Journeys through the Russian Empire

The Photographic Legacy of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

Book Pages: 528 Illustrations: 409 illustrations, incl. 398 in color Published: July 2020

Art and Visual Culture > Architecture, Photography, European Studies > Eastern Europe and Russia

At the turn of the twentieth century, the photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky undertook a quest to document an empire that was undergoing rapid change due to industrialization and the building of railroads. Between 1903 and 1916 Prokudin-Gorsky, who developed a pioneering method of capturing color images on glass plates, scoured the Russian Empire with the patronage of Nicholas II. Intrepidly carrying his cumbersome and awkward camera from the western borderlands over the Volga River to Siberia and central Asia, he created a singular record of Imperial Russia.
In 1918 Prokudin-Gorsky escaped an increasingly chaotic, violent Russia and regained nearly 2,000 of his bulky glass negatives. His subsequent peripatetic existence before settling in Paris makes his collection's survival all the more miraculous. The U.S. Library of Congress acquired Prokudin-Gorsky's collection in 1948, and since then it has become a touchstone for understanding pre-revolutionary Russia. Now digitized and publicly available, his images are a sensation in Russia, where people visit websites dedicated to them.
William Craft Brumfield—photographer, scholar, and the leading authority on Russian architecture in the West—began working with Prokudin-Gorsky's photographs in 1985. He curated the first public exhibition of them in the United States and has annotated the entire collection. In Journeys through the Russian Empire, Brumfield—who has spent decades traversing Russia and photographing buildings and landscapes in their various stages of disintegration or restoration—juxtaposes Prokudin-Gorsky's images against those he took of the same buildings and areas. In examining the intersections between his own photography and that of Prokudin-Gorsky, Brumfield assesses the state of preservation of Russia's architectural heritage and calls into question the nostalgic assumptions of those who see Prokudin-Gorsky's images as the recovery of the lost past of an idyllic, pre-Soviet Russia.
This lavishly illustrated volume—which features some 400 stunning full-color images of ancient churches and mosques, railways and monasteries, towns and remote natural landscapes—is a testament to two brilliant photographers whose work prompts and illuminates, monument by monument, questions of conservation, restoration, and cultural identity and memory.


“In the current climate in the West, with the return to an awareness of Russia being coupled with a renewed sense of threat, William Craft Brumfield's work is a major catalyst for making people aware of the richness of Russian culture. Journeys through the Russian Empire is an innovative book and an invaluable resource for coming generations of cultural historians. Allowing an opportunity to consider loss over time and to think in terms of common human values, it is indispensable to both Russophiles and all those interested in wider issues of restoration, plans for public space, the impact of industrialization and modernization, and the consequences of large-scale population migration.” — Ann Kleimola, coeditor of Culture and Identity in Muscovy: 1359–1584

“As miraculous and prodigious as Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky’s photographic efforts were, William Craft Brumfield’s heroically resolute labor to record the Russian built environment of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is remarkable in its own way. For the past four decades, Brumfield has pursued buildings, cityscapes, and landscapes across the length of Russia, producing what has become the single most important record of the Russian built environment of our era. This period’s political tumult makes his work even more significant. Journeys through the Russian Empire is an important record of how Russia changed over a troubled century and will help readers appreciate what will come to be seen as lost worlds.” — Blair A. Ruble, coeditor of Rebounding Identities: The Politics of Identity in Russia and Ukraine

“Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky's eerie color photographs of the Tsarist empire, made in its waning years before war and revolution, record the serene glories of Russian architecture typically set in a softly glowing pre-industrial landscape. Beginning in the last decades of the Soviet Union, William Craft Brumfield has photographed these same widely dispersed monuments. The resulting juxtaposition of images, taken as much as a century apart, reminds the reader that buildings, like empires, have lives in time.” — John Beldon Scott, author of Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin

"This large-format book, 520 pages in length, contains some 400 stunning full-color images of ancient churches, towns, and landscapes taken by two great explorers, who have preserved so much of Russian culture through their photography." — Anna Sorokina, Russian beyond the Headlines

"This is a book to be approached slowly and with care. As you move through the eight regions of travel, there is much to be absorbed and to be savored including Brumfield’s narrative, which ends at the Solovetsky Transfiguration Monastery, an impressive array of buildings on the Solovetsky Archipelago in the White Sea. . . . This is rich journey worth taking for anyone with an interest in Russia and Russian culture, and it matters not at all whether you have been to Russia or not." — Richard Crepeau, New York Journal of Books

"At the asking price, this large-format book is a bargain, not just for 'content' but for the excellence of production values and design, enhanced by clearly drawn maps for each of the regions covered. Anyone interested in Russian or Central Asian history and culture would find pleasure in having this volume to savor." — Dan Waugh, Newsletter of the Early Slavic Studies Association

"The journeys wend through little-known towns like Belozersk and Rzhev, and the complexity of their churches and monasteries, full of tiny and intricate details, unfold like flowers before the eyes. Magnificent iconography, graceful 'onion' domes, wildly colorful exteriors, and blended architectural styles keep the eye roving, with descriptions that provide historical context and artistic merit. . . .  As intriguing as the photos are, Brumfield’s text draws readers in with tales of vast wealth and power and religious devotion. Moreover, Brumfield invites readers to consider not only the circumstances under which the buildings were built, but what happened after Prokudin-Gorsky captured them." — Faith Dawson, Tulane Today


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Fall2020 Online Sale
Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

William Craft Brumfield is Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University. Brumfield, who began photographing Russia in 1970, is the foremost authority in the West on Russian architecture. He is the author, editor, and photographer of numerous books, including Architecture at the End of the Earth: Photographing the Russian North and Lost Russia: Photographing the Ruins of Russian Architecture, both also published by Duke University Press. Brumfield is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center. In 2002 he was elected to the State Russian Academy of Architecture and Construction Sciences, and in 2006 he was elected to the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. He is also the 2014 recipient of the D. S. Likhachev Prize for Outstanding Contributions to the Preservation of the Cultural Heritage of Russia. In 2019 he was awarded the Russian state Order of Friendship medal—the highest decoration of the Russian Federation given to foreign nationals—for his study and promotion of Russia’s cultural legacy. Brumfield's photographs of Russian architecture have been exhibited at numerous galleries and museums and are part of the Image Collections at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  vii
Author's Note  ix
Introduction. An Unsentimental Journey  1
Part I. Documenting Cultural Legacies of an Empire
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky: Photographer of an Empire  13
The Intertwining of Two Collections  27
The Prokudin-Gorsky Collection, The Library of Congress  13
The William Craft Brumfield Collection, National Gallery of Art  33
Part II. Journeys
1. The Ancient Heartland  39
2. The West: From Smolensk Southward to Ryazan  101
3. The Northwest: From Lake Ladoga to the Volga Basin  167
4. The Upper Volga: From Valdai Heights to Torzhok  225
5. The Volga from Uglich to Yurevets  277
6. From the Ural Mountains to Siberia  351
7. Central Asia—Turkestan  413
8. North to the Solovetsky Islands  473
Conclusion. Above the Abyss: A Reflection on Photographs as an Instrument of Memory  497
Index  507
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