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The Hundred Year War

Russian Political Postcards 1905-2005

The regimes of Tsar Nicholas II and President Vladimir Putin may bare scant similarity on the surface, but as far as anti-government propaganda is concerned, the methods and medium have changed little in the hundred years since the 1905 Revolution.
by Tobie Mathew

On the 31st of May 2005, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company, was sentenced to nine years in jail for tax evasion.

The case was widely seen by members of the intelligentsia as being politically motivated, pay back from the Kremlin for Khodorkovsky's presidential ambitions.

The trial lasted almost a year, during which time Khodorkovsky's cause became a rallying point for many of those disaffected with Vladimir Putin's regime.

Under the aegis of the specially created 'Khodorkovsky Press Centre,' a number of events were held in Moscow during this period with the aim of highlighting the plight of the imprisoned oligarch. These events included poster designing competitions, demonstrations, and the publication of two near-identical postcards, one in Russian, the other in English.

The graphic propaganda that was produced for these actions is of varying quality, the majority being more of interest as historical documents than as examples of great artistry.

Although many of the posters are amusing, their overt use of puns and heavy symbolism is often too derivative of anti-Soviet images from the period of Perestroika.

Unlike the posters, which were created by independent artists, the two postcards were both designed and produced exclusively by the Khodorkovsky Press Centre.

The cards show the same photograph of a bespectacled Khodorkovsky, arms crossed, staring out from behind the bars of the Meshchansky District Courtroom. It is a simple picture, but one that bears strong comparison to the images of a long dead predecessor of Khodorkovsky's Ч the revolutionary Pyotr Schmidt.

One hundred years earlier, amidst the bloody events of the First Russian Revolution, Naval Lieutenant Schmidt led a mutiny aboard the Ochakov, a cruiser based in Sevastopol. Though he was successful at first, the mutiny was eventually suppressed after a fierce battle in Severnaya Bay.

Schmidt was captured and executed in 1906, but he subsequently became one of the most important martyr-heroes of the early revolutionary movement. His acts were commemorated in anti-Tsarist literature and art, and his face, like Khodorkovsky's, emblazoned on illegally printed postcards.

This philocartal link between the two men is not as random as it might first appear, for postcards were the most widespread source of uncensored propaganda during the pre-Revolutionary period, a fact that would surely not be unknown to the modern day-makers of Russian anti-government propaganda.

The extent of this form of pictorial propaganda was vast. Schmidt's mutiny is just one of many subjects covered by the revolutionary postcard during this era (c.1905- 1907.) Thousands of cards were produced showing photographs of barricades, revolutionary paintings, satirical drawings, song lyrics and so forth. So great was the number of illegal postcards printed that the Tsarist Government installed agents in district post offices to stop the cards reaching their destinations.

Though several different cards of Schmidt exist, most of them are based on one particular photograph. In this picture he is seated, head rested on his fist and staring directly at the camera. The portrait is startlingly simple, with little apart from the naval uniform to suggest who the officer is or why he is being depicted. This plainness of pose and dress is strongly echoed in the Khodorkovsky card, where the former billionaire is pictured standing, dressed in a short-sleeved black shirt.

Both depictions look to portray the men as ordinary human beings; people with whom one is meant to identify and understand. These are not corrupt Kings and Tsars, the cards imply, but everyday people like you or me, forced to act only because of the dire circumstances in which they found themselves.

This attempt to humanize the image is reinforced on the 2005 card by the title, which reads, 'Mikhail Khodorkovsky Ч founder and long time head of Yukos, the largest Russian oil company; philanthropist and civil society supporter, father of four.'

The Bolsheviks, who were particularly effective at glorifying their heroes, also made a series 'freedom fighter' postcards in the early 1900's. These postcards, some of which predate the Schmidt card, use similar studio portraits to depict the revolutionaries. The stark image of Nikolai Bauman, killed in Moscow during the uprising, is typical of this type.

Like in the Schmidt image, Bauman appears without any particular distinguishing features that would betray his fate. The white background and total lack of decoration renders the image generic and ostensibly unidentifiable without prior knowledge.

These pictures of Bauman, Schmidt and Khodorkovsky are not portraits of great men, but eternal symbols of sacrifice, unfettered by the bonds of time or place. They may have human faces, but in effect these are little more than blank canvases on to which a set of mythologies can be built.

This idea becomes more apparent when one understands that all the postcards of revolutionaries that were published circa 1905 exclusively showed 'freedom fighters' who had died.

The ultimate purpose of these cards is not to tell a story, but to propagandise the act of martyrdom, glorifying it, and so inspire others to join the struggle.

In the Khodorkovsky picture the prison bars play a vital role, making the viewer keenly aware of the sacrifice that is being made. Here, like in pictures of Christ on the cross, we actually see the martyr being created. Khodorkovsky, with his idealized act of self-sacrifice, is literally showing the way to his followers.

The early revolutionaries, and the Bolsheviks in particular, understood the religious overtones of martyrdom, and indeed consciously exploited the symbolic language of the church in order to put across ideas of revolutionary sacrifice.

This appropriation of language can be seen to some extent in the picture of Schmidt, in which his head and shoulders stand out against a plain background, consciously mimicking the traditional composition of the Russian icon. His deeds are undoubtedly being equated with those of the saints, further reinforcing his sacrifice in a form that would be immediately understandable to the Russian people.

Despite the similarities in composition, I would not like to suggest that the Khodorkovsky postcard also intentionally uses religious references, especially given that the photograph was taken by an agency photographer. It is nevertheless interesting that the legacy of earlier images remains so evident.

The Schmidt and Khodorkovsky postcards are objects which were made to help mould a secular hagiography of their respective subjects. They are both modern day icons which are intended to inspire and give sustenance to their followers.

Though the pictures support very different causes, they are joined together by the concept of political martyrdom, uniting Russia's long history of political struggle and reflecting the continuing importance of its propaganda art.

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