Camels in Imperial Russia?

Turkmen Man with Camel and Sacks of Cotton     Weird right? When I think of Imperial Russia, the last thing that comes to mind is the thought of camels. This image is estimated to have been taken in 1911, by Prokudin-Gorskii, just out side of the town of Bayramaly, in what is now Turkmenistan. I think a lot of people have a misunderstanding of the sheer size of the Russian Empire at the turn of the 20th century, and how it stretched all the way down into the Middle East.

Right away, it’s hard not to notice the hundreds, if not thousands of large burlap looking sacks in the background, identical to the two draped across the camel. These sacks were filled with cotton, harvested from the local Murgab estate, and awaiting transportation to a processing facility or other type of gin. As the empire rapidly expanded into the region, cotton quickly became a major Russian interest in the Middle East.

Similar to the situations in other areas of the Russian Empire, labor in the areas of cotton production was brutal. According to John Whitman, “Methods of cultivation were primitive to an extreme degree, as were processing techniques, and labor requirements were heavy” (190). Men were worked like animals, planting, harvesting, and processing the cotton. The cotton was then placed on camels like the one above, and transported to the rapidly growing system of railways that were beginning to arise, as the industrial revolution reached the empire. Whitman continues, “the fiber was packed in loose bales without the benefit of pressing, and [carried for sometimes up to months]”(193). Laborers like the man above, would then have to travel with the slow convoy of camels, although not every route was as extensive as some of the longer range ones, that could take months. Most, if not all of the cotton was transported back to Moscow.

The man in the photo has quite an interesting outfit. At first glance, I wasn’t sure if i was looking at a man in the Russian Empire, or at a London guard. The man is wearing a telpek, a traditional Turkmen hat made of long dark wool with a leather base, that could be easily folded and stowed away, without damaging its shape (World of Hat).

Here you can see a modern telpek being worn in Turkmenistan.

Because of its extreme climates, Turkmenistan can get very cold during the winter, and there is no doubt a telpek would most certainly keep the wearer quite warm.

In conclusion, this Prokudin-Gorskii image, indirectly includes several of the key course themes we have discussed thus far in class. It shows evidence of the hard labor endured by the working class, that eventually led to revolt. It also shows how the dynamics of the industrial revolution were reaching the empire, as cotton was mass produced and shipped via railway. Lastly, it demonstrates how not everyone living in the Russian Empire was ethnically Russian, as many races and religions were under control of the Tsar.


Whitman, J. (1956). Turkestan Cotton in Imperial Russia. American Slavic and East European Review, 15(2), 190-205. doi:10.2307/3000976

9 Replies to “Camels in Imperial Russia?”

  1. Definitely Weird! And also pretty cool IMO. I think your analysis here is spot on and important for us to keep in mind as we think about how challenging it will be to accommodate the diverse demands and needs of so many kinds of people across such a huge expanse during a time of revolutionary change.
    Good job using the ASEER article to flesh out the background, and I think everyone reading this will appreciate having the down low on the Telpek.

    1. Dr. Nelson,

      Thanks for reading my post. Prior to stumbling across the photo, I had no idea that the Russian Empire was using camels to assist in labor. At first glance, I genuinely thought I was looking at a London Guard, and was interested on how similar the two outfits/uniforms look.

  2. Tanner,

    Your post, and the picture you chose, are an interesting view of how the Russian Empire operated at the start of the 20th century. Moreover, I did not know that camels played such a vital role in transporting goods over distances that great. From what you described, do you think that the Russian Empire would have been able to function in the same way without camels to move goods?

    1. Hi Michael, thanks for reading my post. To answer your question; yes I do think the empire would have been able to function with the same efficiency without the camels. They most likely would have used some other type of wagon or animal to transport the goods to the train stations, and possibly even extended the railways to the area where the cotton was being produced.

  3. Hi Tanner!
    This is so interesting! I never would have thought about camels being used in Imperial Russia. I think that it is easy to forget or not comprehend the sheer size of Russia, like you mentioned above, and I really enjoy the different perspective that your post gives. I also was not aware of how important cotton was in imperial Russia, and was excited to learn that. When did they stop using the camels for transport?

    1. Hey Lauren,

      I was also unaware of cotton production in the Russian Empire before doing this research. The empire was massive enough to encompass a wide variety of cultural/regional aspects that many do not associate with Russia. To answer your question, I do not know for sure. My guess is that they would have been used far longer than one would think, because of their ability to cross sandy ground, something that an early automobile would most likely struggle with.

  4. Hello there I am Andrew. Russia still to this day has many elements that you wouldn’t associate with Russia. In some communities in the Russian Federation near Chechnya you have communities operating under the tenants of Sharia law, which seems interesting as you would think that they would be operating under common “law” as Russia is a secular state, largely dominated by Orthodox Christians, but Russia is vast and to maintain rules over all they have to largely decentralize power. Russia has done this throughout their history, having strong autonomous regions that have their own laws and regulations. You mentioned Camels, and the varied cultures, in Imperial Russia. You may be shocked to know that, even excluding the regions like central Asia (that you mentioned in your post), many communities look like this, particularly in the northern Caucuses, that Russia controls. Many still dress in traditional clothing, and use pack animals for labor and for travel.

    1. Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for reading my post. Thats crazy to think that people still use pack animals on a consistent basis, however I can understand how people in a remote environment may be better off sticking to these methods. Russia definitely displays a unique cultural aspect that I would argue is unparalleled.

  5. Great Post,
    I was wondering if you knew anything about these types of imports before the great railroad system. Did Moscow have as big of an interest in these imports like cotton even before they had the means to acquire them much easier?

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