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In the digital age, when a smartphone can capture an image and send it across the world instantaneously, it is easy to forget the power the colour photograph once exerted. In few countries was that as true as the Soviet Union. There, the colour photograph moved from propaganda tool for a utopian new society, to being the way the authorities presented a carefully controlled image of a country, to a subversive underground art form.

For 60 years after the medium first appeared, colour photography developed in Russia much as elsewhere in Europe. Hand-coloured black-and-white portraits hung in 19th-century homes that could not afford paintings. As the first colour-image technology appeared, the tsar sent his favourite photographer around the Russian empire to show him its diversity – much as the US Congress sent photographers to document the settling of the west. Then came war and revolution.

“We show that Russia looks beautiful back then. It is a totally colour country,” says Olga Sviblova, curator of the forthcoming show “Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia”. “In a moment, first world war and revolution destroyed all that.”

“Primrose”, named after one of the first flowers of spring, ranges from the 1860s to the end of the USSR. It is, notes Sviblova, a one-time documentary film-maker who founded the Moscow House of Photography in 1996, not only a history of Russian photography. Its 140-odd images also present a history of modern Russia through photographs. First come the early days of the hand-tinted image. These coincided with the height of Russia’s “Europeanisation”, after centuries of cultural isolation. As Russia industrialised, Russians decorated their walls not just with portraits but with tinted pictures of the new technology.

But Russia, then one of the world’s largest empires, was at the same time seeking its own identity. In the early 20th century, Tsar Nicholas II, a keen photographer, sent one of Russia’s leading photographic innovators, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, in a specially equipped railway carriage to create a record of Russia’s domains. His work, produced with a three-colour plate system he adapted himself, included a 1908 lithograph of Leo Tolstoy that one journal called “the first Russian colour photoportrait”.

The Lumière brothers’ autochrome system was arriving in Russia, too, taken up by another enthusiastic amateur and wealthy nobleman, Pyotr Vedenisov. The costumes may come from a century ago but the clarity and composition of Vedenisov’s photos of family life make them seem strikingly modern – and give a tantalising insight into a Russia soon to be swept away.

The 1917 revolution initially ushered in artistic experimentation by figures such as Alexander Rodchenko, a painter and graphic designer who later turned to photography, and his wife Varvara Stepanova. But the Bolsheviks were quick to see the propagandistic possibilities of the photograph. “For the first Soviet power, where 70 per cent of the population couldn’t read and write, photography was a visual weapon,” says Sviblova. “Photography was put in service of the ideological machine.”

When, amid the chaos and hunger that followed the first world war and Russia’s civil war, life failed to improve as Lenin’s revolutionaries had believed it would, they turned to another technique: photomontage. “Real photography could only show the horrible things that were happening – photomontage gave the possibility to create a visual utopia,” says Sviblova. Hand-colouring techniques of the 19th century were revived, to a new purpose.

For Lenin’s successor Joseph Stalin, however, even this was not enough. In the 1930s, the Soviets issued the edict on “socialist realism”. All art must henceforth show the “happiest people in the happiest country”. Socialist realism held sway even after the second world war. Although colour-print film was becoming widespread in the west, in Russia it was restricted to a handful of officially approved photographers such as Ivan Shagin.

By the mid-1950s, the Khrushchev “thaw” allowed photographers to move towards more humanistic reportage. It was, says Sviblova, “the second time that Russia moved a little bit more towards Europe”. With television sets still a rarity, this was the heyday of news magazines such as Ogonyok. The head of its photographic department, Dmitry Baltermants, once a war photographer, chronicled everything from Khrushchev’s official meetings and Soviet sporting triumphs to everyday street scenes. He was even permitted to exhibit abroad, befriending Henri Cartier-Bresson.

As the economy stagnated under Brezhnev in the 1970s and a new repression set in, Soviet photography entered another phase. Though colour-print film was still rare, cheaper colour-slide film and projectors became widely available. They became a tool for renewed experimentation by photographers such as Boris Mikhailov, later one of the leading post-Soviet artists.

“They started to use this mass-culture material, the colour slide, to give their own, opposite view of what was happening,” says Sviblova, who curated underground art shows. “They showed these photos to very small circles, just their friends. The 1970s were a time when it was possible to live in a parallel society.” Within a few years, however, as the Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s, that world, too, would be swept away.

‘Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia’ runs from August 1 to October 19 at The Photographers’ Gallery, London W1F 7LW

Neil Buckley is the FT’s eastern Europe editor

Slideshow photographs: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow/Moscow House of Photography Museum; Dmitry Baltermants Archive; Boris Mikhailov

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