As history has once more shown, a state is only as good as its ability to take care of its people, and Nicholas’ and the Duma’s prospects of a “modern” Russia ultimately led to its demise.

Tea with a Splash of Vodka

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. A Group of Workers Harvesting Tea, ca. 1907-1915. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-04430 (32)


What is it that makes an empire? The ruler may argue that government and order define one’s realm; however, these are all institutions of the people. Before the troubles that would bring about the Russian Revolution in 1917, Russia was an  immensely diverse spread of land that was called home to many different ethnicities, not all of which were true natives. Before the Kievan Rus, who would make the first steps to what we know as modern-day Russia, there were many groups who were trying to find their place in a rapidly changing world. The photo above, a part of the Prokudin-Gorskii collection, shows a group of Greek farmers harvesting tea in Chavka, which is now the area known as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, in the southern region of Russia. From this group’s origin and tale comes one piece of the puzzle in the fall of the Tsarist regime. These Pontic Greeks had lived in this area since the 700s BC, around the time that ancient Rome was created, and they continue to live there to the present day. From the original Greek colonies along the Black Sea during the Classical period, this area was subject to a steady migration of Greek settlers, most notably after the fall of the Empire of the Trebizond to the Ottoman Turks. Carrying with them the Eastern Orthodox tradition that the Byzantines had imported to the Rus, these settlers were eventually incorporated into the increasingly heterogeneous Russia Empire.

As the Russian state grew during the pre-Revolutionary era, so did its sense of culture. Against the stereotype that Russians live solely on Vodka in their daily lives, there was a thriving tea culture that captured the attention of all levels of Russian society. Since its introduction in 1638 by the Mongols, tea was an important commodity in Russian and culture and one of the number of agricultural goods that the Pontic Greeks focused on. While tea itself was quite important, the prosperity of its producers and sellers was not. As can be seen in the photo above, these workers were predominantly peasants whose livelihoods centered around the production and demand for tea. When this was disrupted, as it was during World War I,  and the government failed to support them, the people suffered. Areas like Chavka became the breeding ground for the revolutionaries that would eventually overthrow the Tsarist regime. Through the coming turmoil, this region would remain predominantly Greek, and it would bear the blows of both a genocidal Turkish government and a crumbling Russian empire.

While this land and its people are not the typical image one constructs when discussing Russia, they represented a large population of agrarian societies which made up the empire in the early twentieth century. Their ethnicity was but one group of the widely varied peoples in Russia’s borders, and they are as much a part of Russia and the Revolution’s story as Lenin and Stalin were. Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii set out to document Russia’s economic life during a complicated time of industrialization and world war, and he succeeded in recognizing the backbone of the empire’s livelihood. It is also important to remember moving forward that Marxist communism was intended for more developed states, and the ramifications of the revolution on the majorly agricultural empire would produce many growing pains throughout. While these people now live in the remains of the Soviet Union, they directly impacted its creation and deserve credit in the history of Russia.


Mack, Glenn (2005). Food Culture in Russia and Central Asia. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Wood, Michael (2005). In Search of Myths & Heroes: Exploring Four Epic Legends of the World. University of California Press. p. 109





Episode 1: The Phantom Railways

By the middle of the 19th century the Russian Empire found itself lacking in reform and by the start of the 20th century it found itself in a questionable circumstance. Imperial Russia was late to the game in the industrialized arena, but it did attempt to westernize itself. In the process, the introduction of  new transportation systems such as the railroad helped connect the primarily agricultural society. The image below stood out to me because it was one of the few pictures that introduced elements of industrialization sought in Russia at the time.

Through scientific discovery Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii discovered a way to to photograph images with color presentation. Becoming a well renowned artist, Tsar Nicholas II invited him to display his work for the imperial family. An impressed Nicholas would go on to finance a 10 year expedition in which Prokudin-Gorskii would photograph Russia in color, below is one of those images. 


“Zlatoust Station” Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863–1944)

This image was what the town of Zlatoust looked like in September 1909. Founded in 1754, the town was known for its fishing and metalwork capabilities. Located in present day Chelyabinsk Oblast, the town was photographed while Prokudin-Gorskii was exploring the railroads, industries, and natural scenes of the Ural Mountains. The town started to see an increase in manufacturing when a railroad line from Samara was completed in 1890, as well as the beginning of the Trans-Siberian Railway project in 1891.

In the picture you can clearly see many trains busy at work, but not to the extent of images seen in America and Europe at the time. Russia was faced with crippling economic issues as the concept of serfdom was coming to an end. To put the railway pictured above into perspective, during the American Civil War, images of vastly connected railways were photographed with advanced networks of commercial and industrial rail lines. At almost 50 years after the American Civil War, the Russian Empire still stood far behind the West when it came to industrial matters, making the reforms of Tsar Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II that much more important to the survival of the Russian Empire….

If you would like to watch the blog post in a cinematic manner, I made a video version:


History of the Nilova Monastery

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. View of the Monastery from the Solarium, 1910. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-03973 (44)


The St. Nil Monastery has a beautiful yet tragic history which is what ultimately sparked my interest in this being my first blog post. The St. Nil Monastery was established in 1528 Stolobnyi Island in Lake Seliger in Tver’ Province. For reference, this is northwest of Moscow. In the 1600’s the members of the monastery began constructing what would be considered one of the largest and wealthiest monasteries in all of the Russian Empire. This photo was taken by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, best known for his work in brining color photography to the Russian empire. Like many of his pictures, this one depicts the St. Nil Monastery in all its beauty.

Whether it’s the gorgeous bridge that catches your eye, the dome roof tops, or the landscaping there is a lot going on in the picture that pleases the eye. Alas, not all good things last and you should never judge a book by its cover. In 1927 the monastery was closed by the Soviet regime and repurposed at times as a concentration camp and other times as an orphanage. You would never assume looking at a structure this beautiful that hateful acts of a concentration camp could ever occur here. In 1939, 4700 Polish prisoners of war were held captive here in what they knew it called as the “Otashkov Camp”. The reason this site was decided upon as being used for such purposes is its location to the front line of the war. It was also used as a military hospital. Later, it was used again as a place to house juvenile delinquents and then a place for the elderly. Needless to say, the monastery had a wide variety of purposes over a 100 year time span.

Between 1971 and 1990, the once St. Nil monastery, was attempted to become a tourist attraction. That ultimately failed after multiple attempts due to a lack of resources but further the hypocrisy of the situation. They were trying to sell this place to tourists as a place of beauty when so much ugliness has occurred on the same grounds. In 1990, the church and the grounds was finally returned to the Orthodox Church. Recovery efforts are slow but each year they are seeing progress. Today, you can cross the bridge and go visit the once beautiful monastery of St. Nil while soaking in the deep troubling history of what occurred on a place so pure.

The Photographer to the Tsar

Self- portrait of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Source

The Photographer 

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, photographer and chemist in the early 1900s, displayed the powerful Russian Empire pre-World War I and revolution with the use of colored photography, a new technique that he developed during the time. Supported by Tsar Nicholas II and with the aide of the Ministry of Transportation, Prokudin-Gorskii traveled in an equipped railroad car (that even included a darkroom), to photograph eleven regions including regions such as present day Poland and Finland. Although his subjects were diverse, such as railroads and medieval churches, his photographs of the ethnic diversity that remained intact despite Russian acquisition is a fascinating insight to the times.

Culture Remains Intact 

Prisoners in a Zindan with a Guard                                                                 Source 


1907- Prokudin-Gorskii photographed a Zindan, or prison, in Bukhara, then called Turkestan, and nowadays located in Uzbekistan. Five inmates peer out through the prison bars, accompanied by a visitor squatting outside. The Russian uniform of the prison guard greatly contrasts with the robes of the locals, displaying the traditional clothing of Bukhara. This photograph is a prime example of the predated forced “Russification” that had yet occurred in the Russian empire.

A Closer Look…

Traditional Zindan in Uzbekistan                                                           Source

Zindan today is referred to as Emir’s Prison- one of two prisons in Bukhara. The prison was made up of a multiple debt chambers, a solitary confinement cell, and an underground dungeon that was dug about 21 feet deep into the ground. Prisoners mainly included debtors or those who did not carry out their “citizen’s duty” in following religious instructions and authority, as religion had the highest authority in Bukhara at the time (another show of how culture was retained). The imprisonment was extreme and death for the prisoners was expected. The prison was also referred to as “Bithana”, or the “bug pit” due to the plethora of scorpions and other poisonous insects that found their way into the cells. Due to the treacherous bites, prisoners often died within two to three days of imprisonment.




Fisherman on the Iset’ River

This is one of the many photos taken by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii for Tsar Nicholas the II. This one, in particular, was taken in the Ural Mountains, near the settlement of Kamensk-Uralskii, in 1909. This time, 1909, was at the beginning of the bulk of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photography for the Tsar, which had commissioned him to travel and photograph the country at the time.

This picture is titled as “Fisherman on the Iset’ River”. It depicts an older man fishing into the Iset’ River which runs nearby the settlement of Kamensk-Uralskii. The rivers name Iset’, meaning “much fish” in local Vogul language, derives from lake Iset’ which is the rivers origin. Lake Iset’ is located Northwest of Ekaterinburg and the river flows 600 km from there until it joins the Tobol River which flows across the border into Kazakstan.

The fisherman has two lines in the water and is wearing a worn in hat, no shoes, and has a large white beard. Prokudin-Gorskii himself was an avid sportsman so besides the tranquility and serenity that this image possess, that likely played into the choice Prokudin-Gorskii made to photograph this scene. In the background and across the river a birch tree can be seen. Fighting its way out of the eroded sedimentary rocks carved and shaped by the river’s path many years ago. One could point to the struggle of this tree, growing out of the harsh conditions which exist around it but seemingly thriving, as a reflection of the Russian people and the Russian empire themselves. Struggle to grow and survive in the harsh conditions that surround them. Physically with the climate but also economically and politically under the rule of the autocracy. Yet they are still managing to continue forward and live. Growing out of the past and into the future as Russia continued its transition into fighting for the status of a power in Europe, and to be no longer seen as “inferior” by the West.  

This image is just but one of the many taken by Prokudin-Gorskii, and but only one of many taken in the Ural mountains region where he made several trips over the years of 1909 to 1912. Each photograph tells a different and unique story about Russian life and gives a snapshot of what it was like to live in that period of time. 


Church of the Resurrection

Russian Church

Located on the banks of the Volga River, the city of Kostroma houses a prime example of 17th century Russian art; the Church of the Resurrection in the Grove. The church is the only surviving building in Kostroma that was built in the 17th century (Church of the Resurrection). It is not only admired by its aesthetically pleasing exterior, but also by the frescoes painted on the interior walls.

The Church of the Resurrection in the Grove was built from 1630 to 1645 and the frescoes were painted on the interior from 1650 to 1652 (Prokudin-Gorskii). Legend has it that the church was erected from the money gathered by merchants and tradesmen of the city. The main contribution came from merchant Kirill Isakov who found a barrel full of gold among his goods, and he hoped to use this money for a good purpose (Resurrection Church on the Debra).

The architects who created the church are unknown, but believed that they arrived from Yaroslavl and Veliky Ustyug; while the paintings were made by Arteli Vasili Zapookrovsky and the frescoes by Gury Nikitin (Revolvy). One of the reasons I believe the church and the frescoes remain dear to the residents of Kostroma, is that Gury Nikitin resided in Kostroma and was well known throughout the Empire.

Eventually the church closed in 1930 and its walls were made into a granary, while the basement became a military warehouse up until 1946 where it eventually re-opened (Revolvy). Over the years it has been restored to what is believed to be its original appearance and it remains one of the most sacred sites in Kostroma.


“Church of the Resurrection.” Church of the Resurrection – Kostroma, Russia,

Prokudin-Gorskii, Sergei Mikhailovich 1863-1944. “Church of the Resurrection in the Grove (From the Other Side). Kostroma.” WDL RSS, Library of Congress, 1 Jan. 1970,

Resurrection Church on the Debra,

Revolvy, LLC. “Church of the Resurrection, Kostroma.” Revolvy,

Image Source:

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Church of the Resurrection in the Grove, 1910. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-03975 (48)


View of Kasli

View of Kasli

This 1910 photograph is the “View of Kasli” by photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Kasli, now in present day Chelyabinsk Oblast. I find this picture fascinating as it’s description pointed out the predominate points of the image, and the town, to be the massive churches (two on the left in the background, and in looking at the shadow in the foreground, it can be assumed the photographer was in another large church taking this photograph. This shows the predominance and focus on Eastern Orthodoxy Christianity, and the strength of the Church. Especially in comparison with the majority of the town, which primarily composed of wood houses with small farm plots, and an iron foundry. I believe this picture vividly illustrates a divide in social classes in prerevolutionary Russia, classes of workers living in small close quarters, while being shadowed by the power of organized Christianity

On a more artistic note, I found the colors in this photograph to be extremely well done, especially the blue of the lake on the right, and the red metal roofing.


Source: The World Digital Library. “View of Kasli.” accessed January 20, 2017.


Kazakhs on the Move

When you think of Russians, what do you think of?  Large, burly men named Ivan that drink vodka all day?  While there are undoubtedly men named Ivan in Russia that drink vodka, there are many more ‘types’ of Russians,  many different ethnic groups make up Russia.

This is especially true for the time leading up to the Russian Revolution.  In the lead up to the revolution there was everything from Mongols to Varangians living within Imperial Russia.  For example, this picture taken by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii shows a family of Kazakhs, a Turkic Jewish people.  Kazakhs are a nomadic people, famous for their large empire that was at the height of its power around the Middle Ages and became a part of Russia due to the weakening of its main ally, the Byzantine Empire.  This Kazakh family is presumably migrating in search of food, water, and shelter in order to sustain themselves.

We as historians can learn a few things from this photo.  One of the first things that came to my mind was the disparity of wealth between the Russian people.  On the bottom you have nomads and serfs with very little to their name whereas on the top, you have the immense wealth of the Tsar and the rest of the gentry.  Another thing of note is how quickly various ethnic groups assimilate to Russian culture once the revolution occurs.  Perhaps it’s merely my ignorance as a student that I haven’t heard any stories of Kazakhs or Uzbeks doing anything of note during the Soviet Union but I think it’s because they just became Russian and lost their natural identity.

This photo also begs some questions.  For instance where are they going?  The text that comes with the photo says it was taken on the  Golodnaia Steppe, found on the bottom border of modern day Kazakhstan.  Also, what happened to them?  The world got really unpleasant for a few years after this photo was taken.

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii Visits Topornia

Girl with Strawberries











Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863–1944) was a famous pioneer in the art of photography during the early 20th century in Russia. Using his background in chemistry, he was able to give color to images that were initially black and white by utilizing a special technique that he coined himself. He begun his career in photography in 1905, however the majority of the pictures he took are dated between 1908 and 1915. This was made possible through the support by Tsar Nicholas II and the Ministry of Transportation.

The image above was taken in the small town of Topornia which is located on the banks of Silvers Lake. This image features a young, Russian girl that is garbed in traditional clothing wore by peasants at the time this photograph was taken. She is showcasing a plate of wild strawberries that she had collected herself. This image was one in a series conducted by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii that sought to reveal the lives of the ‘common folk’. In his overarching goal of exploring the Russian Empire as a whole, he wanted to interact with the citizenry and gain a grasp of their livelihoods. If you look closely at this image, it is apparent that the town of Topornia is suffering economically due to the collapsing buildings in the background. Keeping this in mind, the girl herself seems to be well kept and fed – this suggests that she and her family may not be experiencing such hardships as the rest of the town.

After taking a look at this image, several questions arise. What was happening economically during this time period? What was this girl, and her family, doing to avoid such an economic disaster? How long and to what extent did this affect the rest of the Russian Empire? Did Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii capture any more pictures of this economic upheaval and its effects on the peasantry? All of these questions still inquire further research.