Greetings From the Barricades: Revolutionary Postcards in Imperial Russia by Tobie Mathew - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

Yours Radically

Greetings From the Barricades: Revolutionary Postcards in Imperial Russia


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In 1905, defeated by Japan and facing insurrection in the major cities and financial catastrophe, Russia’s tsar and his government were forced to retreat from autocracy and create a parliament (the Duma). Censorship, already weak and inconsistent, virtually collapsed. By then, there were plenty of printing presses, legal and illegal, along with cheap paper and card and, most surprisingly, an efficient postal system of a kind that modern Russians can only dream of. Moscow and St Petersburg had six collections a day; a letter sent from the Crimea to France took just four days to arrive. By 1913 Moscow alone handled thirteen million letters a year. Postcards, first introduced in 1872, were the cheapest form of communication – a mere three-kopeck stamp took a card anywhere in the empire. It was some time before cards could be illustrated, and it was later still that it became no longer obligatory to confine the message to a line or two scrawled over the illustration. Regulations eventually relaxed so much that giant postcards much larger than the standard 9 x 14 cm were accepted.

For much of the 19th century, the authorities systematically scrutinised correspondence, but by the 20th century there were too many millions of letters to perlustrate everything, a practice that only again became feasible under Soviet rule. Just twice a month the post office sent batches of suspicious communications to the secret police. Letters from abroad, where most revolutionaries hunkered down, were more suspect; as part of the treaty of friendship signed in 1893–4, the French postal service agreed to refuse anything printed in Cyrillic, which inconvenienced Russian writers living abroad trying to return proofs to their publishers. The censorship of postcards was, nevertheless, very perfunctory: Lenin regularly communicated with his agents in Russia by postcard and Stalin sent girlfriends cards depicting erotically suggestive sculptures in the Louvre.

Once it became easy to buy, send or just collect scurrilous and seditious postcards, a great flood appeared, so great a flood that it is a mystery why Tobie Mathew’s book, an anthology, history and analysis of them, should be the first on the subject. Even in Russia, revolutionary postcards have been the subject only of exhibitions and one doctoral thesis. Yet their imagery includes stunning works of art as well as crude political gestures and glorifications of martyrdom. A revolutionary postcard cost, on average, ten kopecks, no more than a photographic postcard of a famous actor or a noteworthy palace or landscape, but as much as a schoolteacher or factory worker would earn in an hour, and the price of two loaves of bread. The postcards show that a gory painting of a ‘monarchist’ as a butcher ready for the slaughter could be used to invite a young lady to the opera, or that a senior civil servant might take pride in a collection of violent socialist attacks on the bureaucracy.

Even Mathew, who has collected and studied these cards for a decade, cannot be sure of their print runs. In the 1990s, when Moscow’s second-hand bookshops were at their busiest, the early postcards stocked by them for the most part depicted actresses and spas. Mathew must have dug deep to unearth so many hundreds of revolutionary examples.

Where did this satirical talent spring from? Before 1905, graphic expression of rebellion was rare in Russia. The satirical weeklies that emerged in the late 1870s rarely risked it: when in 1879 Svet i teni protested against the hanging of revolutionaries by printing a front cover of quills and inkwells arranged to resemble a gallows, with the caption ‘Our instruments for dealing with important questions’, it was closed down. In the 1860s, lithography had made printing cheaper and single-sheet drawings, known as lubki, started to appear. The lubok satirised vices – usury, greed, drunkenness, men beating their wives and wives (for some reason usually Ukrainian) beating their husbands – but never touched on the authorities, let alone the tsar. The only hint of political satire was the magnificent and popular Cat’s Funeral, where a procession of rodents escorts a dead cat to its grave.

In 1901, Russian Social Democrats in Switzerland, many of them inspired by German satire in Simplicissimus, fired the opening shot, producing a magnificent large postcard called The Pyramid. The tsar sits at the top ‘reigning over you’, below him are the senior ministers ‘administering you’, then come the Church ‘pulling the wool over your eyes’, the army (‘we fire at you’) and the bourgeoisie (‘we live off you’). Right at the bottom are the workers (‘we work for you’), carrying a banner that states ‘to live in freedom, to die in the struggle’, and the peasants (‘we feed you’). A few unconfiscated photographic copies of The Pyramid circulated; each one cost a day’s wages to buy.

Some revolutionary postcards were ambiguous: a depiction of the assassinated Tsar Alexander II or of the Grand Duke Sergei’s bombed carriages could be appreciated equally by a monarchist or a revolutionary either as a moving testimony to the victim or as a tribute to the perpetrator. Potentially loyal illustrations, such as a reprint of Tsar Nicholas’s manifesto announcing reform, might be subverted by overstamping them with a stencil of the bloody handprint of his minister of the interior, Vyacheslav von Plehve. Other postcards were even-handed in depicting both anarchists and monarchists as bestial creatures. Frequently, revolutionary assassins, sentenced to the gallows or internal exile in Siberia, were presented, together with their last words, in the style of Orthodox Christian martyrs. Great ingenuity was used to stage scenes of massacres as if they were eyewitnesses’ photographs.

After 1906, a wave of reaction and disillusionment brought Russia enough order to end this brief flurry of creativity. Satirical weeklies, however, still carried political caricatures and retained their readership, even appearing in other languages of the empire, such as Georgian and Ukrainian. But between 1906 and the start of the First World War, economic and political conditions improved so much and revolutionaries were so effectively infiltrated and broken down into small warring groups that the market for revolutionary postcards shrivelled up. Patriotism, the collapse of the postal system and shortages of paper killed off satirical postcards after 1914; the revolutions of 1917 drew a line under all subversive satire.

Saddest of all, the break-up of the Soviet Union failed to revive political satire. The one exception was the satirical television programme Kukly (‘Dolls’), an offspring of the British Spitting Image. The programme was removed from the airwaves shortly after it portrayed Vladimir Putin as the vile little boy Klein Zaches (from a fairy tale by E T A Hoffmann), who is protected by a good fairy but eventually drowns in a chamber pot. As for Pussy Riot, however charismatic its actors, its satirical performances have no revolutionary bite at all.

Tobie Mathew’s magnificent book testifies to Russia’s unrepeatable two years of free-ranging political satire. The book has been magnificently produced and professionally edited. It is very generously illustrated, with excellent notes and index. The narrative is a little disorganised, neither wholly chronological nor thematic, but everything one might want to know can be found in it.

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