Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

Top 10 Russia in 10 iconic and compelling images

© Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

The largest country in the world, Russia stands as a fierce and proud nation, extending across Northern Asia and Eastern Europe—almost like a continent in itself, distinct and unique in every way.

─── by Isabel O'Toole, May 13, 2019
  • Updated Jan 2024

    Despite the often biased Western portrayal of the nation, one cannot overlook the remarkable achievements of Russia in the past two centuries. The Soviet era, in particular, witnessed some of the most significant technological feats of the 20th century, including the historic launch of the first humans into space during the space race. Today, Russia’s diverse geography, spanning from tundras to subtropical beaches, coupled with its rich cultural history, positions it as one of the most captivating places to photograph in the world

    Russia Rob Hornstra
    © Rob Hornstra

    1. Rob Hornstra – From “The Sochi Project”. Sochi, 2012

    Dutch artist Rob Hornstra focuses his practice mainly on Russia and other surrounding ex-Soviet nations. In 2007 along with writer and filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen, Hornstra began the ambitious Sochi Project. Practicing “slow journalism” they returned repeatedly to the region of Sochi to engage with this small and complicated place that found itself in the glare of the international media spotlight in the lead-up to the 2014 Olympic Games.

    Horstra’s approach combines found photography with contemporary portraiture and documentary storytelling, with various chapters focussing on different pivotal topics. This series won the 1st prize in the Arts & Entertainment category at the 2012 World Press Photo Awards.

    Russia Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky
    © Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

    2. Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky – Loggers, Vytegra, 1909

    Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky was a pioneer of colour photography in early 20th-century Russia. Both a chemist and a photographer, Prokudin-Gorsky formulated a plan to “educate the schoolchildren of Russia with his ‘optical colour projections’ of the vast and diverse history, culture and modernization of the empire.” Equipped with the knowledge of technological advances that had been made in colour photography, and with a special railroad-car darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorsky documented the Russian Empire from approximately 1905-1915.

    His work offers a colourful portrait of a lost world – before the onset of WW1 and the Russian Revolution. It is a country of burgeoning industry, with railroads and factories leading towards modernisation, but where the customs and traditions of society are intact, a world before globalisation.

    color portrait photo of a Buryatian shaman in Lake Baikal, Russia by Athanasios Maloukos

    3. Athanasios Maloukos – “Buryatian shaman”. Lake Baikal.

    Athanasios Maloukos stunning image (selected as an Editor’s Pick for our 2023 People Award) portrays a Buryatian shaman engaging in a ritual on the frozen expanse of Lake Baikal, with the striking Ogoi cape in the background. Lake Baikal holds a special significance as the most sacred place in Siberian shamanism. The Buryats, an indigenous Mongolic ethnic group residing in Siberia, practice a distinctive form of shamanism rooted in the belief in various spirits—ranging from nature spirits to ancestor and celestial spirits—yet devoid of any written traditions. Shamanism, with its origins in the ancient nomadic cultures of Central Asia, particularly Siberia, was once a prevalent spiritual practice. This captivating image not only captures the intricacies of a unique ritual but also serves as a symbol of the rich diversity among Russia’s minority groups, who, despite significant challenges, are striving to preserve their unique cultures.

    4. Andrei Tarkovsky – Untitled polaroid, 1979-1984

    “the director’s task is to recreate life, its movement, its contradictions, its dynamic and conflicts. It is his duty to reveal every iota of the truth he has seen…”

    Often cited as the greatest filmmaker of all time, Russian auteur, Andrei Tarkovsky, has received the greatest accolades in the film industry. Taken between 1979-1984 in the years before his premature death, the recent unearthing of a cache of Tarkovsky’s polaroid images was an exciting discovery for both the film and photography community. In the spirit of his films, the polaroids capture nature and light in the spellbinding manner which saturates his films. These images are fragments of a visionary who could render dreams into reality, even in the click of a shutter. 

    © Shepard Sherbell

    5. Shepard Sherbell – The August Coup, Moscow, 1991

    The 1991 August Coup was an attempt by members of the Soviet Union’s government to take control of the country from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup leaders were hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who were opposed to Gorbachev’s reform program that he had negotiated which had decentralised much of the central government’s power to the republics.

    Although the coup collapsed in only two days and Gorbachev returned to government, the event destabilised the Soviet Union and is widely considered to have contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

    Russia Emmanuil Yevzerikhin
    © Emmanuil Yevzerikhin

    6. Emmanuil Yevzerikhin – Children’s Khorovod (“Children’s Round Dance”), Stalingrad, Aug 23, 1942

    This recognizable image of a fountain conveys the ruined aftermath of the Battle of Stalingrad by juxtaposing a joyful monument of children dancing around a crocodile and the city’s bombed-out, burning buildings in the background. On the day the photograph was taken, around 40,000 civilians lost their lives to Nazi air strikes, according to official statistics. The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest in history, with casualties of almost 2 million.

    In Evzerinkhin’s apocalyptic vision, life as it was before has been turned on its head. The image, which has become a commentary of war, suggests that the only children to have survived the war are made of concrete.

    Russia Unknown Photographer The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917
    © Unknown photographer

    7. Unknown Photographer – The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917

    The Russian Revolution in 1917 dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the rise of the Soviet Union. Led by grassroots community assemblies called ‘soviets’, who were mostly people form the urban industrial working classes, were led by Vladimir Lenin and his band of revolutionaries. This example of censorship and propaganda is one of the most important examples of early 20th-century “photoshopping” and sparks the re-opens the ongoing debate on the nature of truth and photography.

    Russia Alexsander Rodchenko - Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1924
    © Alexsander Rodchenko

    8. Alexsander Rodchenko – Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1924

    Alexsandr Rodchenko was one of the most acclaimed photographers of Russia, who also worked as an abstract painter, sculptor, industrial designer and, as a pioneering theorist in Russian Constructivism, believed that art must serve as an agent for social change. In 1922 his focus fell on photography. This iconic shot of Russia’s revolutionary poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky was described perfectly by fellow intellectual Boris Pasternak:

    “He sat on a chair as on the saddle of a motorcycle….His way of carrying himself suggested something like a decision when it has been executed and its consequences are irrevocable. This decision was his very genius…and he had devoted his whole being to incarnate it without any pity or reserve.”

    Russia Nicolay Bakharev
    © Nicolay Bakharev

    9. Nicolay Bakharev – From Novokuznetsk c. 1980

    Siberian born artist Nikolay Bakharev worked as a photographer for a mechanics factory in the USSR in the 1980’s but spent his leisure time documenting Russia’s disaffected youth. Fascinated by the intimate scenes of people’s daily lives, Bakharev took illicit photos in the spirit of social work. His sharp, contrasted black and white images are honest depictions of life behind closed doors.

    However, within the Soviet Union, Bakharev’s snapshots would’ve been regarded as low-class pornography, as nude photography was illegal at the time. Bakharev embraced Soviet restrictions as a challenge “You’re not allowed to take photos of the unpleasant sides of life; you’re not allowed to take photos of naked bodies; daily life is not worth being pictured… A desire for the forbidden would be equal to treason.”

    Russia Unknown Photographer - Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin
    © Unknown photographer

    10. Unknown Photographer – Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin

    A Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man who befriended the family of Tsar Nicholas II, the last monarch of Russia, Grigori Rasputin gained considerable influence in late imperial Russia. Born to a peasant family in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye, he has been described as a monk or as a “strannik” (wanderer, or pilgrim), whose charisma helped him become a figure of high society.

    In 1905 he met the Tsar and by late 1906, Rasputin began acting as a healer for the Tsar and his wife Alexandra’s son Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia and was Nicholas’ only heir. Seen by some Russians as a mystic, visionary, and prophet, and by others as a religious charlatan he was a divisive figure who became increasingly unpopular and was eventually assassinated by conservative noblemen when opposed his influence over Alexandra and the Tsar.

    “A Russian man is remarkable for his inclination to spend the last of his savings
    on different kinds of trinkets, even when his most urgent needs are not satisfied.”
    – Anton Chekhov


    All images © their respective owners

    Russia in 10 iconic images