This post earned a “red star” award from the editorial team.
Have you stopped and wondered, what will I be remembered for? Will my name be etched in history or forgotten in a few generations? For most, their names will not be found in future textbooks. However, we are living in a era where most of life’s big moments are archived in pictures on social media. What will future generations think when glimpsing into daily lives? I found myself in this position while looking at this photo titled “At Harvest Time. Russian Empire” taken by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii in 1909. I searched the faces of these individuals wondering who they were, what they felt, and what their life was like. There were two key aspects of this picture that I wanted to learn more about to understand these people as much as I could: what was agricultural life like, and how did these women fit into society?
My first query was one that was somewhat easy to find results on, agricultural and peasant life in Soviet Russia in the early twentieth century. Serfdom was abolished in 1861, however many in the country remained impoverished and “relied on small plots of land for food” (Bellinger & Dronin 31). In fact it is believed that “more than 89% of agricultural land belonged to Russian peasants” in the early 1900s (Bellinger & Dronin 31). The image depicts this family drying rye out during the harvest (At Harvest Time). In fact the, “main agricultural products of the Russian Empire were cereals which accounted for about 90 percent of the total agricultural land of the country. Among the cereal crops rye and wheat dominated…wheat was considered the most valuable agricultural product at that time” (Bellinger & Dronin 32). From this knowledge this peasant family could have been living a very average peasant life at the time, producing one of the most popular crops in order to feed their family but also in return for some amount of money.
My second question focused on the four women in the photo, what was life like for them? This search was a little harder because there was less research out there, but also because most information was factual and did not account for the emotions of women at the time. The first decade during the 1900s in Russia was an interesting time, because there were changes in society and modernization occurring, but it was before the revolution. So around 1909 “most [peasant women] were still living much as their ancestors had, despite the fact that Alexander II had abolished serfdom in 1861” (Clements 113). While the urban areas of Russia saw societal progression, “in 1900, Russia’s rural people were still coping with grueling labor, periodic food shortages, and epidemic diseases” (Clements 128). This meant that “across the the empire in the early twentieth century, peasant women were still stooping over the land in the fall to gather the dropped grain. Wife beating was an everyday occurrence” (Clements 128). The females in the photo wear worn faces and it is understandable why when living in a society where they were expected to physically labor, but also were being mentally and emotionally suppressed.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some changes for the women of this period. In the later part of the 19th century in Russia, formal education became a bigger possibility for females (Clements 117). While many “peasants thought that daughters…could learn all they needed to know from the women of the village” it became more common for peasant girls to have some education as time went on. A history professor, “Ben Eklof estimates that by 1910 perhaps 40 percent of peasant girls had had some formal education” (Clements 130). The very early twentieth century saw a continuing narrative of women working along side men, while still being deemed the lesser sex in society; however that narrative was beginning to change and let there be more room to that definition.
There is no record of this family’s names. I cannot tell you exactly who they were, what they did or how they felt about it. But we can try and understand what it might have been like. Living with more freedom then they would have had some 50 years prior, but also still relying on what wheat they could produce to survive. For these women to grow up working in the fields with their family, knowing that education was not expected. I think I probably would look pretty sullen if I was one of these ladies as well.
- Bellinger, E. G. & Dronin, N. M., (2005). Climate dependence and food problems in russia, 1900-1990: The interaction of climate and agricultural policy and their effect on food problems (N – New, 1 ed.). New York;Budapest;: Central European University Press. doi:10.7829/j.ctt2jbp2r
- Clements, B. E. (2012). A history of women in russia: From earliest times to the present. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Prokudin-Gorskii, Sergei Mikhailovich (1909) “At Harvest Time. Russian Empire” WDL RSS. Library of Congress https://www.wdl.org/en/item/5000/
6 Comments Add yours
Grace, this post was really thought provoking! The life of the average and marginalized people tends to be left out of popular historical narratives. There are many rural areas in Russia, and I think it will be interesting to follow this peasant narrative through the revolution and see how life is different for them throughout the changes.
I really enjoyed this post! You really captured the inherent mystery that exists in old photographs. It is interesting that while we will never know exactly who these women were or how they felt, but they’re lives are forever preserved in this photo. I liked that you incorporated information about Russian women in this time frame to try to understand the subjects of this photo better.
I agree. I really like the way you used questions about the photo to invite the reader to think through your analysis with you. Great sources as well!
I like the way you phrased this post. It made me more interested in reading just by reading the introduction. I remember learning about serfdom back in middle school/high school but I forgot almost everything. This brought me back to what I did learn. I also how you looked up women’s rights during this time period. It is very interesting that the Russian society started to change even before the American. Thanks for a great post!
I think it’s really important to do more research on women especially since women are often forgotten in history. Hands down, History is changing and historians are writing about those forgotten. If I was you to find out more about women lives I would try to find diaries during that time period or merchants tales of travels.
Your perspective on the extra research that you did behind this photo is really interesting. Its interesting that you were able to connect the lines between the portrayed emotions of the individuals in the photo to the social context of the situation. The way that the women were treated and the worn down faces that they carry is an implied illustration that most people probably would not be able to pick up on.