Happy Little Trees


No, this isn’t a Bob Ross.  This seemingly innocuous and modestly named photograph ‘Forest’ is the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944), presumably shot in 1910 near the town Kyshtym in modern-day Chelyabinsk Oblast. As a chemist, Prokudin-Gorskii was primarily interested in showcasing the utilitarian aspects of the three-color photography process. He put it to great use in creating records of nature, as in this picture of a pine forest. More interestingly, however, the photo recalls a legacy of landscape art produced by painters of the “Itinerant movement” (peredvizhniki) in Russia’s cultural Golden Age, the late 19th century. Take, for example, Ivan Shishkin’s iconic painting Morning in a Pine Forest (1889), used even today on the wrapper of a popular chocolate candy:

Morning in a Pine Forest

Prior to artists such as Shishkin, the idea that Russia even has a landscape worth painting would have seemed absurd. Instead, Russian gentry would look for paintings of the Alps or the Italian countryside to flaunt their cosmopolitan good taste (Ely 254). Since the reforms of Peter the Great, Russia’s attention had been fixed exclusively on the West. It’s not until 1870 that the Peredvizhniki break away from the conservative Academy of Art, eventually overtaking it in popularity. At an exhibition in 1871, of 47 paintings 24 were landscapes; from then on, their popularity only increased (Ely 255). In literature, Russian nationalism finds its culmination perhaps most of all in Dostoevsky, whose characters have a habit of kissing the ground and “bathing the earth with their tears” in a bizarre quasi-pagan Orthodox devotion (Raskol’nikov in Crime and Punishment, Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov).
The landscape painters were only one facet of the peredvizhniki. Other members of the movement plainly showed the troubling inequality of the social classes, such as in Grigorii Myasoedov’s The Zemtsvo Eats Lunch (1872):

Земство обедает

The lower classes are seen squatting outside while the nobility drink wine inside.  Following the emancipation of the serfs, a climate of Slavophilism and Russian populism (narodnichestvo) took hold. Intellectual debates on how Russian society ought to go forward, on the meaning of art and its place in society, and much more gave way to an idealization of the peasant’s commune, an “embryonic unit of communism” (Freeze 226); intelligentsia even “flooded into the countryside for the purpose of fusing with the people.” (227) Since Peter I, Russia had been fixed to the West. Now Russia was struggling to determine a new national identity.


Ely, C. “Critics In The Native Soil: Landscape And Conflicting Ideals Of Nationality In Imperial Russia.” Ecumene 7.3 (2000): 253-270. Environment Complete. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, New York. 2009.

Image Sources: Wikipedia, Library of Congress

Этот пост заслужил Красную звезду от редакционной команды.

8 thoughts on “Happy Little Trees

  1. Loved how this analysis told a story through the physical geography of Russia into culminating with the peasantry commune and Russia’s inability to establish a identity. According to Freeze, the feuding between conservatives and modernists clashed sparking a counterrevolution to an already boiling revolution. The mention of the intelligencia was a great way to connect all of these feuding ideas.

  2. I appreciate your attention to the cultural aspects of industrialization in late Imperial Russia that are often overlooked. The analysis of the peredvizhniki makes an interesting parallel with industrialization’s move to smaller, more rural areas. The Russian landscape paintings of the realist painters helped take the focus off of the West, and helped build nationalism as you highlighted. Excellent use of paintings and sources! I encourage you to follow art’s role in Russia as the course continues.

  3. So you have one of my favorite candies and favorite paintings (the zemstvo dines) here! The process you describe, using Ely’s wonderful framework, of how Russians “discovered” a native landscape in the 19th century and how that worked to inspire both wonderful creative (and often critical) artistic output and a more complicated and deeper sense of national pride is really important. Thanks so much for writing about this! Peredvizhniki FTW.

  4. It is clear that you put a lot of effort into this post and it is fantastic! I think your points were thought out and well researched. I was especially interested in the point about Russian nationalism reflected through art and writing. It is very interesting to see how a need for a new national identity can be conveyed through art.

  5. I think your post was a very interesting way of looking at how people reacted to the changing of the guard in late 19th/early 20th century. The first photos of the trees definitely show that many Russians were very proud of their country, but the last photo alludes to the fact the country was changing and very divided. The emancipation serfs were still at the mercy of the nobility. I also liked your Dostoevsky factoid ( I always say that I’m going to read War and Peace or Brothers Karamazov but i never do… maybe one day).

  6. I like the fact that there seems to be no particular subject in this photo, rather the photo is meant to be enjoyed as a whole. I think a lot of the photos I’ve seen had a subject or a purpose behind them and I like that this seems to be for enjoyment. I also found the other art work you added very interesting as well. I liked how this photo led you to find similar images and a common theme of Russian artists. I particularly like the one were it shows the divide between the Russian peasants and the nobility.

  7. I find this post very interesting, namely because of the parallels between the early 20th century and post-soviet Russia. Russia previously looked West for its culture, art, and identity under Peter the Great. The movement in the 19th century towards establishing a truly Russian identity, and a sense of patriotic nationalism, is mirrored in today’s Russia. As Russia strives to define and forge a ‘Russian’ identity after the fall of the USSR, and the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church

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