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21 November 2018

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Book Review

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Twilight of the Romanovs

A Photographic Odyssey Across Imperial Russia, by Philipp Blom and Veronica Buckley (Thames & Hudson, $60)

The title of this captivating photo book is a bit misleading. The Romanovs are little seen beyond the first few dozen pages of this 250-page gallery. And that is as it should be. For this is a book more about the waning days of empire, about the millions of subjects who lived in medieval conditions and in abject poverty, about the far flung outposts of a sprawling assemblage of nations and peoples, about the clash between modernity and tradition, urban and rural. Indeed, the title of the book’s introduction, “Images of a Vanished World,” might have been more appropriate. But the use of “Romanovs” will surely sell more books.

Which is good. Because the more people who see this remarkable collection, the more will understand both the roots of the Russian Revolution and the devastation it wrought.

Blom and Buckley have mined the rich archives of Prokudin-Gorsky, Bulla, Howe, Kirchner and others to present over 300 incredible snapshots of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian life. The images are not presented chronologically, but geographically, beginning in St. Petersburg, looping through Central Asia and Siberia, and ending up back in Moscow – a bit like a modern photographic retrospective led by Alexander Radishchev.

Many of the images are haunting – like battlefield images from 1905 and a famous image of a road in the Crimean War, littered with cannonballs; but others are filled with detail and life – like a crisp shot of Lubyanskaya Square in 1902, or the images of street merchants. It is often difficult to tear yourself away.

The text is sparse, just introductions to various regions and a long historical preface, plus quotes from literature throughout, and of course very informative captions. But that is as it should be, because these pictures do a superb job of telling the story all by themselves.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2013