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Rare Photos Of Russian Revolution Discovered In A California Basement

Russian-born photography aficionado Anton Orlov couldn't believe his luck when he was allowed to rummage through a number of old storage chests in the basement of a house in northern California in 2005.

Inside, he found a treasure trove of hand-colored glass slides taken by an American pastor named John Wells Rahill during the Russian Revolution in 1917. There were also extraordinary slides from China and Japan in the mix as well.

"There were hundreds of images -- snow-covered villages, train tracks, bullet-riddled buildings, soldiers in trenches, soldiers by houses, soldiers on trains...lots of soldiers," Orlov says.

Orlov is now sharing some of those images -- and the story behind them -- with the world. You see, Orlov is the man behind the website The Photo Palace and a mobile darkroom called The Photo Palace Bus that travels the byways of America with the aim of fostering an appreciation -- and preserving the techniques -- of historic methods of photography.


Orlov was born in Moscow in 1977 and immigrated to the United States in 1994. Orlov's grandfather was a filmmaker and photographer who passed along his passion to his grandson.

"Unfortunately, he passed away when I was too young to really learn the craft," Orlov says. "But at the age of 12, my classmate showed me how to develop and print my own black-and-white images. And ever since then I could see no other future for myself other than the one connected to the magic of the darkroom."

He received a degree in photography from San Jose State University and is currently based in San Diego.

But back to those storage chests full of delicate glass slides.

As Orlov explains, Rahill was a pastor with a strong interest in Russian history and culture -- and in photography. After hearing about the Russian Revolution, he determined to see it for himself, joining the War Works Division of the YMCA.

As Orlov writes:
On the service card, which I was able to locate at the YMCA Kautz Family archives in Minneapolis, the date of his departure for Russia is stated as October 7th, 1917 -- the very same day of the big final push in the Communist Revolution. He was sent to work with the troops of the Western Front of Russia. He set up a facility the YMCA called 'Soldiers House' in the back of the front lines in a village (now a small town) of Valk. Today the town carries the name Valga and lies split in half by the border of Estonia and Latvia. There he was given an old school building inside of which he arranged for a reading room, game room, kitchen and other facilities to help the soldiers during their time away from the fighting.
Rahill returned to the United States in the spring of 1918 after being evacuated from Russia through China and Japan, where he also took a number of photographs.

Upon his return, he converted his photos for use in a magic lantern, a precursor of the modern-day slide projector first developed in the 16th century that used candles for illumination. The slides allowed him to show his images on a larger scale and share his adventures with interested audiences.

Orlov says many people who worked in Russia were labeled as socialist sympathizers and blacklisted in the 1920s and that Rahill was forced to pack away his collection of more than 500 glass slides and hide them in the basement of his house, where they remained unseen until discovered by his granddaughter, who alerted Orlov to their existence.

He says Rahill's magic lantern slides were some of the best examples of the type he's ever seen. "They were hand-colored by what must have been one of the very best photo-finishing businesses in the U.S.," Orlov says. "I am still hoping to find out who did such a wonderful job with them."

Orlov's dream -- if he can find the funding, that is -- is to follow in Rahill's footsteps in 2017 to mark the 100th anniversary of his trip.

"I will use the same camera and film that he used to take his images," Orlov says. "Upon return, I would like to make another set of magic lantern slides to complement his collection." (Those interested in contributing to Orlov's dream can do so here.)

The response to Rahill's photographs has been "warm and overwhelming," Orlov says. "People from all over the world -- from Australia to Kazakhstan -- are contacting me in gratitude for putting the images online and for rediscovering this long-lost treasure. I have heard from a few people from Russia and am very much looking forward to more contacts from my motherland. "

-- Grant Podelco

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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