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Lectures from the Allen Room & Wertheim Study: The Romanovs and Photography : A New Lens on Empire


September 19, 2014

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For over 300 years, the Romanovs ruled Russia, then as now the largest country in the world.  The Romanovs persistently sought to know their empire’s lands and resources, from sponsoring chronicles in the seventeenth century to the founding of provincial newspapers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Photography was an exciting but ultimately misleading lens on the empire.  Providing what seemed like an objective view of reality (ob''ektiv is even the Russian word for lens), the staged world of the photography belonging to the imperial family bore little resemblance to the all too quickly changing world of the Russian Empire in the years before war and revolution.

The New York Public Library has one of the world’s most significant collections of photography that once belonged to the Romanov family.  The Library acquired these and many other treasures of the Slavic world in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the Soviet government sold prerevolutionary cultural artifacts in bulk to raise hard currency for industrialization.  These photographs provide a glimpse of the Russian Empire as seen from the top, divested of the increasing social conflicts that would in time lead to the fall of the Romanovs and their empire.

Susan Smith-Peter, a writer in residence in the Shoichi Noma Reading Room, is associate professor and chair of the Department of History at the College of Staten Island/ CUNY.  Formerly the chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Slavic History and Culture and a Fulbright recipient, she has published widely on nineteenth-century Russian history, with a particular focus on regional history.