Russian Revolutionary Postcards

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Tobie Mathew is a writer and historian specializing in Russian graphic art and propaganda. He has previously lived in Almaty, Kiev, and Moscow, where he spent three years working as a journalist for The Associated Press. He is the author of Greetings From The Barricades: Revolutionary Postcards in Imperial Russia published by Four Corners Books.


Siny, “Straight out of the Basement.”

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This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity.

You have this beautiful and very interesting book, Greetings from the Barricades: Revolutionary Postcards in Imperial Russia. It gives a history of revolutionary postcards and their place in the revolutionary movement, and particularly in the 1905 Revolution. How did you come upon these postcards, and what struck you about them?

It was a complete coincidence in that I started learning Russian at school way back in the mid-1990s. On one of my very first trips to Russia after having started learning Russian literally for only a couple of months, I went out to St. Petersburg. Like most tourists during that period, I came across various markets selling mostly old Soviet uniforms and that sort of thing. And one day I came across some postcards, and I knew these were obviously revolutionary cards, but I wasn’t quite sure what date they were from, so I bought them.

When I came back on subsequent visits, I came across some more, and suddenly after a few years, I had 20 of them. I had the start of a collection. And I thought it was probably about time to find out a little bit more about them. I started reading up, and lo and behold, discovered this whole new arena that had been studied or looked at particularly by collectors. There doesn’t seem to have been much academic interest during the Soviet period. It was really people who started collecting them in the 1960s.

Having read these articles, which were only in Russian, I then started trying to actively search them out. The great advantage was that I was collecting in the early 2000s when eBay really became a thing, and I started to come across better examples. Ones in better condition, and in colored imagery. I then started a concerted effort to track down dealers and go to Russia to really find where these things were. And so I built up a relatively sizable collection of them, all the while trying to find out as much as I possibly could about them.

Fast forward a few years. I ended up moving to Moscow. I studied at a Russian university, and I think, like many people, certainly in the UK, on leaving university had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I went back home, and after a couple of months, I thought, “What am I going to do?” So, I went out to Russia, started working as a journalist for BBC, and then actually got a job with the Associated Press. Being there gave me the opportunity to track these things down, and I also started meeting museum professionals and people who really knew what they were.

About 10 years ago, I thought maybe I might be able to write a book. A naïve thought, but of course, as soon as you start doing the research, you realize what a daunting task it is. And I was amazed how much there is in the archives on postcards. But what was really a complete coincidence ended up being … Let’s call it by what it is, it became a bit of an obsession.

What is the history of the postcard in Russia? When did they begin to be used in Russia?

This is the extraordinary thing, and I completely share your wonder in discovering this topic, because certainly when I started out, I knew nothing. But the more layers I peeled back, the more it really seemed that postcards are a microcosm for an enormous amount of the social and historical changes that took place in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Postcards started in Austria-Hungary. There were various claims to the first postcard before this period, but the first official state postcards were issued in Austria-Hungary in October 1869. They did not arise in a vacuum. Postcards came about as part of much wider postal reforms, and these were needed because of enormous social changes, not least population enlargement, greater increases in literacy, and a huge development of the transport system through the railways. What this did was place huge pressure on postal systems that were really, prior to this period, only catering to the elite.

Postcards came in as part of the postal reforms. They were enormously popular. They were intended to be a cheaper and convenient form of communication. This was for both individuals and business because, of course, in this period, you also see a massive rise in commerce. In Russia, all these pressures on the postal system were perhaps more acute than anywhere else in Europe. The Crimean War had shown how bad Russia’s postal communication service was. In 1870, there was a big proposal put forward to revamp the whole system, and as part of this, postcards came to Russia. They were first issued in January 1872.

They caught on very quickly in Russia, and across continents, across all of Europe into America. All the earliest postcards in Europe and in Russia were subject to a government monopoly. These didn’t have any decoration on them at all. They were plain, unadorned correspondence cards, and this monopoly started to fall away in Europe starting in Germany in the 1870s, but there were significant exceptions. The UK, the US, and Russia itself quite enjoyed the revenue that came from this monopoly and kept hold of it. And in Russia, it wasn’t until 1894 that private enterprise was allowed to become involved.

Private enterprise was transformative because suddenly you get commercial competition. You get increasingly elegant, sophisticated designs, and you also get commercial manufacturers. Famous examples in Russia are the Singer Sewing Machine Company and Inam Chocolates, which produced advertising cards.

There’s one other important point about Russia and postcard manufacturers. It’s slightly different than the rest of Europe. They did not have a particularly well developed printing base, and so in the early years, you get a lot of the companies producing postcards come from Europe. They’re foreign firms operating in Europe who take commissions and then print the designs back, particularly in Germany but elsewhere in Europe. In terms of Russian companies, you get very few producing anything sophisticated beyond photographic images.

One exception is the Society of St. Eugenia, and this is an absolutely key postcard publisher in the early years, and they are backed by Imperial patronage. They were the first company to produce artist-designed postcards, and they worked very, very closely with the world of art, particularly with Aleksandr Benois. The St. Eugenia postcards are interesting for another reason, because they set themselves the specific task of educating the population. These postcards were, of course, produced for profit, but they were also didactic. They were a way of educating the masses in aesthetic taste.

The basic idea, and this was shared by several critics in the early years of Russian postcard production, that actually postcards were an educational tool to inform and improve taste.

How do postcards get adopted by the Russian revolutionary movement, and particularly, the role of visual propaganda in that movement?

The first visual propaganda we really start to see is in the form of carte de visite. Photography hits Russia in the 1850s. We start seeing the first revolutionary carte de visite in the 1860s. What appears to be the very first image, or one of the first images, is actually a carte de visite of Dmitry Karakozov. In 1866, after his assassination attempt on the Tsar Aleksandr II, you get an enormous number of images produced by official firms of Ossip Komissarov, but at the same time, you start to see a challenge to the Tsarist narrative, true revolutionary propaganda, and, in particular, through these images of Karakozov.

It was then used in the 1870s. There’s a lot of evidence in the archives for its use during the “Going to the People” movement in the summer of 1873. One of the main pieces of evidence used to convict revolutionaries in the Trial of the 193, was actually the fact that they used these carte de visite. Carte de visite were quite difficult and expensive to produce, and towards the late 19th century, they get completely replaced by postcards.

What are carte de visite? What did they look like?

Cabinet cards are slightly larger. Carte de visite are slightly smaller. It’s literally a photo-mechanically reproduced image, normally a portrait at this stage, that is glued onto a cardboard base. And sometimes it is literally that, just a makeshift image whacked onto a piece of cardboard.

What allows for the transition into using postcards?

Mostly because printing becomes easier. Certainly, for revolutionary usage, the photo-mechanical method is the only one they can use at this time for images with the exception of hectography, which arrives in the 1880s as a makeshift way of reproducing imagery. It’s from a gel-base. It’s a transfer method, and you literally get about 200 images. In terms of mass production, it’s printing that changes the dynamic, and I’m talking here mostly carte de visite at this stage are produced in exile by revolutionaries abroad. In Russia, it does happen, but it’s still very precarious and very dangerous.

As for the purpose of these images were for revolutionaries, I think there are three very important things. First of all, like the early postcards, this was a teaching method. It was a way of showing a would-be convert an image of a revolutionary, and using it to educate the individual in the history of the movement, and in what the movement stood for. So, it had a purely didactic purpose.

Beyond that, the second usage was what I call a revolutionary comfort rag. It’s quite difficult to know how widespread images were in the 1870s and 1880s. They certainly became more so, but at this stage, it seems that a lot of ownership was based only among the revolutionaries themselves. The revolutionary comfort rag was basically a way of sustaining and strengthening revolutionary belief. And so, one imagines just before going to bed or something, you take a quick peek at your revolutionary cards, and it was a way of stirring yourself for the fight ahead. I think they are icons in this way also. These were intercessors between the revolutionary faithful and the hierarchy and heroes of the movement.

These are the two ideological reasons. The third, and in many ways the most interesting use of propaganda during this period, and right up to 1917 is as a fundraiser. This is an aspect of revolutionary propaganda that has been ignored and is incredibly important because money played a central role in revolutionary life during this period. They were incredibly impoverished, and an enormous amount of their time was taken up firstly by fundraising and secondly by agitation. And here with propaganda you get the two together.

Right from the beginning, and I was amazed to discover this, but it’s all there in the accounts and the archives of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in Amsterdam and the International Institute of Social History. You can see how important propaganda was, and it was sold right from the beginning. Even these carte de visite in the 1880s were never given away, and in fact, the only things that were given away even in 1905 were really leaflets, hectographic leaflets or printed leaflets. Anything visual was sold because there was a real market for it.

Do you have a sense of the reception of these images by the people who consumed them?

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the backs of images and trying to find contemporary records of how they were received. I’ve managed to piece together what I think to be a fairly accurate representation, but it can be elusive, not least because so few of them were actually written upon. I think the simple answer is it was many and varied, and really depended upon the individual. So, for your revolutionary, these were totemic items of revolutionary belief, and they could be documents or rather images that could strengthen and enlarge that belief.

But I think at the same time, because you also get quite a few humorist images that are broadly oppositional either by using puns or through amusing depictions, I think you could simply buy them because you were amused by it. And I think, as I mentioned earlier on, these were also records of experience and time, and so whether it was because of revolutionary belief, whether it was fashion, or whether you just wanted to cast a wry glance at the period, or show to your mate, “Ha, ha, ha, look what the Tsar is doing in this postcard.” I think their uses were multiple and various.

But I think what they did overall is they concentrated hearts and minds. While it’s impossible to say what the concrete effect of all these postcards was, but it goes without saying to have millions of opposition images in circulation at this period is not going to help increase support for the regime. Without wanting to extrapolate too much from it, I think what we see in 1905 is really a loss of faith in the regime, and after 1907, when the Tsarist regime has grappled back control, Russia is really developing, and I think in terms of consumer choice, in terms of production, in terms of the images being produced, postcards really show Russia as a modern, developing society.

But underneath all that, none of those issues have been solved, and I think with all the economic crisis, with all the difficulties of the First World War, a lot of that underlying feeling which has never gone away came back. The overall effect of the visual propaganda and the written propaganda in this period is to undermine the core faith. It’s not critical. Were later events not to have happened, there’s no reason to suggest the revolution would’ve happened. But I think this is a brittle regime, and that support had gone.

Now, it is also very clear that even in production in 1905 that appetite for revolution disappears in 1906 and 1907, but that doesn’t mean to say that beliefs had completely changed.