The Russian Cowboy and the Murmansk Railroad

In the 1915, when Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich Prokudin-Gorskiĭ took a photograph of himself and two railroad guards posing at a construction site, both the railroad and the war that had prompted the railroad had begun fairly recently. In 1916, Prokudin-Gorskiĭ was commissioned to photograph the new railroad project, in part due to Russia’s war efforts. The Ministry of Transportation funded his project with the support of Tsar Nicholas II, and Prokudin-Gorskiĭ did most of his work in a train car converted into a darkroom for him by the Tsar.

The intended purpose of the railroad was to connect the ice-free port of Murmansk with Petrozavodsk, which in turn offered a route to the capital. By building a railroad that connected the capital to a port that could be used all year round, the government hoped to reduce the cost of future projects, as the railroads already under construction had proved to be very expensive. Unfortunately for both Prokudin-Gorskiĭ’s portfolio and the Tsar’s government, the railroad project was highly unpopular with almost everyone and the railways themselves were unable to compete with the strain put upon them by the demands of the war. Shortly thereafter, food shortages and inflation led to massive protests in the capital and eventually, the overthrow of the Tsarist regime.

In his photographs, Prokudin-Gorskiĭ captures Russia being pushed towards financial disaster by irresponsible spending and misplaced priorities. The implementation of the Murmansk railroad project was far from the only problem that led to the 1917 Russian revolution, but it represents many of the complaints that the Russians had against their government.

Works Cited

“Group. (Myself with Two Other, Murman).” World Digital Library. September 26, 2016.

Heywood, Anthony. 2014. “Russia’s Railways in War and Revolution, 1914-25: What really happened?” Russia’s Great War and Revolution. May 22.

Murano, Dan. 2016. “What Russia looked like before 1917 … in color.” The Washington Post. April 19.

Prokudin-Gorskii, Sergei Mikhailovich. 1915. Group (Myself with Two Other, Murman). World Digital Library.

Stone, Norman. 2008. The Eastern Front 1914-1917. Penguin UK.



6 thoughts on “The Russian Cowboy and the Murmansk Railroad

  1. I also did a photograph of the Murmansk Railroad, so I thought it was cool seeing this other photo of it! It took them 3 years to build the railroad and it was neat that Prokudin-Gorskii was a part of it. There was a labor shortage as well in which they had to use German and Austrian prisoners to build. This was a cool photo and I liked how you added why a railroad connecting the capitol to a port is beneficial.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s great that Nhi is writing about the Murmask Railroad and found your post! I’m intrigued by the essay on the railways during the revolution you cite by Anthony Haywood. First of all — what a good find! Second — what do you think about Haywood’s argument — or rather the questions he asks about the role of the transportation system (and railroads in particular) in the revolutions of 1917?


    1. From what I understand, the Russian Revolution was kind of a perfect storm of grievances people had against the government, but I think his theory that the failure of the railroads to adapt to wartime needs seems like a plausible cause of food shortages and thus public anger. I do think it’s interesting that he introduces the contradictory theory at the end, but other sources I have read do lend credence to the idea of railway exhaustion, or at the very least, major problems with the project.


  3. I enjoy the composition of this shot a lot as well as the story behind it. It says a lot about how well the pictures is put together that it came out of a dark room from a train car. It is always interesting to learn how all the moving part worked up into the revolution rather than it being seen as one cause it as many things. You do a great job of summing up the railroad issue using this picture and how it can work in tandem with current public anger over the wartime push as well as the food shortages.


  4. Absolutely awed by the detail in this image. I am real glad that you picked this photo. It’s very cool how you can see a glimpse into these guards lives. I imagine by the simplicity of their clothes and lacking uniforms, that those men with the swords fought in the revolution, and not on the side of the Whites. It’s a shame that the industrialization came to late and at such a cost to the Russian people.


  5. I like the guards’ uniforms that contrast with each other and with Prokudin-Gorskii. War is an incredible strain against any economy and transportation infrastructure. In the end, the Russian Empire was faced with a perfect storm that they did not have the resources to handle. Good first post!


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