31 Imperial Russia Photos That Reveal History In Stunning Color

Published December 9, 2014
Updated December 22, 2021

These haunting color images of Imperial Russia show a world on the verge of revolution and about to change forever.

Imperial Russia In Color
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky was born in Vladimir Oblast, Russia in 1863. Combining his work in chemistry with art, he pioneered color photography by taking three photos in succession through red, green and blue filters that would become a composite color photo.

Leo Tolstoy
Gorsky’s photo of Leo Tolstoy would gain him fame among the royals, and he would soon receive funding to document Russia in color for Tsar Nicholas II from 1909 to 1915.

Imperial Russia In Color Girls
Gorsky’s work captured the diversity of the Russian Empire’s citizens, from rural peasants to royalty.

Photos Of Imperial Russia
A zindan, or prison, in Bukhara, of modern day Uzbekistan. Zindans were typically built underground. Source: Wikimedia

Russia In Color Dagestan
A couple wearing traditional clothing poses for Gorsky in Dagestan.

Russia In Color Krygyz
Gorsky was granted special access to restricted areas of the Empire. Here, he photographs a nomadic Kyrgyz family on the steppe. Source: Wikimedia

Russia In Color Jewish Teacher
A Jewish teacher instructs his students in Samarkand, an intellectual and economic hub on the Silk Road. Samarkand is a highly diverse city, home to Tajiks, Persians, Arabs, Jews and Russians. Source: Wikimedia

Imperial Russia In Color Children
Russian children relax on a hillside near White Lake, in northern European Russia. Source: Wikimedia

Emir Khan of Bukhara
Shortly after his rise to power, Emir Khan of Bukhara posed for a portrait for Gorsky. Bukhara was a vassal state of the Russian Empire in Islamic Central Asia. The emir fled to Afghanistan after the Red Army sacked the city and abolished his dynasty.

Imperial Russia In Color Storks
Gorsky captures storks building a nest on what is most likely a mosque in Bukhara. Source: Wikimedia

Russia In Color Fabric Merchant
A fabric merchant poses among his wares on the Silk Road, which stretched from China and India to Central Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Source: Tmora

Russia In Color Sulyukta Mines
Gorsky documents travelers with their camels near Sulukta in modern day Kyrgyzstan. Source: Tmora

Russia In Color Camp
Gorsky catches himself in this photo on the right in 1912 at Chusovaya. Source: Kuriositas

Imperial Russia In Color Camel
A Turkmen man crouches with camel laden with packs in Central Asia. Source: Blogspot

Russia In Color Ukraine
A young girl in traditional garb poses in what was referred to as Little Russia, now known as Ukraine. Source: Blogspot

Russia In Color Church
Gorsky also catalogued buildings, houses and nature for his project, including this church in Nyrob. Source: Blogspot

Russia In Color Monastery
The Assumption Monastery in Pereiaslavl-Zalesskii display the peaked domes common in Russian church construction. Source: Blogspot

Russia In Color Mosque
View of the Shakh-I Zindeh mosque in Samarkand as the sun sets. Currently, just over 11% of Russians identify as Muslim. Source: Blogspot

Imperial Russia In Color Head Study
Gorsky also photographed members of upper class society.

Russia In Color Uzbek Woman
Sart woman wearing a paranja in Samarkand, which is now part of Uzbekistan. Source: Public Domain

Imperial Russia In Color Artists
Gorsky sits to the right of two guards for the Murmansk railway. Source: Wikimedia

Russia In Color Man Robe
A bureaucrat in Bukhara poses in a brightly colored robe for Gorsky.

Russia In Color Caucasus
A Kurdish mother sits with her children in Artvin, now part of northeastern Turkey. Source: Trash Russia

Russia In Color Georgian Woman
A Georgian woman dressed in regal attire poses on a rug in the forest. Source: Trash Russia

Imperial Russia In Color Samarkand Man
Gorsky had the ability to capture both the strength and vulnerability of the peasant class without being judgmental. His photos are an eye-opening glimpse into an empire on the verge of revolution and war. Source: Trash Russia

Russia In Color Table
Peter Vedenisov was a pianist with an interest in color photography. He made color autochromes on glass that he could project onto a wall. Source: English Russia

Russia In Color Kosakov Daughter
Vedenisov worked primarily with aristocratic families, particularly the Kosakovs, and managed to capture a different style of life from the peasants of the Russian Empire. Source: English Russia

Russia In Color Kosakov Family
The Kosakovs were friends of the Vedenisovs. Here, the women and children of the family pose. Source: English Russia

Russia In Color Patriarch
A Crimean patriarch sits for a photo, wearing an eye patch. Source: English Russia

Russia In Color Crimean Woman
A Crimean woman of wealth poses in a garden, surrounded by opulent flowers. Source: English Russia

Russia In Color Yalta
Vedenisov lived for years in Yalta and captured pictures of ships in the port. A resort town, Yalta sits in Crimea, a now disputed area of Ukraine. Source: English Russia

Imperial Russia, one of the largest empires that the world has ever seen, thrived from 1720 all the way until 1917. It stretched across three continents, encompassed diverse lands and people, and crushed Napoleon when he was reckless enough to attempt to conquer it.

But, ultimately, the Russian Revolution of 1917 would put an end to Imperial Russia, bringing a long era of history to a close. During the imperial period, Russia had waged wars, conquered surrounding lands, and produced some of the most well-known, and highly feared, monarchs in modern history.

Leaders like Catherine the Great and Tsar Alexander II brought Imperial Russia to the forefront of global power and helped shape history in ways that can still be felt today. However, at the same time, these monarchs presided over a system that kept many in poverty, put upon by a system that propped up a fortunate few.

Finally, in 1917, two revolutions dismantled the monarchy, swept the communist Bolsheviks into power, and closed the book on the Russian Empire. Soon, much of what existed before the revolution would be no more.

But not long before everything changed, two photographers, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky and Piotr Vedenisov, managed to capture life as it was lived by the people of Russia before the revolution — and they did it in full color.

These photos show farmers, families, houses, places of worship, and altogether reveal a Russian way of life that would soon be lost to history. See some of the most stunning and eye-opening color photos that Produkin-Gorsky and Vedenisov ever took in the gallery above.

For more of Russia in color, check out this video montage that features Gorsky and Vedenisov's handiwork:

After this look at Imperial Russia, see more stunning photos of the Russian Empire as well as some powerful pictures of the Russian Revolution.

Susan Sims
When she's not fighting crime or cleaning the garbage disposal, you can find Susan writing about travel, science and things that go bump in the night.