Russia in Original Photographs 1860-1920
Readers of Russian literature and history in the czarist period are in debt to Professor Lyons, a Canadian military historian, for his first album of photographs: Nicholas II: The Last Tsar. He now moves on to the last scene of the Russian tragedy, in a magnificent volume that ends with a few pictures of the early street riots of the revolution, the civil war, the flight of the émigrés who got away from the southeast, and the disappearance of the ruling class. The scores of pictures are a selection from tens of thousands, mainly drawn from family albums, European collections, and private donors. (It does not appear, as far as I can tell, that any come from Soviet archives.)
Such a volume cannot be more than a sampling of life in a country so vast, where there are more than 110 nationalities and innumerable languages, and which to all foreign travelers seemed to be a passive chaos nominally but necessarily held together by a despot who was also thought of as a “father.” In St. Petersburg, Russia’s “window on the West,” they were struck by the mingling of races at the Imperial Court with its Poles, its Finns, its Germans, its Tartars, Georgians, and even Armenians. Pan-Slavism—or poor communications—had led to an extraordinary tolerance of all minorities except, of course, the Jews, who in theory were supposed to be held within the Pale of Settlement. Only two Jewish couples appear in the book. If Petersburg was the Western father, Moscow was the near-Oriental mother in the period Professor Lyons presents.
Many volumes would be required to cover such a scene, as he says, but he has cleverly picked out the salient elements, and his short introductions to sections like the court or official society, provincial life, the land, the Asiatic tribes, are pithy and penetrating. To émigrés and to people of Russian descent the volume will be intolerably moving, for Russians never lose their atavistic longing for their soil. For ourselves the pictures are the “mute evidence” of a generation moving toward tragedy unawares. The very fact that photography was still a novelty at the time and was dominated by the long, still exposure which gives an old-fashioned stolidity to the subjects hides the conflicts that are coming to a head.
It is usual to think of czarist Russia as a land in which 80 percent of the people were peasants, governed, under the czar, by his bureaucracy, the aristocracy, the army, and an Orthodox Church already in decline. But by this time, industrialism was rising in the cities and the railways had greatly changed the scene. (How many of the decisive scenes in Russian novels take place in trains and at railway stations: the stagnant population begins to move.) For the visitor from the West the puzzle was the aristocracy. On paper, Russian society was hierarchical and as carefully stratified as a civil service. Status, however obscure, was apparently indelible. But if over one million Russians belonged to…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.