Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Three Generations, 1910. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-03952 (24)
This photograph at first appears simple. After all, it merely depicts three generations of a Russian family.
“A. P. Kalganov poses with his son and granddaughter for a portrait in the industrial town of Zlatoust in the Ural Mountain region of Russia. The son and granddaughter are employed at the Zlatoust Arms Plant—a major supplier of armaments to the Russian military since the early 1800s. Kalganov displays traditional Russian dress and beard styles, while the two younger generations have more Westernized, modern dress and hair styles.”
What significance does this photograph provide? Everyone has a family, this is not a unique concept. However, it is not simply the family but the cultural transition visible in this photograph that makes it unique. The son and granddaughter, names unknown, are visual embodiments of a shifting culture. While the grandfather finds himself quite literally swathed in tradition, in both his clothing and physical appearance, his descending lineage is embracing a more westernized culture. This visual shift and the mention of their occupation in the photographer’s description poses an important question: Was the generational gap that emerged at this time largely influenced by the presence of western-inspired workplaces such as the Zlatoust Arms Plant? And how did this taste of Western influence fare among the older generations and their fierce nationalism?
Based in the metallurgical center of Russia, the Zlatoust Arms Plant was located in the town of Zaltoust, nestled among the Ural Mountains. Facing conflict in the early 19th century with not nearly enough weapon-making factories to meet the demand of gun production, the Zlatoust Arms Plant was built with the intention of carrying on the skill of swordcraft. The factory itself was built on a foundation of Western advice regarding both its practice and its aesthetic design. And it thrived! After struggling to make any noteworthy profits from its opening in 1815, business took a 180 in 1930 and the Zlatoust Arms Plant found itself monopolizing the market. These delicately and masterfully crafted swords became something of a collector’s item. Used as ceremonial gifts with elaborate carvings and gorgeous designs, to own a Zlatoust weapon was to own a piece of art. It was such that this popularity found its roots in a Western style of production that other aspects of Western life began to infiltrate Russian society.
This photograph, taken in 1910, visually exemplifies just how far this infiltration has come. Prokudin-Gorskii notes that the son and granddaughter are employees of the plant; perhaps a trait which sets them apart from the grandfather, in his emerald robes. But perhaps all three of them have once been employed by the plant and it is his age, having come to adulthood in a time where Russian nationalism was so fiercely defended, that he holds onto the tangible affirmations of his devotion to his country. Caught in the turmoil of an always-changing country, the individuals in this photograph do not appear to be poor-off. They are all fully clothed, and despite the slightly sour appearances on their faces, they seem to appear healthy.
Andrei Petrov Kalganov. Former Master in the Plant. Seventy-Two Years Old, Has Worked at the Plant for Fifty-Five Years. He Was Fortunate to Present Bread and Salt* to His Imperial Majesty, the Sovereign Emperor Nicholas II. Zlatoust.
Upon further investigation, the grandfather, identified as Andrei Petrov Kalganov, is no ordinary old man but rather the retired master of the plant, having been in its service for fifty-five years. So how is it that he maintained his loyalty to the traditions of Russia while so engulfed in a western-inspired facility? Is it merely the nationalistic era in which he was raised? Or is the drift towards a more Western style a rebellion of the youth perhaps sparked by unfair work practices?
If this shift can be attributed to a disillusionment with Russian nationalism in favor of the apparent opportunity of the west, it is important to examine the circumstance that would cause such disillusionment. In 1912, merely two years after the photo was taken, there was a large surge of labor unrest triggered by the death of three workers due to injuries caused by machinery. After these deaths, the workers went on strike and demanded that it was their right to have safety precautions while working with machinery and it was their right to be paid a fair wage for the work they did. Nicholas II saw that this strike was ended. Only it did not end in peace but rather in violence and bloodshed. One can only speculate on the thoughts of these workers but perhaps it is the memorable examples of a government’s disinterest in listening to its people that caused the youth to reject their nationalism. And perhaps the difference between the young and the old is the old learned to settle for that they could get, knowing that miles could turn to inches, while the young persisted forward, demanding that inches become miles. After all, progress is progress but people tend to prefer it works quickly.
This photograph appears simple on the surface, this is certain. But the underlying implications of such a photo cannot be ignored. While it raises more questions than it will ever definitively answer, it is worth pondering the way in which Russia progresses: the love and hate relationship with the West and the generational gap that emerges from the turmoil. For now, it surely seems that progressive action is a game for the youth and those bold enough to roll the die.
*The presentation of bread and salt is a Russian custom which expresses hospitality.
AGAT Factory. “Zlatoust.” Accessed January 17, 2018. http://www.agatfactory.de/about/zlatoust
Library of Congress: World Digital Library. “Andrei Petrov Kalganov. Former Master in the Plant. Seventy-Two Years Old, Has Worked at the Plant for Fifty-Five Years. He Was Fortunate to Present Bread and Salt to His Imperial Majesty, the Sovereign Emperor Nicholas II. Zlatoust.” Last updated September 28, 2016. https://www.wdl.org/en/item/5292/
Marxist International Archive. “Metalworkers’ Strikes in 1912.” Published August 24, September 18, and October 25, 1913. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/oct/25.htm
Vershinin, Alexander. Russia Beyond. “Zlatoust: The cutting edge of Russia’s steel arms production.” Published July 6, 2015. https://www.rbth.com/defence/2015/07/06/zlatoust_the_cutting_edge_of_russias_steel_arms_production_47503.html