The exciting existence of Buckwheat!

During Prokudin-Gorskii’s multiple railroad borne photography trips, he took pictures of everything that was Russian at the time. Those pictures ranged from photos of peasants, beautiful landscapes, and manufacturing techniques, all the way to noble elites, and agriculture. For example this picture from the region around the Sim River, depicts an admittedly blurry photo of a expansive field of Buckwheat. At the time buckwheat was one of the major food sources in Russia, and one of the main livelihoods of many peasants. In earlier Russian history, the traditional grains grown and eaten were rye and oats. After the Emancipation of the serfs in 1861, wheat began to take over as the main grain in Russia. Before the Emancipation, wheat had mostly been grown by landlords, on what was called the demesne, or the personal land of the landlord,  and was primarily held for exports by the landlords. After the emancipation, wheat ended up also being grown by the emancipated serfs themselves, which led to the large uptake in exports shown by how in 1910, Russian wheat made up 36.4% of the worlds wheat trade. 

In the background of the picture you also see what the world digital library describes as a horse drawn plow. Even in the early 20th century horses were still heavily utilized the world around as the main beast of burden used in agriculture. It wouldn’t be until the 1930-1940s before tractors came onto the scene in large numbers.

map showing location of picture

What we are most likely seeing in this photo is an example of strip farming. In other words, the arable land would be divided into strips of land, which the Mir (commune) would then divvy up to the different households in the village. This was done so as to “maintain equality between households” (Agriculture in the Russian Empire, Wikipedia)

The picture has some unique aspects just in regards to the photography of the time, where due to the supremely long exposure times needed in order to take a photo, the subject of the photo would be unable to move for the duration of the photo being taken. In this pictures case, we can see how a breeze likely moved the stalks of buckwheat, blurring them in the end product which we see here.

While many of the photos taken by Prokudin-Gorskii were of better quality, and maybe more interesting than this, it’s hard to list something of more everyday importance in this era then the food and livelihood of the vast majority of peasants.

“Agriculture in the Russian Empire.” 2019. In Wikipedia.
“Buckwheat.” 1910. 1910.
“Demesne.” 2020. In Wikipedia.

5 Replies to “The exciting existence of Buckwheat!”

  1. Mike,

    I thought your post was interesting and very well done. I did not know that wheat was normally grown by landlords before the Emancipation in 1861 and I think that the massive shift following this event towards dominating the world’s wheat supply is fascinating. Do you think that this rise in wheat exports also connects to how poor the emancipated serfs were and their need to make money?

  2. I think its really crazy how something as simple as buckwheat can go through so much history. Also, I feel like as modern Americans we do take things like farming and raw wheat for granted, since it is already found in most of our carbs, already processed. This was really interesting to me because it showed how even plants can be subject to history, especially in the case of Russia

  3. This is a really cool image. I like the oversaturation of the colors a lot. It is also really interesting how this could be any field, any place, at any point in history. You can drive up into the Shenandoah Valley and find a scene identical to this . It really drives home the timelessness of agriculture- no matter what century you in, people still gotta eat

  4. I think it’s interesting that wheat was primarily an export crop until the emancipation of the serfs. I wonder what caused wheat to suddenly overtake oats and barley as the primary grain.

  5. Buckwheat IS exciting! Seriously, you should try some kasha (buckwheat) for breakfast — it will make you kick oatmeal to the curb and is super nutritious! I really appreciate your discussion of the changing pressures to sow more wheat vs. buckwheat, and really like the way you embedded the image that shows where the photo was taken on the map. Thanks also for highlighting the importance of the strip farming in this period.

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