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Russian Villagers

Peasant Girls, 1909

A number of years ago, my husband brought this website to my attention. These are the photographs of a man named Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, a photographer who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and whose photographic method allowed him to win the funding of Tsar Nicholas II. He travelled the Russian Empire, documenting in full, vibrant and gorgeous colour, a sampling of the vast and diverse scope of the Russian Tsarist regime short years before war and revolution caused it to disappear forever.

I was absolutely fascinated. Here were villages that had, in many cases, been untouched by electricity and the modernity of industrialization, but were documented in photographs so vivid and intense that they might have been taken yesterday. I kept coming back to them again and again. I couldn’t get over the colours–I always assume that somehow life was duller and less colourful in those old black and white photos (I know otherwise intellectually, but with no information to interpolate colour, my mind tends to infer drab shades). Not so.

For someone like me, who is endlessly caught by the question of how people live in different places, and how they lived in other eras, this kind of glimpse into the past felt like another kind of time machine, thanks to the anachronism of the full colour imagery. I had dreams about this world. I just couldn’t let it go.

I started reading about Russian history, and my fascination deepened. The fact that serfdom existed in Russia and was only abolished around the time of the emancipation of slavery in the U.S. The lack of industrialization, in large swatches of a vast empire. The fact that even the railway was late in coming to this vast and forbidding territory that had defeated the likes of Napoleon and Hitler.

The idea that kept coming back to me was: what if this act of documenting the empire had been a little earlier… maybe by 50 years or so, when everything would have been just that much more remote? The technology for colour photography existed then, too, and some people did experiment with it. So what if?

No railway, so transporting large glass plates would be challenging. For many of the inhabitants of remote villages, folklore around rusalki, werewolves and other fantastical creatures would have been part of the everyday reality of dealing with the powerful, treacherous dangers of the Russian winter and wilderness. In such places, the science of full colour photography would have felt more magical, more mysterious, than the reality of the rusalka in the pond down the way.

And so, it began–the book that became Konstantin’s Gifts, which is set in a world that is very similar to our own. One of my main characters is loosely modeled on Prokudin-Gorskii, though I’ve interpolated an appropriate, far more cumbersome, photographic technology that might have existed in the 1860s. The original idea had been to have a man of science and rationalism, traveling through remote regions and taking photographs with an entourage of assistants who are afflicted with folkloric conditions: a vampire, a lycanthrope and a rusalka (the slavic version of a siren of sorts). In that conception, the photographer took them on because he believed their conditions were based on viruses, and that they were therefore curable, thanks to the promise of science. Part of that story would have involved a search for the cure. Even the names of the characters were based on those associations (Vladimir, as a name associated with the most famous vampire of them all; Pyotr, because of the story of Pytor and the Wolf. Though I did switch them up).

The idea morphed a few times since then, of course. The final product is rather different to what I had originally conceived.

But, even through all the writing and rewriting, the edits, proofs and revisions… even after all that, the fascination remains: when I look at Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs, I feel that same sense of excitement, wonder and delight. These photographs are world treasures: another form of time travel, into a world long since vanquished. I have inserted a small sampling of his work below, but if you are intrigued, do check out the Library of Congress’s website, where there are full-size versions of these images, and many more besides.