- Open Letters: Russian Popular Culture and the Picture Postcard, 1880–1922 by Alison Rowley
The mass media is an important topic in modern Russia history because it touches on questions about the popular nature of the Revolution and the role of agitation and propaganda in the Soviet Union. Alison Rowley adds picture postcards to the list of media such as popular books, newspapers, posters, films, and theatre that historians and critics have explored in recent decades. Her work complements these, providing evidence for the richness and dynamism of mass culture in late imperial Russia. At the same time, though, it leaves some important issues open.
Open Letters is organized around several themes that are loosely connected to each other. This characteristic is a matter of necessity and design. With no archival sources available for postcard publishers and limited public collections, Rowley (mostly) uses a personal postcard collection as her main source, a circumstance that made it difficult for her to impose order over many presumably quasi-random eBay purchases. As she explains, ‘‘given the rather disparate nature of the subjects covered, it made sense for me to treat them as independently as possible’’ (9). These disparate subjects include production and markets, celebrity culture and gender, erotica and pornography, politics, landscape and imperialism, World War I, and the Russian Revolution. Written sources are rare but include observations from several memoirists about their experiences with postcards.
Each chapter can stand alone, and readers interested in these various topics should find something useful and stimulating in them. Rowley avoids a thorny methodological issue by explicitly excluding the question of reception, but she does manage to draw some interesting conclusions based on her reading of images. Often, however, these ideas are presented in tentative terms or in tantalizingly brief fashion, a consequence, perhaps, of the schematic nature of the book’s organization, numerous topics, and diverse source base. Her discussion of Russian imperialism in landscapes, for example, suggests that economic, political, and military nationalism were revealed in what was absent (disorder, local people, indigenous sights) as well as in what was present (modern infrastructure, European-style tourist resorts, imperial monuments). Another moment comes in her discussion of personal WWI postcards, which, she argues, empowered soldiers and their families to create their own histories and narratives above and beyond official patriotism and commemoration (198). At these [End Page 378] important points, and at several others, I hoped for more discussion and contextualization to develop these moments in more detail.
The choice to cover many topics makes it difficult for Rowley or the reader to form conclusions about what Russian postcards tell us about Russian history (as opposed to Russian mass culture). The strongest thread to emerge is that the imperial Russian postcard market was very similar to its western European counterparts. In itself, this conclusion would support the idea that late imperial Russia, at least in terms of its mass media institutions, was modern, not backward, and rapidly modernizing on the eve of revolution. This is not a new idea but one that bears repeating. At other moments, thought-provoking ideas are brought up but not developed. She suggests, for example, that ‘‘picture postcards had the power not only to reflect popular culture, but also to shape it’’ (4), an intriguing statement but one that is not followed consistently throughout the book. Similarly, coverage of the Revolution and the early Soviet period is much smaller, and it is often appended to more comprehensive discussions of imperial Russia. One might wish for a fuller examination of the institutional and ideological differences between the public culture of imperial Russia and Soviet Russia as they would affect postcard production and consumption, but instead the book ends abruptly with a plea for someone to take up a more detailed study of the Soviet era. In the end, Open Letters provides readers with fleeting insights about late imperial Russia but never quite reveals more detailed conclusions, much like its ephemeral source material.