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 https://www.jstor.org/stable/3000976?seq=4#metadata_info_tab_contents