This photograph was taken by Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii in the town of Zlatoust in approximately 1909. At first glance, it appears to be a beautiful photograph with the delightful contrast of city and countryside. However, upon closer observation and research this photograph looks to me more like a visual representation of the great divide in the Russian Empire’s social class structure.
Serfdom was an integral part of Russian societal history until the mid to late 19th century when the Emancipation Statutes of 1861 abolished (using this word lightly) serfdom. Alexander II stated five years prior to the Emancipation Statutes that, “It is better to begin abolishing serfdom from above than to wait for it to begin to abolish itself from below.” (Freeze 203) By this Alexander II meant that to avoid revolution, the government would have to start what the people (serfs) wanted and deserved. However, despite his statements of belief and desire for abolition, it was not an easy task and it certainly was not quick or without challenges.
In many ways former serfs, then called peasants, were still second-class citizens (Freeze 206). This class system within Russian society emphasizes what I am calling the ‘great divide’ in that the peasants had practically nothing compared to squires and nobles, among others. Former serfs were allowed the rights of marriage, property acquisition, and trade conducting; However, the emancipation statutes still limited and disadvantaged these peasants in that for two years after their emancipation they were forced to continue their work, they were bound together in their own separate society under the principle of collective responsibility for taxes, etc., they lost land access and they were forced to pay redemption payments (Freeze 206-207). This emancipation was not the freedom that the serfs deserved or were looking for; Rather, it furthered the sharp divide between the have’s and the have-not’s. I believe that Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii was able to capture this dynamic in the above image of the Ai River valley.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed., New York, Oxford UP, 2009.
Prokudin-Gorskii, Sergei Mikhailovich. View of Zlatoust from the West. 1910. World Digital Library, http://www.wdl.org/en/item/5271/#q=Prokudin-Gorskii&page=4. Accessed 20 Jan. 2018.