My friend, Rob, sent me a link to the remarkable photographs of Russian chemist and photographer, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, showing Russia on the eve of World War I and the coming of the revolution. From 1909-1912 and again in 1915, Prokudin-Gorskii traveled across the Russian Empire, documenting life, landscapes and the work of Russian people.
My own family left Ukraine (it still feels odd to me to leave off the “the”) in the 1920s. I have no family pictures at all from those days. I look at the scene in the image here and wonder if my grandfather’s village looked like that. Likely, it did.
One thing my friend and I agreed on, looking through the pictures is that the architecture, technology, cleanliness and organization seem to equal or surpass the US at the same time. And just look what happened under Communism just a few years later. “Look at pictures from the USSR from the 1950s,” said Rob, “and they’re all hollow-eyed, frightened looking. They killed the spirit of those people.”
It wasn’t like that. At first. I remember the stories my grandfather told me of his childhood in the small Ukrainian town of Ilinytsy. He remembered marching in the parades after the revolution, carrying signs and yelling, “Hurrah, Lenin! Hurrah, Trotsky!” As a Jew, it wasn’t until the tsar was overthrown that he was allowed to attend school. His mother proudly ran a collective kitchen for the Communist party.
It didn’t last long, though. Chaos followed – Mensheviks, Bolsheviks.
“We didn’t know when we went to bed if our money would be any good when we got up in the morning. Some of it was printed on such poor paper you couldn’t fold it without it crumbling.”
Eventually, his father left the Soviet Union and made his way to Toronto, where he tried to earn enough money to send for his family. It took over ten years, working in the tire business. Family legend has it that he sold a set of tires to Micky Katz who never paid up. All that time my tough little grandmother was sole support of seven children. To make ends meet, she and a neighbor set up a still and sold bootleg whiskey. One of my grandfather’s brothers, five years old, got into the whiskey one day and was found passed cold. Later, in the US and for the rest of his life, he earned a living in the liquor business.
Such memories are stirred up by a few old photographs of strangers!
And when will we see pictures again, showing such strength and pride?