Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. View of the Monastery from the Solarium, 1910. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Russia is a very different place than it used to be. These days, our image of the country that covers more than one eighth of the habitable land on the planet is probably more informed by silly old Cold War movies and batshit crazy photos of Vladimir Putin than it is Russia's complex history and culture.
But beneath that veneer of stern-faced spies and an action man taming wild animals, there's an entire world filled with yurts and artisans and Cossacks and mountains and tea. There's the Silk Road, the clashing of cultures and a dark past of serfdom. Much of this history was wiped out in the First and Second World War, when Russia lost a sizeable proportion of its population. This is why libraries exist.
The Library of Congress currently has an exhibition on what it calls "a lost world." With a series of photographs taken by Tsar Nicholas II favorite photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii that have been converted into color. The effect is sometimes stunning and sometimes perplexing as we look back at characters we've only heard about in Dostoyevsky novels. The collection of images spans from 1909 to 1915, just before World War I spread like a cancer across Europe and the eastern edge of the Russian Empire. Some of the people in the pictures probably died.
But that's what makes these pictures so compelling. Not the idea the part about people dying but rather the idea that history too has a lifespan, and after a certain amount of time, to a certain group of people, there are parts of the world and communities full of people that cease to exist because people stop remembering them. Looking at Prokudin-Gorskii's photos, though, it's clear that some of these pre-war Russians were pretty cool, the kind of serf you'd want to invite to a dinner party — especially the Dagestani dude with the medal on his chest and dagger in his hand.
Lately, we've been hearing more about the Caucasus Mountains and Dagestan and the area around Chechnya, so the Library of Congress's choice of subject matter makes sense, coincidentally. Along those lines, it's worth taking a look at what these places once were. It might give you a better understanding of what they've become.