Found. Early photographs of an extraordinary time in a remote place. Leaf through the scrapbook of soviet-era Berdsk, central Russia.

“In a combat situation.” 1923.
“By the New Year tree.”

Berdsk sits in the centre of Russia on the left bank of the Berdsk gulf, a wide flooded valley of the Berd River. Berd river. Berdsk town. Founded at the beginning of the 18th century as a fortress, at the time it’s yet to become a city. The land surrounding the town is monotonous and incredibly plain. To the south of the town there are fields and a 20 square kilometer pine forest lays to the west, separating Berdsk from the freezing Ob Sea.

Berdsk town museum today holds dear an eclectic assortment of 153 photographs. It’s a kind of memory scrapbbook drawn from the descendants of people who lived in the town in the late 19th/early 20th century. Early soviet era.

Berdsk was a major grain processing centre back then so there are groups of students and teachers from local mills, grain mill, agriculture and industry workers. Local photographers shot cabinet cards in their studios for us; portraits of soldiers, and children and youth. It’s a miscellany of Red Army soldiers, cold townsfolk at town square soviet meetings held under banners, shopkeepers, Red Army exercises, family photos formal & informal. Welcome to Berdsk at the end of the Empire of the Tsar and the beginning of the Revolution. Ordinary folk at an extraordinary time in their history spanning pre-revolution, Tsarism rule, revolution and Communist rule, a period of vast and permanent change.

The kind people at the Berdsk Historical Art Museum have given us captions for each photo too.

“A group of military Cossacks.” c.1880.
“On a hike.” 1923.
“The Red baggage train with bread against the background of the Sretenskaya Church.”
“A. I. Rubtsov. A soldier of the Pavlovsk Regiment’s Life Guards.” 1917.
“P. Vlasov with his wife.” 1880.
“The funeral of A. I. Rubtsov.” 1931.
“Ballet club at the Berdsk secondary school N 3.” c. 1940
“Bayonet fight.” 1941.
“Training workshops of the Berdsk four-year craft school.” c. 1900.
“The first graduation from the Berdsk vocational school.”
1926.
“The Zagumennikovs.” 1920.
“Mechanical shop of the N 11 state mill.”
“M. V. Shipitsyn.” 1905.
“Privates of the Semenovsky regiment.” 1912.
“I.V. Golovin with colleagues.” 1880.
Employees of the state mill N 11.” c. 1930.
“Red Army soldier M.F. Tarkhov.” 1931.
“Portrait of I.M.Zonova”. c. 1900.
“The Red Army at rest.” 1930.
“In the classroom.” 1931.
“A detachment on a campaign.” c. 1920.
“Pioneer camp.” c. 1920.
“Berdsk battalion of the Red Banner regiment.”. 1928.
“The Children’s Commune.” c. 1920.
“The staff of the Berdsk hospital.” c. 1902
“In the classroom of Osoaviakhim.” 1933.
“Certificate of Chuvarleeva F.V., who took classes in the first aid circle of the Komitet ROKK.”

On May 3 (15), 1867 after Geneva convention ratification (May 10, 1867) the Emperor Alexander II approved the Regulation of the Society for care of sick and wounded under the patronage of his wife, Empress Maria Alexandrovna. In 1879 the Society was renamed the Russian Society of the Red Cross (ROKK). Its purpose was the prevention and relief of human suffering during peace and war time. From the first years of its existence ROKK developed its activity inside the county as well as beyond the boundaries.
“Employees of the Berd hospital.” c. 1940
“Berdsk battalion of the Red Banner regiment.”. 1927.
“Regional holiday of physical education.” 1928.
“Rally.” 1927.
“The Commander’s assistants.” 1923.
“M.F. Tarkhov conducts classes at a comprehensive school for the wives of military personnel.” 1930.

“At the rally.” 1927.
“A. A. Ilyin.” 1914.
“S.U. Matovnikov.” 1915.
“S. U. Matovnikov.” 1911.
“The first kindergarten in the Kirov collective farm, Berdsk region.” 1931.
“Procurement point of Berdsky general store.” c. 1936.
“Collective farmers on vacation.” c. 1930s.
“At the coffin.” 1933.
“The first trip to the spring sowing on the “Krestyanin” farm.” 1933.
“The District land department.” 1933.

An aside: one photo in the Berdsk collection (below) does include someone famous, Sergo Konstantinovich Ordzhonikidze.

“Visit of S. Ordzhonikidze to the state mill N 11 1930.
Sergo Konstantinovich Ordzhonikidze (1886-1937), Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the People’s Economy and People’s Commisar of the Workers’ and Peasants Inspectorate. Sergo was one of the Soviet Union’s most powerful men when he dropped in at Berdsk’s State Mill N11.
Top left; Ordzhonikidze with Joseph Stalin in happier days. Top right; Ordzhonikidze in full oratory frenzy. Bottom image shows Stalin as a pallbearer at Ordzhonikidze’s funeral.

Ordzhonikidze was a massive player in early revolutionary Russia. Born and raised in Georgia, Ordzhonikidze joined the Bolsheviks at an early age and quickly rose within the ranks to become an important figure within the group. Arrested and imprisoned several times by the Russian police, he was in Siberian exile for the February Revolution in 1917. Returning from exile, Ordzhonikidze took part in  the October Revolution that  finally brought the Bolsheviks to power. During the ensuing civil war he played an active role as the leading Bolshevik in the Caucasus, overseeing the invasions of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. 

Promoted to lead the Rabkrin, the Workers and Peasants Inspectorate, Ordzhonikidze moved to Moscow and joined the inner circle of top Bolsheviks. Tasked with overseeing Soviet economic production, Ordzhonikidze began a massive overhaul of Rabkrin and its associated bodies, highlighting inefficiencies within Vesenkha, the Supreme Soviet of the National Economy. By 1930 when he came to Berdsk, he’d been transferred to lead Vesenkha, the organisation he’d shown to be incompetent. 

Ordzhonikidze oversaw the implementation of Russia’s 5 year plans for economic growth, helped create the Stakhanovites, a movement of model Soviet workers and was elevated to the Soviet Union’s elite inner circle, the Politburo.

Ordzhonikidze’s undoing was his reluctance to take part in the Stalin’s campaign against so-called wreckers and saboteurs of the early 1930s. This caused major frictions between Stalin and Ordzhonikidze. With his relationship with Stalin deteriorated, and on the eve of a 1937 meeting where he was expected to denounce workers, Ordzhonikidze shot himself and died at his home. He was honoured after death as a leading Bolshevik, and several towns and cities across the Soviet Union were named after him.  His family however were severely punished, with several of his close relatives being executed.

Throughout the end of 1936 and into 1937, there were further efforts to remove so-called wreckers and saboteurs. Ordzhonikidze was now unable to protect them from the NKTP, which was heavily targeted at this time. He was expected to address wrecking and sabotage within the NKTP at a Central Committee meeting scheduled to start 20 February 1937.

On 17 February Ordzhonikidze spoke to Stalin privately on the phone. Ordzhonikidze then left for the Kremlin to see Vyacheslav Molotov and attend a Politburo meeting afterwards. At the meeting he again repeated his belief that charges of wrecking within his Commissariat were exaggerated, and was ordered by Stalin to leave.  After Ordzhonikidze left, he visited 2 other Politburo chiefs and was home that night by 7pm and leaving again for his Commissariat office at 9pm.He met a deputy there and was home again at 20minutes after midnight. 

The details of the last few hours of Ordzhonikidze’s life are unclear. What is known is that upon arriving home he discovered the NKVD had searched his house, so he phoned Stalin to complain about this intrusion. The two talked angrily, switching between Russian and Georgian, Stalin explaining that the NKVD had the power to search anyone’s residence, even his own. Ordzhonikidze was then invited to visit Stalin in what would have been the middle of the night and did so for about 90 minutes.The following day, 18 February, Ordzhonikidze stayed at home in bed for most of the day. In the evening his wife Zinaida heard a gunshot from Ordzhonikidze’s room, and found him dead, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot.

Stalin and other leaders arrived quickly at Ordzhonikidze’s apartment, where it was decided to announce the cause of death as heart failure. An official bulletin was released the following day; it detailed Ordzhonikidze’s troubled health history, and concluded by stating that “on the morning of 18 February, Ordzhonikidze made no complaint about his health, but at 17:30, while he was having his afternoon rest, he suddenly fell ill and a few minutes later died of paralysis of the heart”. The announcement of Ordzhonikidze’s death came as a surprise to the public. Seen as the driving force behind the industrialization of the Soviet Union, he was held in high esteem. His body lay in state on 19 February, and over 250,000 people filed past his body. The funeral was held on 20 February with Stalin was his pallbearer to keep up appearances. His body was cremated and his ashes interred within the walls of the Kremlin. Just another of Stalin’s very tidy removal jobs.

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