Old Ekaterinburg through the lens of Prokudin-Gorsky

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Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky, self-portrait 1912

I have had the pleasure of visiting the Ural city of Ekaterinburg on three occasions over the past six years: 2012, 2016, and most recently in July 2018. Out of all the Russian cities which I have visited since 1986, Ekaterinburg has become my favourite. 

It is a city rich in history, and the setting for one of the darkest pages in 20th century Russian history: the final days and murder of Russia’s last tsar Nicholas II and his family in the Ipatiev House on the night of 16/17 July 1918.

Sadly, the city is overlooked by most visitors to Russia. It is seldom included in group tours, relying mainly on foreigners travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express. Many of them stay for only one or two nights, which really is not enough time to explore and appreciate what Ekaterinburg has to offer. Having said this, however, Ekaterinburg is becoming increasingly popular with Chinese tourists, and the FIFA World Cup matches held in the city in June 2018 have helped spread the word to foreigners, that Ekaterinburg is indeed worth visiting.

As a devout book collector, I have always been on the hunt for pictorials, which offer vintage photographs of what life was like in Russia before the 1917 Revolution. During my most recent visit to Ekaterinburg, my book hunting skills produced a couple of gems to add to my personal home/office library.  

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Дом Ипатьева: летописная хроника в документах и фотографиях

“Дом Ипатьева: летописная хроника в документах и фотографиях” (Ipatiev House. Documentary and Photographic Annals. 1877-1977) by photojournalist and historian Vitaly Shytov. Published in 2013 in a hard cover edition in Chelyabinsk by the Auto-Count Publishing House, the book features more than 700 pages and more than 1,000 photographs. Only available in Russian. Shytov has dedicated 40 years of study to the tragic history of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. There were only 500 copies printed, and it remains the the most comprehensive study of the Ipatiev House to date. Sadly, Shytov’s research has been virtually ignored by Western historians, who have written on the last days of the Imperial family in the ‘House of Special Purpose’. 

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Екатеринбург: История города в фотографии

Екатеринбург: История города в фотографии. Том 1: Вторая половина XIX – начало XX веков (Ekaterinburg: History of the City in Photographs. Volume I. Second half of 19th – early 20th century) by A.V. Berkovich and O. A. Bukharkina. Second edition published in 2015 by the Ekaterinburg City Administration. Published in a hardcover edition, the book features 208 pages, and more than 200 vintage photographs. Despite the Cyrillic text on the book’s cover, the contents are in both Russian and English.

The latter presents a very different view of Ekaterinburg, in that it presents for the first time, a selection of historic photos from the most famous photographer of old Ekaterinburg Veniamin Leontiyevich Metenkov (1857-1933).

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The Metenkov House and Photographic Museum is situated near the Church on the Blood in Ekaterinburg

Sadly, the Revolution destroyed the photography business which Metenkov created. He died in obscurity in 1933, his name forgotten for more than half a century. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the house where Metenkov lived and worked was turned into a museum named after him. Until recently Metenkov’s archive was believed to be lost, however, a persistent search for the photographers’ legacy yielded the discovery of more than 200 negatives in the funds of the Sverdlovsk Oblast State Archive. 

Another noteworthy Ekaterinburg photographer was the city doctor Vladimir Alexandrovich Paduchev (1859-1919). The Paduchev family archive of more than 500 negatives focus on the private world of the city middle class, taken during the first decade of the 20th century. The collection lay hidden in an old barn for more than a century, before their discovery.

ALL colour photographs below are courtesy of the Ekaterinburg City Administration

The unique photographic view of Pre-Revolutionary Russia and Ekaterinburg, however, belong to the pioneer of colour photography Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944).

His photos of Russia’s nature and monuments earned him invitations to show his work to the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich and the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1908, and to Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1909. The Tsar enjoyed the demonstration, and, with his blessing, Prokudin-Gorsky got the permission and funding to document Russia in colour. In the course of ten years, he was to make a collection of 10,000 photos.

Using a railroad-car darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorsky traveled the Russian Empire from 1905 to 1915, using his three-image colour photography to record its many aspects. He arrived in Ekaterinburg in 1909, where he gave lectures and visited Veniamin Metenkov at his home. Metenkov accompanied Prokudin-Gorsky on his trips in and around the city, suggesting interesting locations to be photographed. 

Prokudin-Gorskii left Russia in 1918, after the Russian Revolution, and eventually settled in Paris, where he died in 1944. While some of his negatives were lost, Library of Congress purchased a collection of more than 2,600 images from the photographer’s sons in 1948.

All three photographers are represented in this handsome volume. Their legacies transcend a century, allowing the reader to look back to a unique and beautiful city, far removed from the ancient Russian capital of Moscow, and the glittering Imperial capital of St. Petersburg. These images document daily life in the Ural city, which has changed beyond recognition, many historic landmarks lost forever, and only the photographs preserve the flow of a lost world. 

© Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 5 September 2018