The latest edition from Four Corners Books, Greetings from the Barricades, is the first major study of the design, production and distribution of opposition propaganda postcards in Imperial Russia. Written by Tobie Mathew, a historian specialising in Russian graphic art and propaganda, the book takes in the publishing activity of a diverse set of revolutionaries; who while differing in their views and intentions, were settled on the efficiency of postcards in spreading messages of defiance. Here, we speak to Tobie about what inspired his initial interest in revolutionary postcards, their unifying themes and ability to spark change.
What sparked your interest in the postcards?
I started learning Russian while at school, and this set off a fascination with the country’s history and culture. On my first visit in 1996, I was trawling through a tourist market in Saint Petersburg when I happened upon some early opposition postcards.
It seems extraordinary that one could pick up an original revolutionary artefact for less than the price of a hamburger. Fast forward a few years, and I had the beginnings of a collection.
Is there something particular to postcards that make them work as opposition propaganda?
Postcards were originally conceived as a cheap form of written correspondence, but the ease with which they could be printed, the small size, and great popularity, made the medium an ideal conduit for political ideas, as well as a convenient way of generating income.
In common with the internet today, postcards were an extraordinarily flexible form of communication. The speed with which they could react to events, and their ephemeral nature, made them an ideal medium through which to reflect the relentless pace and disjointed nature of modern life. As one publisher remarked in 1904: ‘Life in our age moves fast. What grabs one’s interest today, is tomorrow already forgotten and replaced by something else.’
What’s the significance of the aesthetic approach?
In the early years, opposition postcards were printed by committed revolutionaries under highly constrained circumstances – most were simple line drawings, tacked to a wall and photographed for reproduction. But the break-down of government power in 1905 enabled the opposition to gain access to professional print houses, prompting a dramatic change in the range of actors involved and the quality of the postcards themselves.
European satirical journals were a strong influence on many Russian artists during this period, but both the variety and impact of their postcards was unparalleled. The best used a pared-down aesthetic, deploying flat swathes of colour and simple memes to drive home their point in a manner that presages later Soviet propaganda.
While the content of the cards is wide-ranging, are there common themes?
The cards convey a vast array of popular demands and complaints, from women’s rights to the iniquities of Imperial bureaucracy. But the postcards are first and foremost compendiums of Tsarist repression. State-sponsored violence is the unifying theme that runs through all the images, from reproductions of socialist paintings, through liberal cartoons, to revolutionary portraits.
Did you discover anything you had not expected during the course of your research?
I had not fully appreciated the economic side of opposition propaganda, which was almost always sold as opposed to given away. Following press reforms in 1905, a vibrant commercial market arose to service the huge demand for anti-government wares, and as a consequence there was good money to be made. Revolt had become a fashionable activity and the political and commercial possibilities attracted publishers and opportunists of all types. The great diversity of those involved at this time speaks to the emergence of a consumer economy, in which every aspect of society, even political thought, was becoming subordinated to the desire or need to make a profit.
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