Photo Essays

A History of Russia in a Massive Photo Archive

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Vladislav Mikosha, “VSHV Veterinary treatment” (1939–40) (photo courtesy Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum)

Prepare to get swept away in a stream of over 150 years of photographs capturing all sorts of scenes of Russian life. Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum and Yandex — the country’s largest search engine — recently joined forces to launch an online photo bank that is ridiculously massive, bringing together photographs not only from museums and public archives but also from personal collections across the world’s largest nation. The portal, simply called “The History of Russia,” received support from the Ministry of Culture and the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications and is intended to acquaint visitors with Russian history through visuals. It is written in Russian, but you don’t necessarily have to read the language to navigate it, especially if your browser is able to translate the texts.

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William Carrick, from ‘Russian Types’ (1860) (photo courtesy Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum) (click to enlarge)

More than 40 institutions and collections are currently involved, including the State Archive of the Russian Federation, the State Literary Museum, the National Library of Russia, and the Serpukhov History and Art Museum (now home to a famous feline). In the wrong hands, such a website could easily exist as a huge photo dump, but the over 80,000 photographs (a number that is steadily growing) is well organized and easily searchable. If you speak Russian, you can simply type in a search; otherwise, a timeline allows you to browse by date, a map enables location-based searches, and preset categories filter the images by theme. These may be as broad as “architecture” and “art” or as specific as my two favorites, “dogs” and “cemeteries.” Institutions and individual users can also create their own themed virtual exhibitions for others to explore.

According to a release, many of the photographs are published here for the first time, partly because the portal invites users to upload, describe, and tag images from personal archives. It has the feel of a museum collection website in the sense that most of the photographs uploaded by institutions arrive with their proper dates, titles, photographers, locations, and information about rights holders; but interestingly, it also serves as a public forum. Each photo has a comments section, where I’ve come across people having conversations about the history of a certain photograph or discussing a particular photographic technique.

While “The History of Russia” is aimed at Russians, anyone can join the online dialogue or upload a relevant photograph: you only need to register with a valid email address. Or, simply scroll through the pages and take in all the decades upon decades of family dinners, studio portrait sessions, Soviet-era architecture, and much, much more.

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Leo Tolstoy reading in the circle of relatives and friends in Yasnaya Polyana, taken by an unknown photographer in 1887 (photo courtesy Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum)
Scene from a funeral by an unknown photographer (c. 1890-1909) (photo courtesy Moscow's Multimedia Art Museum_
Scene from a funeral by an unknown photographer (ca 1890–1909) (photo courtesy Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum)
Group portrait of students (c. 1890-1909) (photo courtesy Moscow's Multimedia Art Museum)
Group portrait of students (ca 1890–1909) (photo courtesy Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum)
Peter Pavlov, "The Tsar Bell" (1890-1909) (photo courtesy Moscow's Multimedia Art Museum)
Peter Pavlov, “The Tsar Bell” (1890–1909) (photo courtesy Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum)
Unknown photographer, "Konstantin Varlamov" (c. 1890-1909)
Unknown photographer, “Konstantin Varlamov” (ca 1890–1909) (image courtesy Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum)
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Mark Redkin, “Removing the plaque ‘Adolf Hitler Street'” (1944) (photo courtesy Fotosoyuz Agency)
Russian State Library
Scene from the St. Petersburg School of the Deaf by an unknown photographer (1908) (photo courtesy Russian State Library)
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An expedition team chipping snow off a tent in Greenland, taken by an unknown photographer in 1938 (photo courtesy Arctic and Antarctic Museum)
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Mark Markov-Grinberg, “Demobilized women soldiers sent their home” (1945) (photo courtesy FotoSoyuz Agency)
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Photographs submitted by Russian citizens: at left, portrait of Sophia Lyudvigovna Podobedova (1910); at right, 1900–1915 photo from the archive of Vadim Stolyarov
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