RUSSIA’S REVOLUTIONARY SOURCES. PART II: PHOTOGRAPHS AND NARRATIVES. “Album of Revolution, Take 2.”

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Fig. 1, Album of Revolutionary Russia Cover.

By Riley Kane

DK265.15.A43 1919

Al’bom revoliuitsionnoi Rossii = Album of Revolutionary Russia. [New York] : Russian Socialist Federation, [1919], 1919.

The Album of Revolutionary Russia is a photo album depicting people and scenes from the early Soviet Union between 1917 and 1919.[1] The book contains few words, only picture titles and brief descriptions that are often little more than the names of people or translations of Russian language visible in the photograph. This leaves the images to speak for themselves. The album was produced by the Russian Socialist Federation as a work of propaganda, seeking to promote Bolshevism and the emerging Soviet Union.

The Publisher of the Album

Considering the scant text within the album, an understanding of its publishers, the Russian Socialist Federation (RSF), would offer insights into its purpose and intended message. The album was produced during a tumultuous time for the American socialist movement, shortly after the album’s publication it suffered a major split. The American Socialist Party divided into the Communist Party of America (CPA) and the Communist Labor Party (CLP) in 1919 over disagreements on revolutionary socialism and internationalism that resulted from the Russian Revolution.[2] Both parties broke from the pre-existing American Socialist Party. The CLP focused on the United States and sought to ensure its movement was “an ‘American’ movement, not a ‘foreign’ movement.” This “treacherous ideology” exacerbated divisions between the CLP and CPA.[3]

The RSF was one of many socialist groups organized around ethnicity, in this case, Russian immigrants, and after the split it joined the CPA. In 1918 the RSF resolved to struggle for “the seizure by the working classes of power… with the object of effecting Socialistic overturn.” Additionally they considered themselves “revolutionary socialists” who were “[t]aught by the lesson of the Russian revolution.” The RSF was pro-Soviet, and committed to the “realization of [their] Bolshevik program.”[4] It is clear the album was produced as a propaganda tool.

The Album Itself [5]

The book was produced to show Americans the Bolshevik state and depict it in a positive light. Interestingly, this may have been a novel idea among American socialists, suggested by Jason Martinek in Socialism and Print Culture in America, where argued that their “radical use of literacy… placed an inordinate amount of faith in ordinary people” to grasp benefits of socialism and that such practices “sometimes, if not often,” worked against the interests American socialists.[6] The American socialist movement needed good propaganda, because they were fighting an uphill battle. Aside from the historical unpopularity of socialism in the U.S., which was further undermined by the First World War, there was also the problem of Americans’ perception of Russia.[7] Westerners have historically seen Russia in negative terms: Western civilization versus Russian barbarism, progress versus backwardness, and in the 20th century, democracy versus totalitarianism.[8] A major effort of the Album of Revolutionary Russia then must have been to promote a positive image of Russia and Bolshevism while addressing historical Western preconceived notions.

The reader is greeted by photographic portraits of Lenin and Trotsky, then a litany of ministers, many responsible for unexciting-sounding positions like the People’s Commissar of Post and Telegraphs. The album appears to show the entire government. This was likely necessary, to put names to faces Americans read about in the papers and to prevent other people from being recognized as important leaders, which occurred in anti-Bolshevik albums such as Blood Stained Russia.[9] The Russians placed great importance on images of their leaders, perhaps the RSF, as a body of ethnic Russians, was following that tradition.[10]

Fig. 2, The All-Russian Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal [11]

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One of the first pictures was a cheery shot of the “Kronstadt Council of Sailors and Workers Smiling,” which looked like an image out of a family album, depicting the revolutionaries as personal and warm. “The All-Russian Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal” also appears to make an effort to connect the revolution to ordinary people, the caption which describes the membership of the committee reads: “[f]rom left to right, a Factory Worker, a Soldier, a Peasant, Zhukov [the president], an Artisan, a Soldier, a Clerk.”[12] The RSF was trying to highlight that common people are being placed on an important governmental tribunal, but merely referring to the people by their professions rather than including their names seems oddly dehumanizing and might not have been the best choice in attempting to appeal to Americans.

Fig. 3, Enlistment of Volunteers for the Red Army

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There are many pictures of soldiers in uniform, but some carrying arms were wearing civilian clothes, likely shown to demonstrate the popularity of the revolution and perhaps to try and connect those Red Guards with the American Revolution’s militia and minutemen to encourage a positive association between the revolutions. The photo “Enlistment of Volunteers for the Red Army” depicts rather excited peasants joining the Red Army. I suspect this picture was staged to play into Western perceptions of Russian backwardness, the picture seems too over-the-top with the young men waiting attentively or clustered excitedly around the desk. When viewed in combination with a photograph of students at “The First Soldier’s University” it appears the RSF is using these images in concert to portray Bolsheviks as a beneficial, modernizing influence on the Russian people—playing into a stereotype to challenge it.[13]

Fig. 4, Bourgeoisie at Work

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The “Bourgeoisie at Work” is an interesting picture, one that seems like just the sort of despotic image that would fuel and anti-communist fears in America. Perhaps the album was meant for distribution among the poor, who would enjoy seeing the rich cut down to size, or perhaps the RSF misjudged their audience. The final picture, “Long Live the International,” showed another potentially counterproductive image of a crowd celebrating the global ambition of communism before a banner depicting a world map. It was an interesting note to end on, not explicitly aggressive, but suggestive of future expansionism.

The Album of Revolutionary Russia compares interestingly with Blood Stained Russia, another album of photographs in this collection that covers roughly the same period. Where this album is pro-Bolshevik, the other is openly anti-Bolshevik, and interestingly anti-German, painting the Bolsheviks as a mixture of German puppets, stooges, and spies. Its abundant text provides a clearer window into its author’s thoughts and motivations. The album discussed here does not address the question of Bolshevik loyalty to Germany, perhaps because it was published after the war.

 

Works Cited:

Draper, Theodore. The Roots of American Communism. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1957.

Dune, Eduard M. Notes of a Red Guard. Edited and Translated by Diane P. Kroenker, and S. A. Smith. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Frame, Murray, Boris Kolonitskii, Steven Marks, and Melissa Stockdale editors. Russian Culture in War and Revolution: Book 2. Political Culture, Identities, Mentalities, and Memory. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2015.

Glisic, Iva. ”Caffeinated Avant-Garde: Futurism During the Russian Civil War 1917-1921.” Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 58, no. 3 (September 2012): 353-366.

Martinek, Jason D. Socialism and Print Culture in America, 1897-1920. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016.

Miller, Sally. “Socialist Party Decline and World War I: Bibliography and Interpretation.” Science & Society, vol. 34, no. 4, American radical History (Winter, 1970): 398-411.

Schneirov, Richard. New Perspectives on Socialism I: The Socialist Party Revisited. The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, vol. 2, no. 3 (July 2003): 245-252.

U.S. Department of Justice. Bureau of Investigation. Minutes of the 4th Convention of the Russian Socialist Federation. September 28-October 2, 1918. NARA M-1085, reel 938, document 341853. Published by 1000 Flowers Publishing. Accessed December 7, 2016.

https://archive.org/details/MinutesOfThe4thConventionOfTheRussianSocialistFederation.

Poe, Marshall T. A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1476-1748. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Further Reading:

Miller, Sally. “The Socialist Party Schism of 1919: A Local Case Study.” Labor History, vol. 36, is. 4 (1995): 599-611.

See also in the Henri de St-Rat Collection:

DK 265.15.T46

Thompson, Donald C. Blood Stained Russia. New York : Leslie-Judge Co., 1918.

[1] Russia under Bolshevik rule did not become the Soviet Union until December 30, 1922. For Simplicity’s sake I will refer to Russia under Bolshevik rule prior to that date as the Soviet Union.

[2] Richard Schneirov, “New Perspectives on Socialism I: The Socialist Party Revisited.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, vol. 2, no. 3 (July 2003): 247.

[3] Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1957), 187.

[4] U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Investigation, Minutes of the 4th Convention of the Russian Socialist Federation, September 28-October 2, 1918, NARA M-1085, reel 938, document 341853, published by 1000 Flowers Publishing, accessed December 7, 2016, https://archive.org/details/MinutesOfThe4thConventionOfTheRussianSocialistFederation.

[5] The only citation I discovered for the album was in Notes of A Red Guard, where the pictures were used as ancillary sources in the translated autobiography of Eduard Dune, a Bolshevik and Red Army soldier. Little if any proper scholarship appears to have been performed on the album itself, nor does it appear to have been utilized in many historians’ studies; Eduard Dune, Notes of a Red Guard, ed. and trans. by Diane P. Kroenker and S. A. Smith (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993).

[6] Jason Martinek, Socialism and Print Culture in America, 1897-1920 (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), 116.

[7] Sally Miller, “Socialist Party Decline and World War I: Bibliography and Interpretation,” Science & Society, vol. 34, no. 4, American radical History (Winter, 1970): 403-404.

[8] Marshall Poe, A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1476-1748 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 3-4.

[9] Thompson, Donald C, Blood Stained Russia (New York, NY: Leslie-Judge Co., 1918), 193, also in  Henri de St-Rat Collection, it shows a picture claiming to be of “Lenine and Trotzky,” perhaps those are the  men pictured because they definitely are not  Lenin and Trotsky.

[10] Boris Kolonitskii, “Russian Leaders of the Great War and revolutionary Era in Representations and Rumors” 27-29, in Russian Culture in War and Revolution, Murray Frame, Boris Kolonitskii, Steven Marks, and Melissa Stockdale eds., Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2015.

[11] Unfortunately, none of the album’s pages are numbered, so whenever I refer to a picture I use the full English title as it appears written in the album and I discuss the pictures in their order of appearance.

[12]The All-Russian Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal, in description under image, in Album of Revolutionary Russia (New York, NY: Russian Socialist Federation, 1919).

[13] Iva Glisic,”Caffeinated Avant-Garde: Futurism During the Russian Civil War 1917-1921,” Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 58, no. 3 (September 2012): 353.

Riley Kane is a senior History major.

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