I was still puzzling over how people, whether rich, poor or somewhere in the middle, lived in Odessa in 1905. Which modern inventions were filtering down to people’s houses? They may have had bathrooms in middle-class houses but was there piped water to the bath? The 1902-3 Odessa directory was filled with illustrated ads for baths and toilets. There were none in the 1900 directory or later on, so these very early years of the new century must have been the moment when indoor plumbing became affordable and the idea needed getting across to people.
But what about decor? Were art nouveau ideas, common in advertisements and posters, entering homes in other ways? There were very few photographs of interiors at that time as the lighting was difficult, and the interiors portrayed by painters, many of their friends’ or patrons’ houses, may have been more modern, simpler, bohemian or avant-garde than ordinary people’s houses. When I recently first saw the painting by Ilya Repin ‘Unexpected visitors’ (in Russian ‘Не жда́ли’ ‘they did not expect anyone’) in a TV programme on perception (the painting was used by a Russian psychologist in the 1960s to research ideas about how the eyes track images), I thought it had been painted in the early 1900s but the date is 1883-1888 (there were several versions and reworkings) and the room in the painting is the artist’s country house sitting room.
Repin Unexpected visitors 1888
The painting is about the return of a political exile from Siberia. I love the way he has created this story around the incongruous figure in such a light, summery cheerful room. Possibly because it is a country house used in good weather, there are bare floorboards and the windows do not have heavy drapery. It has a feeling more of Swedish design than an overcrowded Victorian sitting room.
Carl Larsson c1890s
And so I went back to my search of how people might have lived in Odessa in 1905, such as the artisans and shopkeepers who were probably in the forefront of those whose businesses, homes and lives were destroyed in the pogrom. First I looked through a film I had recently found online of Kataev’s The cottage on the steppe (Хуторок в степи) for images of the family’s apartment in Odessa and the smallholding they later rented at Bolshoi Fontan. The story begins with the news of Tolstoy’s death in 1910 and, soon after, the Bachei father loses his teaching job after making a speech about the greatness of Tolstoy, who had been excommunicated by the Orthodox Church. After trying various unsuccessful ways to make ends meet, the aunt, who has brought the two Bachei children up, decides on a move to a rented smallholding with several acres of fruit trees in Bolshoi Fontan.
The Bachei apartment on Kanatnaya
I was also able to find a couple of catalogues of household objects sold in Russia at that time.
Robert Kent Moscow 1903
When the family begins their move to the smallholding, Petya stays with his working-class friend in Near Mills until his exams are over. There are a few outdoor shots of the cottage in Near Mills, a rare view of the little farmhouse on the smallholding, and a few scenes showing the interior.
The cottage on the steppe
Bentwood rocking chairs and dining chairs were very common at the time. There is an ad in the Odessa 1908 directory for the Austrian-German company that originally made bentwood furniture in the mid 19th century. The company was set up by the cabinetmaker Michael Thonet (1796-1871) whose work was carried on by his sons and their factories and showrooms spread across the world.
Thonet Brothers 1908 Odessa directory
Thonet Brothers catalogue
Chagall interior 1917
The few Russian photographs of interiors from around 1900 that exist show rooms very similar to those in the Kataev film, which must have been the common style for anyone who could afford to buy furniture, either new or second-hand, and gives an idea of the everyday lives of people around 1905.
Officers St Petersburg 1900