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Time Travel: Russia A Hundred Years Ago

(The following is a post by Harold M. Leich, Russian Area Specialist, European Division.)

A 1906 portrait photograph of Prokudin-Gorskii taken in France. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944), an innovator in the field of color photography, was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II to document the vast Russian Empire between the years 1909 and 1915.

The Library of Congress’ Prokudin-Gorskii Collection of color photographs featuring the people, buildings, and landscapes of tsarist Russia offers an unparalleled view into Russia’s past. It also covers areas that are now in independent countries such as Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Among these photographs are surveys of eleven regions where Prokudin-Gorskii traveled, in some cases using a specially equipped Ministry of Transportation railroad car.

A chemist by training, Prokudin-Gorskii was familiar with the techniques of the foremost European photographers of the time. His own inventions included a special camera, with which he photographed the same scene three times in rapid, split-second sequence on a 3-inch by 9-inch glass plate. By exposing the image sequentially through a red, green, and blue filter, he was able to create color images. He then presented these images in color-slide lectures using a light-projection system involving the same three filters.

Image before and after digitization. Prokudin-Gorskii on the right. Photo taken in Murmansk, 1915. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Image before and after digitization. Prokudin-Gorskii on the right. Photo taken in Murmansk, 1915. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A year after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Prokudin-Gorskii left the country, traveling first to Norway and England before settling in France, where he died in 1944. Fortunately, he had been able to take his slides with him. About 1,900 of these glass negatives, as well as other photographs he had taken, were acquired from his heirs by the Library of Congress in 1948.  The entire collection was digitized in 1999-2000 and may be viewed on the Library of Congress website, with various options for searching and browsing the images. In 2001 the Library of Congress displayed a selection of color prints made from the glass negatives at an exhibition, “The Empire That Was Russia: The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated.” The historically important, enhanced pictures would not have been possible without the laboriously obtained originals.

Image before and after digitization. Bukhara bureaucrat, Bukhara. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Image before and after digitization. Bukhara bureaucrat, Bukhara. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Enthusiasts still study the life and work of this dedicated photographer whose images make the past come to life. For instance, Vasily Driuchin, founder and director of the Prokudin-Gorskii Museum in Moscow visited the Library of Congress in February 2017 to use early-20th-century photographic journals unavailable in Russia.

Image before and after digitization. Three young women offer berries to visitors to their “izba,” a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River, near the town of Kirillov, 1909. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Image before and after digitization. Three young women offer berries to visitors to their “izba,” a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River, near the town of Kirillov, 1909. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Driuchin is also one of the founders of an important website, “The Legacy of S.M. Prokudin-Gorsky,” and a blog that discusses all aspects of the photographer’s life and work. The availability of these magnificent color photographs on the Library’s website has generated great interest in Russia, as people there discover full-color images of their country from more than one hundred years ago.

Vasily Driuchin examining a Russian periodical published in Paris in the 1930s with the Library’s Russian Specialist, Harold Leich.

Vasily Driuchin, with European Division Chief, Grant Harris, holding a copy of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photograph of the Solovetsky Monastery on the White Sea.

Aesop’s Fables at the Library of Congress

(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist, European Division.) “Aesop’s Fables” have been known for well over two millennia, and have been published in numerous languages and various configurations. Expressions such as “sour grapes,” “birds of a feather flock together,” “familiarity breeds contempt,” and “slow and steady wins the race,” have their […]

Art & War: Les Croix de bois

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The Art of Reading Runes

(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist, European Division.) Many students in today’s globalized world learn more than one script in order to prepare for the future. However, not too many immerse themselves in writing systems of the past. Things were different for 19th-century school children in Sweden. Claës Johan Ljungström’s “Rúna-list, […]

19th-Century Slovenian Primers and Readers

(The following is a post by Helen Fedor, Reference Specialist, European Division.) Slovenian children in the 19th-century commonly learned to read using primers, or ABC-books, and then graduated to readers — books composed specially for practice in reading gradually-more-difficult texts. Texts for readers are selected, or written, for a specific level of reading ability, and […]

Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-89)

(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist, European Division.) A colorful figure and the subject of much fascination, and scandalized conjecture over the years, Sweden’s Queen Christina (in Swedish, Kristina) was born in Stockholm in December 1626.  She was educated as befitted a royal male since, as an only child, she was […]

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(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, Area Specialist, European Division.) Among the many fascinating items found in the Library of Congress collections is a volume consisting of the first 45 issues of Atuagagdliutit, the Inuit-language (Kalâtdlisut) newspaper from the years 1861 to 1864. Published in Greenland under difficult conditions where paper occasionally froze […]

“Lions and Tigers and Bears”: Natural History Illustration and Ephemera in the Library of Congress Yudin Collection

(The following is a post by Bethany Wages, 2016 Junior Fellow, with Barbara Dash, Rare Book Cataloger.) The Library of Congress acquired the Yudin Collection from the Siberian bibliophile Gennadii Yudin (1840-1912) in 1906. It represents the largest personal Russian library in the United States and is the foundation of the Library’s Russian-language collections. This […]

Art & War: Responses to World War I in France

(This is the first in a series featuring literary and other artistic “Responses to World War I” in the Library of Congress collections. This post is by Marianna Stell, who interns for both the European Division and the Rare Book & Special Collections Division.) Upon hearing the term “avant-garde,” most of us probably think of […]

Soviet-Era Children’s Books: The Oleg Grushnikov Collection at the Library of Congress

(The following post is by Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist, European Division. It is based on an article by Barbara L. Dash, Rare Materials Section, published in “Slavic and East European Information Resources,” 11:2-3 (2010): [110]-119.) The Grushnikov Collection of more than 6,000 Soviet-era children’s books published between the 1920s and the 1990s is a treasure […]