- Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer, Moscow 

William Brumfield is an American university professor who has specialised in photographing Russian architecture before the Revolution, especially churches. His pictures are optimistic, not so much for the revival of the Orthodox God as for the recovery of Church property from before (lead image, right).  If one of Brumfield’s pictures could do for a thousand words, the record of Russian atheism (lead image, left), secularism, communism, collectivisation and socialism would be erased as if it had never existed.

Brumfield has visited Russia more than fifty times in the past fifty years. In 2019 he was awarded the Order of Friendship by President Vladimir Putin, though not personally. The medal was sent to the Russian Embassy in Washington, and that’s where Brumfield collected it. The award is a multi-purpose one for foreigners; it has also gone to Gennady Timchenko’s wife and daughter for their good works as ex-Russian Finnish nationals. Since 2014 they have all been targeted by US Treasury sanctions.

Brumfield’s newest book is a candidate for selection in London as Pushkin House’s best book on Russia for 2021.  That’s if the selection committee agree to count it on their short list to be announced shortly.  The committee is run this year by two well-known Russia haters, Fiona Hill of the US National Security Council  and the ex-NATO secretary-general George Robertson.

Brumfield’s book is called “Journeys through the Russian Empire”. It reproduces the photographs of Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, taken between 1903 and 1916, displayed side by side with attempts at reproducing the same shots taken by Brumfield between 1972 and 2018.

Except for a brief record of the mosques and medrassas of Bukhara and Samarkand, the majority of both sets of photographs is of churches and monasteries located outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Brumfield is vague on what Prokudin-Gorsky was doing; he provides no direct diary excerpts,  letters, notes, or contemporary versions of what the photographer was thinking at the time. Brumfield appears not to have read Prokudin-Gorsky’s memoirs, published in France in 1932 and quoted in the Russian website dedicated to the Russian photographer since 2011.  

Brumfield is also fuzzy on what he’s been doing himself. He concedes “the nostalgic appeal of a lost world vividly rediscovered in brilliant colour. These photographs transport us back in time and create an illusion of memory”. But since Brumfield thinks he knows what happened next better than Prokudin-Gorsky could, the “nostalgic interpretations…may be superficially appealing, but they ignore a larger, at times devastating, context.”

Brumfield doesn’t mean the German wars on Russia;  nor the civil war invasions by armies from Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Turkey, France, Britain and the US;  nor the current US-NATO war.  He is only thinking of the revolution of 1917 and of “the next decade…years of war, social collapse, hunger and savage violence”. On the one hand, Brumfiield acknowledges “the perspective that Prokudin-Gorsky implicitly endorses in his photographs is that of Russians as bringers of progress and amelioration”. On the other hand, he thinks the subsequent history didn’t bring that about either.  He doesn’t quite dare to say that he blames the godless Russians.  “Historical buildings are a form of real estate and as such are subject to competing interests. The survival or destruction of architectural landmarks – and specifically those photographed by Prokudin-Gorsky – may reflect many, seemingly contradictory impulses. We have noted the important role played by the Russian Orthodox Church in the process of restoration, yet the Church has often been criticized by preservationists for renovations taken after the restitution of church property”.

This is a book to help western readers imagine there would be a better Russia if only the present leadership would sign terms of capitulation; they are the terms which Fiona Hill and George Robertson have made their careers thinking up, promoting in public, failing to achieve on the war front.   

The book is a large volume of the sort publishers market to readers intending to display, flat on their coffee tables, how cultivated their owners are.  In this context – cocktails this evening, war tomorrow – it might have been better if Brumfield had presented his collection of matching pre-1917 and pre-1991 photographs without writing a word. That way the photographs would speak for themselves to “the competing interests”. Brumfield might have left the words to Hill and Robertson whom those fond of Russian culture can safely ignore.

Prokudin-Gorsky didn’t inherit much from his aristocratic family except for an entry ticket to the Alexander Lycée in St. Petersburg , a school for pedigreed children;  and pocket money for several years he spent studying photography in Berlin and Paris.

According to the Russian website dedicated to him, Prokudin-Gorsky came “from one of the oldest Russian noble families, whose members faithfully served his country for more than five centuries. The progenitor of the Prokudin-Gorsky family line was considered the Tatar voivode (prince) Peter Gorsky, who came from the Golden Horde, fought under the flag of Dmitry Donskoy on the Kulikovo battlefield and lost all his sons in this great battle.” Prokudin-Gorsky’s father couldn’t afford to keep up the standard; he ran out of money during his son’s schooling. But in  1890 PG married the daughter of a wealthy steelmaker, and from then on his father-in-law was his principal patron and business sponsor – until he died in 1904.   

PG’s idea was to invent a colour photography process and sell the output. This required a special camera to make three sequential exposures on glass plates, each using a different colour filter; and then to recombine the three into two retail formats – colour slide shows for audiences in black tie, and colour postcards for the hoi polloi. The colour reproduction was exceptional for the time; it still is.

Photographing churches appears to have been Prokudin-Gorsky’s selfie; Brumfield’s more so.

Prokudin-Gorsky’s picture of the iconostasis in a church at Borodino, near Moscow, 1912. Source: https://williamporterphotography.

Because the technology was time-consuming and expensive, Prokudin-Gorsky also needed patrons with money to spare. Their advances paid for his expeditions around Russia. The patrons included owners of the newly constructed railways and factories, the ministry of transportation, and between 1909 and 1916 Tsar Nicholas II. Some of his patrons were also keen on the orientalist style then fashionable in Paris and London, so Prokudin-Gorsky made expeditions to the Caucasus and to Russian Turkestan, now modern Uzbekistan. In 1914 he incorporated the Biochrome joint stock company for selling a variety of photographic inventions and services; in 1916 the tsar arranged an official state rank promotion and stipend.  

Folk culture was of no interest to PG because there was no money for him to record and re-sell it to his clientele. Brumfiield doesn’t know why he avoided publishing photographs of Moscow and St Petersburg. He suspects the regions seemed “(misleadingly) to provide a calmer, more stable representation of empire”.

Painted Russian dowry chest, 17th century, from northern Dvina.  Source: https://allrus.me/  
 Brumfield has done much to acquaint western readers with the wooden architecture of northern Russia. Prokudin-Gorsky’s eye for that was limited to religious buildings and church decoration. So far as is known, he never considered Northern Dvina folk painting worthy of his photographic record – no patron-paid albums, no slide shows, no postcards.   

When the Bolsheviks took power, PG was commissioned by the new People’s Commissariat of Education to continue his slide shows, this time for poor children. In May of 1918, Lenin arranged for him to be employed by a state paper enterprise and then by the Higher Institute of Photography and Phototechnology. He abandoned both at the end of June 1918, and left for Norway on a trip paid by the government to buy slide equipment for primary schools. The equipment may or may not have been delivered to Moscow; Prokudin-Gorsky did not come back himself. He also left behind his wife, a daughter and two sons.  

Many of the photographer’s patrons had left the country. Brumfield claims Prokudin-Gorsky followed because he was so attached to the tsar “he could not have remained indifferent to the murder of those who had shown him such generosity”. That’s Brumfield’s opinion. There is no record this was Prokudin-Gorsky’s calculation in those parts of his memoirs which have been published on his website. In retrospect, it’s clear he was attracted by the prospects of motion filmmaking in England and France, as well as by Maria Shchedrina, who became his second wife in London in 1920.  An attempt to move to Hollywood in 1923 failed.

For the last four years of his life, 1940-44, Prokudin-Gorsky lived in Paris. There he seems to have remained indifferent to the German murder of those who had shown him such generosity. After the Germans had been replaced by the US Army, Prokudin-Gorsky’s family sold what they could of his albums, negatives, and plates to the US Library of Congress. In digital form today, they can be found here.

It was a later Librarian of Congress whom Brumfield acknowledges as one of the patrons of his own photographic expeditions to Russia.

Left: William Brumfield displaying his new book and his Order of Friendship in 2019. Right, Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky striking a Chekhov pose for an assistant behind the camera in 1912.

Next to the photographs, Brumfield reveals he has embarrassingly little of value to say. He has told a Russian interviewer that he is religious. “I have often read the Bible in my childhood and youth… I won’t talk about all the difficulties of life, but I can say that reading the Bible in general saved me. Yes, we must work hard. This is called the Protestant approach to life. Personally, I don’t care if it’s Protestant or Orthodox.”

About Marxism Brumfield, professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University, knows nothing at all. He mentions it only once in order to discredit it in favour of his own religious bent. “In the Marxist concept of humanistic development [sic], the secular enterprise of scholarship was to recast religious art as an episode within the history of artistic expression devoid of religious content and context. In a display of cyclical history [sic], the Orthodox Church during the post-Soviet era has reclaimed for religious use many structures… The cycle continues as religion replaces secular agency, monuments are restored, and memory is recalibrated.”

Brumfield is pedalling this cycle as a religious devotee. He told a recent interviewer for the website of the Moscow patriarchate: “the country has suffered, endured, and overcome…  I can’t explain it otherwise than with the help of God. The answer to the tests was heroism in wars, self-sacrifice, titanic work, huge scientific and cultural achievements, which we have no right to deny… Prokudin-Gorsky gives us the widest scope for reflection. And I fully admit that the master… speaks about Russia, which we have lost, calling on contemporaries not to forget about the most important thing in Russia – Holy Russia… Let us still remember: sadness and sadness for the good old days should not be a reason for hopeless despondency – these feelings should contribute to good work and prayer for Russia.”

Brumfield repeatedly mentions PG’s patron Nicholas II as a saint “brutally slaughtered”. It’s not clear that in his memoirs PG thought the same. “We must also remember” – Brumfield talking to the Church press – “that in any so-called ‘social class’ there is both its own colour and its own shame. Example? Please let us remember how one of the murderers of the holy [sic] Tsar Nicholas, Pyotr Ermakov, who, by the way, graduated from parochial school, did not miss the opportunity to boast to others that he took a direct part in the brutal execution of the Royal Passion-bearers. Disgusting, scary?”

For Brumfield, Pokudin-Gorsky’s most important technical innovation, colour, is religious. “Such a joyful light is often seen in his photos! With the help of colour, he shows the spiritual light. Not everyone is capable of this. Maybe it’s like with icon painters: you need to have a good heart to compose a good icon. He is a unique photographer in the history of world photography, the only master who created the whole world.”

Brumfield’s subtitle, “The Photographic Legacy of Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky”,  ignored his industrial pictures. Left, a dredge for stone, Cherepovets 1909. Right, blast furnace for steelmaking, Satkinsky (near Chelyabinsk) 1910. Source:   http://dona-rodrigue.blogg.org/

In Russian so far,  there have been two  press interviews with Brumfield;  one review of his book.   There has not been much in English either. From the Dutch Foreign Ministry publication, Moscow Times, there is regime-change  wistfulness  “catch[ing] the sound of the Volga River lapping against the shore of tiny jewel-like Uglich or detect[ing] the musty odour of a long-neglected church.  ‘Journeys Through the Russian Empire’ deliberately eschews photos of either Moscow or St. Petersburg, allowing the quiet majesty of Russia’s often overlooked provinces to take centre stage. This is an excellent decision by Brumfield, reflecting and honouring Prokudin-Gorsky’s desire to capture the breadth of Russia for the empire’s citizens.”

The London Review of Books has reminded readers of a church Pokudin-Gorsky didn’t photograph because it was in Moscow – the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (lead image, left). It was also brand-new when Pokudin-Gorsky began photographing churches.

“The impression that Russia emerged largely unscathed and unchanged from the Soviet years feels wrong”, the reviewer says, “ of course. The revolution was meant to bring a grand transformation of every aspect of contemporary life, one that could only be achieved by destroying the old. Religion – its practices, places and people – was certainly part of the ‘old’ world. The most famous church to be destroyed was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Built to celebrate the retreat of Napoleon in 1812, it was dynamited in 1931. Stalin intended a great new Palace of the Soviets to replace it. A national competition was launched to find a design but the project was eventually shelved in favour of an enormous public swimming pool: a holy site made into a palace of leisure for the masses. Prokudin-Gorsky chose not to photograph either St Petersburg or Moscow, so the church doesn’t feature in this book, and as a result the pairs of images, all of provincial outposts, seem to tell a story of continuity rather than rupture…The question of what to do with religious buildings was unresolved throughout the Soviet era. Blowing them up was appealing to the Bolsheviks, but so was protecting them as symbols of national heritage and pride; or preserving them while transforming their use and meaning, turning them into props for the story of communism’s secular triumph – a fragile narrative that had to be constantly retold. Contemporary Russia may like to see itself as the saviour of a religious tradition all but obliterated by the communists, but this too is a fragile narrative. The traces that survive suggest a less straightforward history.” 

The author, Miriam Dobson, is an English academic specialising on the history of religious belief and atheism in the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1985.  

Her last line raises the question —  who should decide and administer the preservation of Russian culture? Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Church insist they should take over from the state and remove the evils of atheism and secularism; this story has been told here.  

Brumfield’s book carries his message that a partnership between the Russian Church and the US Government will be just the ticket.

Leave a Reply