Russian photographic postcard depicting the removal of the statue of Tsar Alexander III in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) during the February Revolution, 1917, Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

The Russian Revolutions of 1917

  In 2017, the world will mark the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolutions, a dramatic series of political occurrences with consequences that are still being felt today. Tobie Mathew discusses his own collection of pictures related to these events, which are listed exclusively with Bridgeman Images.

 

There is something extraordinary about seeing historical images of dramatic upheaval; the frisson of excitement that filters down the ages, the chaos and confusion of contemporary reality brought back to life on the page or screen. Over the last fifteen years or so I have spent much of my spare time and resources building up a collection of original pictures, ephemera, and documents that I hope go some way towards recording the complications of social and political developments in Imperial and early Soviet Russia, as well revealing a more human side to the Liberation Movement.

 

 Carte de visite depicting the Russian Revolutionary Terrorist Sofia Lvovna Perovskaia (1853-1881), 1880-89, Russian Photographer, (19th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Carte de visite depicting the Russian Revolutionary Terrorist Sofia Lvovna Perovskaia (1853-1881), 1880-89, Russian Photographer, (19th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

 

 Carte de visite reproducing an artist's impression of the assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881, 1880-89, Russian School, (19th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Carte de visite reproducing an artist’s impression of the assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881, 1880-89, Russian School, (19th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

In the early part of my career, I spent a number of years in Moscow working as a journalist, but I have most recently been occupied writing a book on early Russian revolutionary propaganda specifically anti-government postcards. Through the course of my research in the police archives I came across several very early examples of revolutionary pictorial propaganda, some dating back to the 1870s, when small cells of subversives started manufacturing photographic cartes de visites, initially in Western Europe, but later also illegally inside the Russian Empire itself.

 

 Russian postcard satirising the repressive response of the Imperial regime during the 1905 Revolution, c.1905, Shebuev, Nikolai Georgievich (1874-1937) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian postcard satirising the repressive response of the Imperial regime during the 1905 Revolution, c.1905, Shebuev, Nikolai Georgievich (1874-1937) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

 

 Russian postcard caricature showing the aftermath of a demonstration during the 1905 Revolution, c.1906, Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian postcard caricature showing the aftermath of a demonstration during the 1905 Revolution, c.1906, Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

 

Around the turn of the century, postcards replaced carte de visites as the revolutionaries main form of visual propaganda. Satirical caricatures, real photographs and leftist portrait postcards were extensively manufactured during the 1905 Revolution and beyond, when they were used both to spread an anti-government message as well as to raise funds for opposition groups. Such were the profits to be made that commercial firms also became heavily involved during a short-lived period that was described by one journalist as a publishing bacchanalia

 

 Russian photographic postcard depicting crowds celebrating the October Manifesto in Saint Petersburg, c.1905, Bulla, Karl Karlovich (1853-1929) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian photographic postcard depicting crowds celebrating the October Manifesto in Saint Petersburg, c.1905, Bulla, Karl Karlovich (1853-1929) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
 Russian postcard commemorating the first anniversary of Bloody Sunday (Government massacre of workers in Saint Petersburg on 9 January 1905), c.1906, Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian postcard commemorating the first anniversary of Bloody Sunday (Government massacre of workers in Saint Petersburg on 9 January 1905), c.1906, Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

By 1910 the Imperial jackboot had to all intents and purposes extinguished leftist postcard production in Russia, but the medium came back with gusto following February Revolution and the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. Once again postcards proved a valuable propaganda tool, used to desacralise the monarchy in the eyes of the people, as well as to establish a historical narrative about recent events. Postcards also served as cheap and simple souvenirs with which to celebrate and remember what were for all concerned, life-changing events.

 Russian postcard caricature produced after the February Revolution suggesting that Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna betrayed Russia to the Germans, 1917, Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian postcard caricature produced after the February Revolution suggesting that Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna betrayed Russia to the Germans, 1917, Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

 

 Russian photographic postcard depicting an overturned statue of Tsar Nicholas II in during the February Revolution, 1917, Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian photographic postcard depicting an overturned statue of Tsar Nicholas II in during the February Revolution, 1917, Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

 

 Russian postcard celebrating the February Revolution, which caused the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, 1917, Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian postcard celebrating the February Revolution, which caused the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, 1917, Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

 

 Russian postcard celebrating the February Revolution, which caused the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, 1917, Zvorykin, Boris Vasilievich (1872-1942) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian postcard celebrating the February Revolution, which caused the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, 1917, Zvorykin, Boris Vasilievich (1872-1942) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian photographic postcard depicting May Day celebration in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) during the February Revolution, 1917, Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian photographic postcard depicting May Day celebration in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) during the February Revolution, 1917, Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

For the first time, large-scale posters could also be put to the service of the Revolution. The image below was produced by the Socialist-Revolutionary Party to drum up support ahead of elections to the Constituent Assembly.

 Russian Propaganda Poster promoting the Socialist-Revolutionary Party ahead of upcoming Constituent Assembly Elections, 1917, Unknown photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian Propaganda Poster promoting the Socialist-Revolutionary Party ahead of upcoming Constituent Assembly Elections, 1917, Unknown photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

After months of increasing dissatisfaction, the Bolsheviks made their final move. Early in the morning on November 7, the Winter Palace was stormed. Even before the group had gained control over the city, Lenin wrote a short announcement declaring that the Provisional Government had been overthrown. This note, which is essentially the founding document of the Soviet state, was printed up and quickly distributed across the city. Observe the different typefaces: not enough letters of one font could be found at such short notice.

 Leaflet announcing the Overthrow of the Russian Provisional Government and the Coming to Power of the Bolsheviks, 1917, Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Leaflet announcing the Overthrow of the Russian Provisional Government and the Coming to Power of the Bolsheviks, 1917, Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

The very first publicly reproduced photographs of Russia under the Bolshevik regime were again issued in postcard form. This rare image, from a set depicting the burial of victims of the October Revolution (here referred to only as the upheaval of 28-30 November) is believed to be the earliest known picture of Soviet Russia.

 

 Russian Postcard Depicting the Funerals of The Victims of The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917 (postcard), Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian Postcard Depicting the Funerals of The Victims of The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917 (postcard), Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

The takeover in Moscow was far bloodier than in Saint Petersburg, with extensive damage done to both Saint Basils Cathedral and the Kremlin. These two postcards, taken by the photographer A.F.Dorn, show the former capital in the immediate days after Lenin and his cohorts came to power.

 Russian Postcard Showing Damage to the Kremlin's Beklemishev Tower Following the Bolshevik Revolution In Moscow, 1917 (postcard), Dorn, A. F. (fl.1917) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian Postcard Showing Damage to the Kremlin’s Beklemishev Tower Following the Bolshevik Revolution In Moscow, 1917 (postcard), Dorn, A. F. (fl.1917) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
 Russian Postcard Depicting Damage Done to Saint Basil's Cathedral During the Bolshevik Takeover of Moscow, 1917 (b/w photo), Dorn, A. F. (fl.1917) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian Postcard Depicting Damage Done to Saint Basil’s Cathedral During the Bolshevik Takeover of Moscow, 1917 (b/w photo), Dorn, A. F. (fl.1917) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

There were no propaganda images of Lenin published before 1917, and the earliest mass-distributed pictures of the Soviet leader were all printed as postcards. Publishers used whatever images they could get their hands on, meaning that many reproduce portraits not often seen elsewhere. Some even use the photograph from his old police file. In 1918, the photographer Moisei Nappelbaum took what is perhaps the best-known image of Lenin (see image below right). Thereafter this formal portrait became the standard depiction of the great demagogue used in Soviet propaganda.

 

Russia Postcard Depicting Vladimir Lenin, Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars, 1918 (postcard), Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russia Postcard Depicting Vladimir Lenin, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, 1918 (postcard), Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
 Portrait of Soviet Leader Vladimir Lenin, 1918 (colour litho), Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Portrait of Soviet Leader Vladimir Lenin, 1918 (colour litho), Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

 

Early group portraits of the Bolshevik leaders are uncommon, not least because so many of the individuals they depict were repressed under Stalin. Trotsky was a particular focus for the black lines of the censors pen, but anything that smacked of unorthodoxy was dangerous to own. The postcard below right, which not only refers to the Bolshevik takeover as the Second Russian Revolution but also gets the date wrong, fits very awkwardly with later Soviet narratives.

 Russian Postcard Depicting The Leaders Of the Soviet Government, 1918 (postcard), Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian Postcard Depicting The Leaders Of the Soviet Government, 1918 (postcard), Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
 Russian Postcard Depicting The Leaders Of the Soviet Government, 1917 (postcard), Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian Postcard Depicting The Leaders Of the Soviet Government, 1917 (postcard), Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

In fulfilment of their revolutionary slogan Peace, Bread, Land, the Bolsheviks sued for peace, and under the terms of the heavily punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia temporarily ceded huge swathes of territory to Germany.

 German Postcard Showing Soviet Official Lev Trotsky at the Brest-Litovsk Treaty Negotiations, 1918 (b/w photo), Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
German Postcard Showing Soviet Official Lev Trotsky at the Brest-Litovsk Treaty Negotiations, 1918 (b/w photo), Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
 German Postcard Showing Soviet Official Lev Kamenev Arriving for the Brest-Litovsk Treaty Negotiations, 1918 (b/w photo), Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
German Postcard Showing Soviet Official Lev Kamenev Arriving for the Brest-Litovsk Treaty Negotiations, 1918 (b/w photo), Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

Withdrawal from the First World War left the Bolsheviks free to concentrate on their internal enemies, and yet again postcards proved an invaluable tool in advancing partisan tales of a workers paradise under threat from greedy capitalists and their hired mercenaries.

 Soviet Propaganda Postcard Depicting a Fat Capitalist Hoarding Money, c.1919, Deni, Viktor Nikolaevich (1893-1946) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Soviet Propaganda Postcard Depicting a Fat Capitalist Hoarding Money, c.1919, Deni, Viktor Nikolaevich (1893-1946) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
 Soviet Propaganda Postcard Celebrating May Day, c.1919, Moor (Orlov), Dmitri Stahievic (1883-1946) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Soviet Propaganda Postcard Celebrating May Day, c.1919, Moor (Orlov), Dmitri Stahievic (1883-1946) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

Postcards were also put to use by the opposition. This exceptionally rare image, which shows Lenin as a sozzled drunk unfit to preside over the country, was produced by an anti-Bolshevik group in Russia around 1918.

 Russian Anti-Bolshevik Postcard Satirising the Soviet Leader Vladimir Lenin, 1918, Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Russian Anti-Bolshevik Postcard Satirising the Soviet Leader Vladimir Lenin, 1918, Russian School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
 Anti-Soviet propaganda postcard from Russian Civil War era satirising the Bolsheviks as wild beasts, c.1919 (postcard), Zhivotovskii, Sergei Vasilievich (1869-1936) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
Anti-Soviet propaganda postcard from Russian Civil War era satirising the Bolsheviks as wild beasts, c.1919 (postcard), Zhivotovskii, Sergei Vasilievich (1869-1936) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

The Civil War caused immense destruction to families and properties across the former Empire. No one was immune, from the lowliest peasant to the highest in the land. In July 1918, as anti-Bolshevik forces neared Ekaterinburg, the order was given to kill the Imperial Family. This postcard and photograph both show the Ipatiev House where the murders took place.

 The Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, where Tsar Nicholas II and the other members of the Russian Imperial Family were murdered, 1918 (b/w photo), Unknown photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
The Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, where Tsar Nicholas II and the other members of the Russian Imperial Family were murdered, 1918 (b/w photo), Unknown photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
 The Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, where Tsar Nicholas II and the other members of the Russian Imperial Family were murdered., 1918 (b/w photo), Unknown photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
The Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, where Tsar Nicholas II and the other members of the Russian Imperial Family were murdered., 1918 (b/w photo), Unknown photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

Many in the extended Romanov family were killed, but a few did escape. The document below was used as a checklist aboard HMS Lord Nelson, a British battleship that was used to evacuate surviving members of the Romanov family and their entourage in 1919.

 List of Russian Royal Family On Board H.M.S. Lord Nelson and H.M.S. Marlborough, Royal Navy, 1919, English School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images
List of Russian Royal Family On Board H.M.S. Lord Nelson and H.M.S. Marlborough, Royal Navy, 1919, English School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Photo © Tobie Mathew Collection / Bridgeman Images

The anniversary next year will no doubt again be used for political ends, but it provides an opportunity both for remembrance and reassessment. Nothing can bring one closer to the disputed reality of this turbulent era than looking at the objects that were produced at the time, which capture both the great hope that so many had for a better future and their despair at the havoc that ensued.

 

Find out More

See all images from Tobie Mathew’s collection: more content is always being added

What caused the 1917 Russian Revolutions?

Romanovs, Rebels & Revolutions: A history of Russia on Film

Art for the People: Soviet Art under Investigation
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3 Comments

  1. Martin Vander Weyer

    This is a very long shot, but were you by any chance the buyer of a set of Russian Revolution photographs by Leo Steveni, auctioned by Mellors & Kirk in Nottingham in March 2016? I am trying to help a Steveni family member to locate them, chiefly to see the inscriptions on the backs of the photos. Many thanks for any guidance you can offer.

  2. Pingback: History – Musings and Mutterings

  3. this blog is very helpful.i found which i want.everything is clear for me.i traveled many blog but this blog is different from them.thanks

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