The Story of the Bashkir Switchman

A Bashkir switch operator and guard stands next to train tracks in Ust-Katav (1910).

This picture, taken in 1910, showcases a Bashkir switch operator and guard next to train tracks located near Ust-Katav in the southern Ural Mountains. While the image may seem simple upon first glance, the deeper aesthetic, cultural, and political elements within present a much more interesting view.

To start with the picture’s aesthetic value, the main focal point is the Bashkir switchman centered along the left. The worker, dressed in black and wearing a Bashkir style hat, is holding a shovel while smiling for the picture. One can only assume that this event, his picture being taken by Prokudin-Gorskii, was a nice change of pace for a man who most likely worked long hours along the railroad. In addition to the man on the left, the picture’s main backdrop is the front of a mountain which the train tracks trail off into. These train tracks, part of the famous Trans-Siberian Railway, most likely supported countless trains on their journey across Russia’s south. These different elements all contribute to making a breathtaking image that presents how life was for a working man in Bashkir.

In connection with the aesthetic details, the main cultural and political elements center around the aforementioned worker. While the worker’s true identity may be unknown, his ethnicity is not, however, as the Bashkir people, located just north of present-day Kazakhstan, were an ethnic minority of Russia. This group was taken over in the 18th Century by a Russian invasion and “accelerated the economic boom begun in Petrine times…” (Freeze, Russia: A History, pg. 129). The area stayed under Russian control for the next 150 years through Tsar Nicholas II’s reign during which time this picture was taken by Prokudin-Gorskii. Described as being “historically populated by Turkish peoples” (Freeze, Russia: A History, pg. 154), the Bashkir people were integrated into Russian society a played a large role in its history.

I found this picture interesting due to its simplicity and the unknown background of the switchman. While one can assume certain details about his life, his name and personal history are reserved from the viewer which, in my opinion, creates a deeper meaning than if it was given. In addition, this connects to the topics covered in class as the working man in the picture is a member of the large peasant/working class that was present in Russia during this time period. Moreover, the reforms conducted by Tsar Nicholas II impacted his life greatly as they were mostly centered around the peasant class.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Prokudin-Gorskii. “Bashkir Switchman.” WDL RSS, Library of Congress, 1 Jan. 1970, Switchman.