Depicted above is a self-portrait of the famed Russian photographer, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. In looking through the many images he captured in his journey around Russia between 1907 and 1915, I found it remarkable how much he was able to capture about Russian society in its build-up to revolution. Although he may have been able to sense the impending chaos, he could not have known for certain that a revolution was looming so near on the horizon and yet he still managed to paint a vivid picture of the many harbingers of revolution in early 20th century Russia. It is for this reason, as well as his career as a chemist (I am a biochemistry major and naturally have a soft spot for the life sciences), that I decided to choose this image in my post.
Prokudin-Gorskii was an eclectic man with a wide range of interests that he pursued on and off throughout his life. His interests in science and art overlapped in the early 1900’s, which led to his pioneering efforts in color photography using a process known as digichromatography. It is for this discovery that he gained his fame and was able to gain permission from Tsar Nicholas II to travel Russia and document the great diversity in the people and the culture during this great transformation in Russian history. Just from this one image alone, you can see the shift toward the westernization of Russia in Prokudin-Gorskii’s attire and even in his more relaxed posture for the photograph. But in delving into his history it became evident that his life, knowingly or not, was intertwined in the web of change Russia experienced in his lifetime.
In addition to his work in photography, Prokudin-Gorskii also spent a period of his life working as a chemist under Dmitri Mendeleev, who, for those who don’t know, is credited with the creation of our Periodic Table of Elements. Mendeleev is one of the most famous chemists in history and I was immediately intrigued by the connection between him and Prokudin-Gorskii. In reading through the histories of each of these men, I couldn’t help but notice how their lives illustrated the educational reforms going on in Russia in the pre-revolution era. In the 1860’s, the Russian government put forward two educational statutes, The Elementary School Statute of 1864 and the University Statute of 1863, in order to bolster education for the newly “freed” serfs and remove some of the restrictions already in place in the university system. Coincidentally, Prokudin-Gorskii was born in 1863, the same time that these educational reforms were put in place. He was born into nobility due to his family’s long military history so it is unlikely that he would have experienced any troubles in trying to obtain an education; however, his reasoning for his photography journey across Russia does tie him to these educational reforms. His motivation, as he is said to have stated, was to educate schoolchildren about Russia’s history and modernization. The idea of the advancement of education, most notably to overcome rampant illiteracy but also to create “good citizens”, in the entirety of the Russian population was a feeling that Prokudin-Gorskii shared with the Russian government at this period, albeit for different reasons, whether he knew it or not.
In addition, Mendeleev provides a great example of the relative success of the educational reforms at expanding the opportunity of education to a greater portion of the public. Growing up, Mendeleev would have been considered to be in the middle levels of Russian social hierarchy, and despite his obvious intuition, was rejected from the university in Moscow. This was roughly 15 years before the educational reforms mentioned above took place, and was at a time when education was still reserved primarily for the nobility. Mendeleev eventually worked his way into the university system, and was able to expand his research after the University Statute of 1863 which led to his nobel prize in 1906.
The educational reforms imposed by the Russian government during the pre-revolutionary era did succeed in expanding education but also helped to create a more intelligent informed society that was able to orchestrate the major revolutions in the years to come. Prokudin-Gorskii can be tied, however loosely, to this step toward radical change as well as to many other areas thanks to his photographic collection. His work fabulously highlights the steady build-up to a new Russia.
Picture title: On the Karolitskhali River
Photo Credit to Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii
Permanent Record: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/gorskii.html
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia A History. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009. 199-233. Print.