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AT 4.30pm on June 3, 1906, a small team of policemen arrived at an inconspicuous residential building in central Kiev. Acting on a tip-off from the tsarist security services, they had come in search of revolutionaries.
Hard at work in an upstairs flat, three young students were oblivious to the danger outside. When the knock on the door came there was no time for them to hide and, although one was later found to be carrying a loaded revolver, all three were swiftly detained. With the situation under control, the flat search could begin. It went on until 9 o’clock that evening.
Even by the standards of the day, the haul from the raid was impressive. Laid out on tables and concealed in boxes, bins and trouser pockets, the police discovered pamphlets, revolutionary proclamations, copies of an opposition journal, cartoons, printing inks, photographic equipment, a small red flag — and more than 1,000 anti-government postcards.
Many of these postcards reproduced images of a massacre that had taken place in Saint Petersburg early the previous year. On January 9, 1905, tens of thousands of workers and their families had set out for the Winter Palace to petition the tsar for greater social and political rights. But, as the columns of marchers approached the city centre, imperial soldiers opened fire, killing hundreds.
Bloody Sunday, as it became known, released a long-suppressed wave of revolutionary activity that threatened to sweep away Russia’s centuries-old tradition of autocratic rule. Amid the strikes, demonstrations and terrorist attacks that followed, all sides competed for popular support — the state through patriotic appeals and short-lived reforms, their opponents through anti-government rhetoric and agitation.
Hampered by the censor and limited in the ways that they could distribute their seditious messages, the groups battling against autocracy were forced to develop their own methods of communication. Newspapers, pamphlets and leaflets were used extensively but postcards became their key method of disseminating visual propaganda.
Postcards were originally conceived as a cheap form of written correspondence. But the ease with which they could be printed, their small size and great popularity made them an ideal vehicle for political ideas as well as a convenient way of generating income.
I first came across these extraordinary postcards while studying in Saint Petersburg in the mid-1990s. Since then, a passing interest has become a passion and I have spent the last six years digging through the Russian archives to uncover the long-forgotten stories of the activists and artists who produced and disseminated them.
The resulting work, Greetings from the Barricades: Revolutionary Postcards in Imperial Russia, uses text and image to chart a captivating but complex period, when Russia stood on the brink of both revolution and reform.
Anti-tsarist postcards were initially produced and sold by Russian revolutionaries living abroad in the late 19th century but after Bloody Sunday the market moved to Russia itself. As unrest spread across the country, publishers became increasingly emboldened, putting huge pressure on the imperial censor.
Following a half-hearted attempt at government reform in October 1905, the dam broke and in the immediate aftermath, activists and individuals throughout the empire manufactured millions of subversive postcards for ideological and financial gain.
The postcard images are very diverse, ranging from satirical cartoons to photographs of early revolutionary demonstrations and their politics are equally varied. All enemies of absolutism argued the need for change but there was little agreement on how this should be achieved.
While liberals pushed the cause of civil rights and political reform, committed revolutionaries insisted that Russia could never be truly free under an autocratic regime.
Many of the cards, particularly cartoons, were illegal to publish but, while the unrest continued, the imperial authorities found it almost impossible to curtail production. For several months, officials fought an almost daily battle to suppress subversive imagery. They did eventually gain the upper hand but the tsarist state was never viewed in quite the same way again.
The onslaught of anti-government propaganda during this turbulent period greatly exacerbated a loss of popular trust in imperial rule, a loss of trust that would come back to haunt Nicholas II a little over a decade later.
Then, amid the chaos and deprivation of the first world war, the population would again rise up against their tsar, this time with greater success.
Long before television and the internet, the Russian opposition transformed the postcard into a potent tool of mass communication. Once a humble message-bearer, in 1905 it became a key weapon in the struggle to overthrow the tsarist regime.
Greetings from the Barricades is published by Four Corners Books, price £20.
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