By the eve of World War I, Russia had undergone rapid industrial development, much of it fueled by foreign investment and the import of technology from Western Europe. Key industries included textiles, metal-working, and chemical and oil production. At the same time, many people lived in appallingly backward conditions, especially in the countryside.
Prokudin-Gorskii documented the economic life of the empire in all its variety. He photographed farmers cultivating fields and the production of grain in the temperate regions of European Russia; the harvesting of cotton, tea, and other crops in the warmer regions of the south; artisans in small shops; and large new factories equipped with the newest Russian and imported machines. Economic conditions in these same areas drastically worsened during World War I, contributing to the growth of revolutionary movements and ultimately the overthrow of the tsar and the destruction of the empire.
Windmills in Ialutorovsk County
Wooden mills using wind-power to grind wheat and rye are photographed in the middle of summer on the vast Siberian plain in rural Ialutorovsk county in Western Siberia.
Study of Three Generations, Zlatoust
A. P. Kalganov poses with his son and granddaughter for a portrait in the industrial town of Zlatoust in the Ural Mountain region of Russia. The son and granddaughter are employed at the Zlatoust Arms Plant—a major supplier of armaments to the Russian military since the early 1800s. Kalganov displays traditional Russian dress and beard styles, while the two younger generations have more Westernized, modern dress and hair styles.
Turkmen Camel Driver
Wearing traditional dress and headgear, a Turkmen camel driver poses with his camel, laden with what is most likely grain or cotton. Camel caravans remained the most common means of transporting food, raw materials, and manufactured goods in Central Asia well into the railroad era.
Tea Weighing Station
This photo shows the interior of a tea packaging and weighing operation located at the Chakva tea farm and processing plant just north of Batumi, close to the Black Sea coast in what is now the Republic of Georgia. The Chakva farm and plant was one of the major suppliers of tea to all parts of the Russian Empire.
Dressed in traditional Central Asian attire, a vendor of locally grown melons poses at his stand in the marketplace of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan.
A merchant at the Samarkand market displays colorful silk, cotton, and wool fabrics as well as a few traditional carpets. A framed page of the Koran hangs at the top of the stall.
Factory Interior with Electrical Generators
In his quest to record the development of the empire, Prokudin-Gorskii photographed this unidentified industrial factory interior with large electrical generators. The generators in this photograph have markings that indicate they were manufactured in Budapest, Hungary.
Textile Mill Interior
Shown here is the interior of a textile mill that produces thread from locally grown cotton. The location, though unidentified, is most likely in Tashkent which is known for textile production. Because of the warm, dry climate, Central Asia—and particularly Uzbekistan—was an ideal location for growing and processing cotton for the entire empire.
Production of Artistic Casting
Founded in 1747, the Kasli Iron Works, was located in the heart of the Ural Mountains between the cities of Ekaterinburg and Cheliabinsk—a region rich in iron ore. The plant was known for the high quality of its cast iron products and for its highly-skilled work force, which numbered over three thousand persons at the time this photograph was taken.
Workers, identified by Prokudin-Gorskii as Greeks, pose while harvesting tea from plants spreading over rolling hills near Chakva, on the east coast of the Black Sea. This region of the Russian Empire, in present day Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, had a significant Greek minority, some families going back many centuries to the Classical and Byzantine eras.
Cotton Field in Sukhumi Botanical Garden
The moderate, Mediterranean-like climate of the Black Sea region allowed cultivation of crops that would not grow in most parts of the empire, such as tea and cotton. Sukhumi, on the east coast of the Black Sea in what is now the northwestern part of the Republic of Georgia, had an important botanical garden and experimentation station. Shown here is a stand of cotton plants at the Sukhumi Botanical Gardens.
The Bakalskii Mine
The Ural Mountain region is noted for the richness of its iron deposits and ores. The Bakaly hills, in the area outside the city of Ekaterinburg, provide the locale for a small-scale family mining operation.
Cementing the Foundation of a Sluice Dam
Workers and supervisors pause for a photograph amid preparations for pouring cement foundations for a sluice dam across the Oka River southeast of Moscow, near the small town of Dedinovo.
In a photograph taken near Samarkand, an old man, probably an ethnic Tajik, holds birds he has just caught. Samarkand and its region were noted for wide diversity in ethnic groups, including Uzbeks, Tajiks, Persians, and Arabs as well as the more recently arrived Russians.
Monks at Work Planting Potatoes
Monks wearing traditional habits plant potatoes in fields reclaimed from the dense conifer forest at the Gethsemane Hermitage on Lake Seliger near the headwaters of the Volga River.
An early autumn scene from 1909 shows farmers taking a short break from their work to pose for their photograph. The location, though unidentified, is probably near the town of Cherepovets in north central European Russia.
Borzhomi is a small town in the Caucasus Mountains in the interior of what is now the Republic of Georgia. Noted for its mineral waters, it was a fashionable spa at the end of the nineteenth century. Shown here are elegantly dressed visitors posing for a photograph by the Ekaterinin, (“Catherine's”) Spring.
Agricultural Fields Near Samarkand
The city of Samarkand was surrounded by oases and agricultural regions that supported the urban population. Traditional food crops grown on fields such as these included melons, wheat, beans, rice, and barley.