The Final Years of Pre-Soviet Russia, Captured in Glorious Color

As long as there have been empires, there have been monarchs presenting them to the world through rose-colored lenses. Under Czar Nicholas II, blue and green got introduced to the palette.

In 1909, Nicholas authorized Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii to document his empire using a new technique called additive color. Over a period of about six years,

Prokudin-Gorskii took some 10,000 pictures, systematically chronicling Russia’s rich culture, industry, and architecture.

His stunning photos capture the breadth of life in the last days of an empire, its rugged frontiers and rural landscapes, and the signs of its growing industrial might.

They were meant to be presented as “optical color projections” to the nation’s school children, to expose them to the dazzling diversity of Russian life they wouldn’t otherwise see.

The images offer a rare glimpse of pre-revolutionary Russia, in color so vivid it’s easy to forget they’re a century old.

They operate on the now familiar principle that a wide range of colors can be reproduced by combining monochrome exposures in red, green, and blue. 

To achieve this, Prokudin-Gorskii used three oblong glass plates to snap black and white slides in quick bursts through colored filters. James Clerk Maxwellin first proposed the technique in the mid 1800s, and it’s still used today in many televisions and computer monitors.

Prokudin-Gorskii, a Renaissance man who also dabbled in chemistry, painting and music, had been toying with the idea of chronicling Russia in color for at least a year before proposing it to the Czar.

After studying in Germany with color photography pioneer Adolf Miethe, Prokudin-Gorskii gained a reputation as an innovator in the field, even managing to get a color portrait of Russian literary titan Leo Tolstoy.

That photo helped earn him an audience with Nicholas II, who gave his blessing for the project and even cleared a special railroad car with a darkroom built into it.

Prokudin-Gorskii traveled far and wide taking his pictures up through the October Revolution of 1917, but left Russia the next year and ultimately wound up in Paris with some 3,500 negatives and prints.

In 1948, the Library of Congress bought the negatives for around $5,000.

In 2000, they were digitally realigned for an exhibition, eliminating many of the glitchy color errors that had resulted from combining the exposures by hand, or the slight movement of subjects between shots.

The pictures shown here are the more polished results of those computer-assisted methods, but the old versions have a colorful charm of their own.

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