The Bakalskii Mine Pit


The Ural Mountains are located in western Russia and are known for having large resources of iron, minerals and even semi-precious gemstones. This mountain range has been mined since the 1500s, and this image by Sergei Michailovich Prokudin-Gorskii depicts a small, family-run mine in the Bakaly hills outside of Yekaterinburg. It was one of the first major cities to be industrialized, with Tsar Peter the Great taking full advantage of the proximity of the iron deposits and ores in the hills outside the city. He took note that these natural resources would be a critical component of, “the rapid industrial development necessary to bolster Russia’s military power.”* The location of the city was crucial to international affairs, as it served as a major cultural/industrial center between Russia and Europe, as well as the capital and administrative center of Sverdlovsk Oblast (essentially a Russian state).

Now, onto the picture. I find it so fascinating, mostly because mining labor isn’t the first job that comes to mind when one mentions Russian serfdom. The Freeze text mentions an innumerable amount of reforms that concern the emancipation of the serfs, but many of them deal with agriculture as opposed to industry. Granted, these reforms weren’t concerned with the industrial revolution, they focused on emancipating the serfs from their obligations on farms as well as the revolts that arose from the changes. That leads me to wonder what, if any, reforms were directed toward the mining of the Ural Mountains. This may be a line of inquiry that I can explore in future blog posts!

Freeze notes that Russian industry was painfully slow to develop; machinery had to be imported, as well as a large portion of its iron and steel to facilitate industrialization, but industrialization could not be spread without a railroad to transport these goods. Laboring workers, serfs or otherwise, were equally hard to come by.† Granted, this was occurring in the late 19th century, a good 25 years before the Prokudin-Gorskii picture was taken. While reading the text, it seems that Russian people can be divided into quite a few classifications. I know very little from looking at this picture, but from what I’ve deduced from Freeze’s descriptions, I would say these people fall between the workers, meschane (“rank and file ‘burghers'” [221])†, and peasants. The worker class being made up of citizens who had roots in the “metallurgical and textile plants of the eighteenth century.” [222]. The meschane was comprised of pretty much everyone who wasn’t nobility, clergy or professionals: “ranging from petty merchants and skilled artisans to the unemployed, unskilled and unwanted.” [222]†. Regarding the peasants, Freeze explains that the family unit began to change from the “gradual breakup of the patriarchal, extended family,” to the “formation of smaller, independent family units.” [221]†.

So where did families such as this one stand in Russian society? What kind of mine was this family operating? Were these people former serfs who were finishing up their obligations to land-owners? There is frustratingly little information on these peasant miners, but the Russian government was busy quieting the discontent on the agricultural front, pushing the industry to the side for the time-being. Unfortunately, this picture has really brought up more questions than answers, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. The beauty of Prokudin-Gorskii’s images is that they can tell a story if you just take the time to do a little digging after the first glance; they implore the viewer to learn as much as possible about this tiny slice of Russian history and culture on the eve of an immensely important revolution.

This image is titled: Work at the Bakalskii Mine Pit
Created by: Prokudin-Gorskii, Sergei Mikhailovich, 1863-1944Permanent Record:

*United States. Consulate General of the United States, Yekaterinburg, Russia. Yekaterinburg & Sverdlovsk Oblast: History, Politics and Economics. Print. <>.

† Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 216, 221-222. Print.

25 Responses

  1. I think you hit the nail right on the head when you pointed out that mining in definitely not a type of labor you first think of when thinking of Russia. Since Russia went from a mostly agrarian economy straight to an industrial economy, labor like this seemingly was overshadowed in the transition. Did industrialization immediately improve mine work, or did new technology take awhile to reach these more isolated areas of Russia? I would definitely be interested in future blog posts about how the reforms did or did not affect the Ural Mountains and mining.

  2. This is a terrific post and you’ve done a wonderful job of providing specific and relevant detail about the imperial social structure and identifying the significant questions raised by the image. A future post about mining would be MOST welcome! If you are interested, why don’t you work up something on the Lena Gold Fields massacre and the importance of miners and mining in the early twentieth century?

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