Snapshot of The Empire: Life of the Peasantry in Russia

It’s the year 1915, the first world war is in full swing. Russia is fighting the Germans and Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eastern front. Death and destruction are everywhere. However, while this is happening a famous Russian photographer, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863–1944) is commissioned to complete something much more peaceful but no less compelling. What would be one of his last trips Sergei travels with the minister of transportation to photograph the people of Russia. His photos were in color with a unique technique he invented himself. The process involved using black-and-white triple-frame glass plate negatives, made with color separation filters to produce colored images.


This picture was taken along the Murmansk Railroad which was built by the Russian government during World War I to connect Petrograd to the ice-free port of Romanov-on-Murman. The construction lasted from 1914 to the spring of 1917 when the line was completed. The photograph shows a wooden hand press for baling hay. Although the caption does not identify the location, according to my research the place is in the vicinity of the town of Kondopoga in the north-western part of Russia. The peasants are baling hay in preparation for winter. The bearded man wearing a hat seems to be supervising the operation, while three workers in caps stand ready to operate the baling press. On the other side of the press stands a youth in a semi-military tunic, commonly worn during World War I. Behind him is a group of village children, including girls whose heads are covered in white scarves. The hay is taken from a tall drying rack, which is typical of the region.

The photo is interesting because it shows that for many people in Russia the industrial revolution had not yet come and that for many, life involved hard long back-breaking work. I wonder just how long it would take these men to bale all of that hay, and just how much would they get paid for that or was it used on livestock? The people in the picture raise many different questions. For instance, why is one man dressed in a kind of military uniform, has he just taken a break from war to help his family or is the war over for him, was he hurt and is this all he can do now? Do the women in the preform photo, do they also assist in baling the hay, if not what are their jobs? These are the questions that intrigue me, and that I would have to perform more research on to find out.





8 thoughts on “Snapshot of The Empire: Life of the Peasantry in Russia

  1. Erdely, your post has a direct correlation to my photo. My chosen photo was of peasants who were in the process of “haying” the fields, or as we now refer to it, bailing hay. While examining my photo, I had the question of what would happen to this hay after it was harvested? Although it is not entirely clear, it hints to the idea that the hay was compacted in bails (for easier transportation) and then distributed or transported by rail line.
    You also ask many question about the haying process, which I believe I could be of assistance. According to a book written about the agrarian lifestyle of individuals in Wyoming, during the early 20th century, it took about 45 days to complete the haying process. I use this comparison only because, both these families and the Russian farmers used only domestic tools, no industrial equipment. I would also have to add that the time would also depend on the size of the fields. To answer your question about the women, yes they did assist in the haying process as well as their children.
    Garceau, Dee. “The Important Things in Life: Women, Work, and Family in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, 1880-1929”. Canadian Journal of History. Accessed January 22, 2018.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a great idea to think about comparisons between putting up Hay in the Northwest of the US and in Imperial Russia! I think this photograph is staged — the women for example, were certainly working, but had stopped and were waiting while the photograph was being taken. In this period, I doubt the hay was transported very far — most of it would have been stored nearby for use as fodder during the winter. The bales were easier to move and store than the kind of haystacks you wrote out — which would have been used directly from the field.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Justin Kane

    Great post! I really enjoyed reading this one. Something that I noticed immediately when looking at the photo (that you later mentioned) was the diverse group of people working on the railroad. I was happy to see you also caught that and were curious about the back story to that. It seems to me like some soldiers could be commissioned to help with the railroad while others are at battle? It leaves my mind wondering!


  3. I enjoy the photo you picked for how well it captures, as you mentioned, an average day in the life at that particular time in Russia. Even without the specifics of exactly who these people are it gives a sense of their work and the mood of the time. It is particularly interesting to me that the women in the background behind the wooden press are there. They look like they are taking a short break from work themselves. What are they doing? Would they be expected to help with the hay or are they more agricultural workers from some local crops?


  4. Hi, I really enjoyed your post! Due to Russia’s diversity and vastness, different technologies and ways of life distributed very unevenly across the empire. You showed this very well, both through the obvious diversity in the photo and your discussion of the industrial revolution. Why do you think that the industrial revolution had not yet hit that area as much as other places in Russia?


  5. Jim, this was a really interesting picture that you chose and it definitely offers a lot of information in regards to individual’s livelihoods during this time period. You raised some really good points that I never really considered when I first saw this picture. I would really like to see you do some more research into the reasoning behind why a Russian soldier would be there. I’m guessing that this was due to the fact that the war, and more importantly the revolutions, were draining Russia of her resources during the time this picture was taken. Maybe the motherland needed some extra hands to keep the country running – soldiers were once viable source of labor.


  6. I also responded to a picture of construction on the Murmansk Railroad, and I thought it was really interesting that you were able to figure out approximately where along the route the picture was taken. I was not quite as lucky, unfortunately. Another thing I liked that you did was your inclusion of the photographic process he used, as that is something I find fascinating.


  7. Eric Iredale

    After having looked through some of the images it is interesting how the expressions and environment give off different auras. Such as your image here and the image I used of farmers where the workers seem more stoic and focused, yet other images of resting dogs or smiling railroad guards give off a contrasting feel. Looking in the past during times such as World War I it can be hard to imagine that despite the focus required in this time people could still be happy and comfortable.


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