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  • Open Letters: Russian Popular Culture and the Picture Postcard, 1880–1922 by Alison Rowley
  • Sally A. Boniece
Alison Rowley. Open Letters: Russian Popular Culture and the Picture Postcard, 1880–1922. University of Toronto Press. xii, 324. $65.00.

A picture postcard might seem a trivial and disposable item to most of the general public, perhaps meaningful only to the sender and receiver of the message written on it. A historian coming on a postcard decades afterward might also value it for the message written on it, should that message provide intriguing information about the subject of his or her research. To Alison Rowley, however, picture postcards are “central to understanding the social history and visual culture of fin-de-siècle Russia,” because they “had the power not only to reflect popular culture, but also to shape it.”

In Rowley’s view, picture postcards are a genre expressive of the society that produced and consumed them, just as newspapers, magazines, posters, and popular prints are. First marketed in an era of industrial and technological achievement, when photographs could be printed and sold in mass quantities, picture postcards satisfied the curiosity and interest of consumers in the persons and places they depicted. They also [End Page 468] benefited the governments and organizations that produced them to impress or persuade the public. Overall, Rowley demonstrates through her assured prose and impressive scholarship that picture postcards provide visual representations of ongoing political, economic, and social developments in the countries where they were manufactured and purchased.

As Rowley acknowledges, it is impossible to ascertain how many picture postcards were printed and circulated in Russia between 1880 and 1922, the period she chose to examine. Her evidence for this study comes from the unknown percentage of postcards that have survived their era, most frequently because they were bought for personal collections rather than for correspondence. While patiently and persistently amassing her own collection of historical postcards over the years, the bulk of which she purchased herself, Rowley deduced that “the broad categories” into which she was classifying her acquisitions approximated the “niches” they filled in their “original market.”

Rowley has structured her study to reflect these categories. In her first chapter, she discusses how the Russian market for picture postcards developed in the nineteenth century from the expansion of the Russian postal system, European innovations in papermaking and printing technology, and the introduction of the picture postcard in Europe. Although the czarist government held a monopoly on Russian postcards until 1898, after that time philanthropic organizations were permitted to produce and sell them for fundraising purposes; in addition, European-made postcards were imported into Russia in large quantities. Each of Rowley’s remaining chapters is devoted to a specific category of Russian postcards: landscape postcards, which celebrated autocratic state power, uniform nationality, military conquest, and economic development while promoting tourism; “celebrity” postcards featuring male litterateurs and female stars of Russian theatre and the screen; postcards displaying the body, from the florally romantic to the frankly erotic; postcards commemorating the monarchy through formal and informal portraits, across Europe as well as in Russia; the “patriotic narrative” postcards of World War I; and, from Russia’s revolutionary underground, the self-published postcards of revolutionary parties that could not legally be mailed before October 1917. In an epilogue, Rowley compares several categories of postcards from the early Soviet period to those of the czarist era.

This study is extensively researched. As well versed in the history of public landscape design, tourism, photography, theatre, and film as she is in the history of late imperial, revolutionary, and early Soviet Russia, Rowley substantiates her analysis with details, examples, and insights from a wide array of secondary works in addition to numerous memoirs, diaries, and travel accounts. Her monograph includes black-and-white reproductions of 130 European and Russian cartes de visite (pictorial visiting [End Page 469] cards, the precursors to picture postcards) and picture postcards, each of which is referenced in the text as an exemplar. Rowley is to be commended for her skilful and engaging interweaving of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russian history with contemporaneous popular visual culture as evinced in the picture postcard.



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pp. 468-470
Launched on MUSE
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