Face to Face Encounters: Letter-Writers and Portrait Photographs in the Russian State Archive

Hannah Parker

On the final research trip for my PhD, I found some small portrait photographs of letter-writers in a file of between some hundred and a thousand 1925 letters to the editor of Krest’ianka – a series of biographies with enclosed photographs from their authors. Though, in my experience, group photographs were occasionally included with letters, as were a captivating variety of sketches and drawings, I was spellbound by the pictures of these women, which – for the first time – allowed me to visualise the letter-writers with whom I’d worked so closely. Since personal photography was at the time entirely prohibited (though the State Archive announced a month after I returned home that they would allow personal photography for a fee), I added the documents to my list of photocopying, which was set aside for far longer than I’d care to admit.

As ‘posed’ photographs, these portraits offer the ‘enactment’ of Soviet identity, and ruminate notions of selfhood.[1] Visible also is the ‘presence’ of peasant women in public life and as actors in the historical narrative of the Russian Revolution and construction of socialism. In this sense, the photographs are also expressive as visual and material objects, substantiating the writer’s social identity according to the biographies they provided.[2] Appearing materially, ‘outside of time’, portraits enabled peasant women to establish themselves in the Revolutionary historical narrative. Interestingly, the biographies that I’ve worked my way through so far clearly establish a narrative that spanned the late imperial and early Soviet years – sometimes even ending in 1917 – inscribing themselves in the very foundation of the Soviet project.[3]

Each of the photographs accompanied an autobiography, intended for publication in Krest’ianka. They often contained details about the authors’ early lives prior and during the Bolshevik Revolution. Fyodora Azhbalina (Figure 1), a krest’ianka (peasant women) from a village near Shadrinsk, in Russia, was born in 1885 to peasants and breadmakers, and detailed in her autobiography how she helped with peasant work from early childhood, along with her siblings.[4] E. Matveeva (Figure 2) was born in October 1904 in Shibotovo, a small village near Borovichi in Russia, and had been able to complete her studies a year earlier, in 1923, having been forced to abandon her studies at the age of 12, prior to the Revolution.[5] Writing to Krest’ianka in March 1925, the daughter of poor peasants, A. Solodovich (Figure 3) had joined the Komsomol in 1923, and in the two years since had organised a Komsomol branch in her village near Kriukovo.[6]  

Figure 1. F.Azhbalina.
Source: RGAE, f. 396, op. 2, d. 31, l. 69.

In many ways, these passages reflected contemporary expectations of the appropriate proletarian biography, offering dates, places and precise details to assure their reader of the narrative’s veracity. The women’s face-on poses are reminiscent of portraiture style of the late nineteenth century; ‘a form of self-fashioning’.[7] The photographs are a reminder that these missives contain a multitude of meanings beyond the formulaic. The inclusion of a photograph with one’s biography offered women recognition, and validation among the magazine’s readership: archival sources show that Soviet magazine readers did express an interest in learning about the lives of others ‘like them’.[8]

Figure 2. E. Matveevna.
Source: RGAE, f. 396, op. 2, d. 31, l. 66.

Snapshot photography initially emerged in the late nineteenth century; however the photograph was still an emerging medium after 1917. Photo studios made steady business in the late imperial period, and  as Christopher Stolarski has shown, ‘cheap, handheld cameras encouraged people to regard images as signifiers of social information.’[9] The establishment of new arts, new culture, and a new daily life after the Russian Revolution transformed what was at stake in the social production of images. Photography was important after 1917 because it transformed the figure or moment captured ‘into a symbolic or universal expression of human experience’; particularly apt as an agitational journalistic tool.[10] As Susan Sontag has observed, for their viewer, whilst photographs appear to ‘furnish evidence’, providing proof of what was doubted, they are no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth.[11]

Figure 3. A. Solodovich.
Source: RGAE, f. 396, op. 2, d. 29, l. 54.

I have argued elsewhere that letters possess a dual function as texts and objects, as a tangible connection between writer and recipient imbued with emotional agency by the mental and physical process of writing.[12] The possibility that a photograph of oneself might be printed in the Soviet press therefore effectively inscribed their life into the material culture of the Soviet Union.

Relatedly, the inclusion of personal photographs with letters might also be understood in the context of print and press as a ‘multi-sensory experience’: texts were frequently read aloud in reading rooms in communities and workplaces, or passed around groups of people. To mitigate low attendance among mixed groups in rural areas, reading groups run by women, with childcare, or run as sewing circles, proliferated.[13] How might an illustrated life-narrative such as those sent by Krest’ianka’s correspondents be experienced in such a setting?

The set of questions that these found photographs has thrown up for me highlights what Elizabeth Edwards has described as ‘the inseparability of social practices, material practices, and imaging practices’.[14] Why was I drawn to photocopy these photographs, and not the drawings dotted throughout the archive? Was this the effect of being able to visualise the author so clearly? In Stolarski’s exploration of the late imperial expansion of photojournalism, he remarked  that not only did photos inform the viewer, and provide evidence for their textual narratives, but ‘also established an emotional connection between the spectator and the passage of time.’[15] 

Without the ability to consult the sender, what is missing from my impression of these images is how they came into being, and a confirmation of their personal significance. These were photographs from Krest’ianka’s correspondents, but it is not at present clear whether these letter-writers arranged and paid for the photographs to be taken themselves, whether they were commissioned by the journal itself, or whether there is some other context for their production, though the biographies themselves don’t appear to have been solicited, based upon their narrative construction. According to Katerina Romanenko, photography was altogether easier and less expensive to produce and acquire than ‘fine art’ and illustration. Photographers’ rates were low for journals and newspapers, but with paper itself being a scarcity during the 1920s, it would have been expensive for the average peasant or worker, at 4-12 roubles per image, depending upon size and photo quality.[16]

Being able to see what the letter-writers ‘looked like’, and how they presented themselves, and the often ambiguous emotions etched upon their faces, offers a flavour of the layers involved in letter-writing through the historical imagination, enabling me as a sighted person to visualise the lives described and their composition into epistolary form. However, the emotional connection generated by the photographs is far greater than a visual phenomenon. Susan Sontag has observed that, although the veneer of their ‘veracity’ does not exclude photographs from the elusiveness of objectivity, nonetheless in handling them, they ‘do not seem to be statements of the world so much as pieces of it’.[17]

With cautious awareness of one’s position as a researcher, the cumulative effect of these sensory aspects is what Sonja Boon describes as ‘destabilizing archival certainty’. The introduction of the historical imagination into the extensively documented Soviet biographies of citizens undermines their discursive categorisation according to their biography which remains in the archival record. Photographs can bring the embodied selves involved in the self-construction of Soviet identity back to life.

***

I do not currently have many answers to these questions. From my present stance, I can say that the historical imagination elicited by the photographs of letter-writers increases my emotional proximity to the sources and subjects, by bringing me face-to-face both with these women, and with the time elapsed since their lives.[18] In this sense, the photographs can offer a generative layer of critical reflection[19] Nonetheless, my emotional connection with Fyodora Azhbalina, Solodovich and Matveeva through their images presents a stark reminder of the unidirectional ‘relationships’ we as historians construct between historical subjects produced by work with personal documents: this work is about as close to a face-to-face encounter with the women I research as I am able to get.

Hannah Parker is currently a lecturer in Russian and Soviet History at the University of Gloucestershire, and will be taking up a Visiting Fellowship at the Aleksanteri Institute in spring 2022. She is the author of Education, Labour and Self-Worth in Women’s Letters to Soviet Authorities, 1924-1941’, in A. Arnold-Forster and A. Moulds (eds), Feelings and Work in Modern History: Emotional Labour and Emotions about Labour, (London: Bloomsbury, Feb 2022), and the co-editor of a special issue on Public History currently under review with History: the Official Journal of the Historical Association.


[1] Oksana Sarkisova, Olga Shevchenko, ‘Between Elias and Foucault: Discipline, Photography and the Soviet Childhood’, Social Psychology Quarterly, 73:1, (2010), pp. 1-4 .

[2] Mark D. Steinberg, ‘Workers in Suits: Performing the Self’, in Valerie Ann Kivelson, Joan Neuberger (eds), Picturing Russia: Explorations in Visual Culture, (New Haven, 2008), p. 128.

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, trans. Shaun Whiteside, (Stanford, 1990), p. 76.

[4] Rossiiskii gosudarsvenyi arkhiv ekonomiki, f. 396, op. 2, d. 31, l. 70.

[5] RGAE, f. 396, op. 2, d. 31, ll. 67-68.

[6] The Russian Lenin’s Young Communist League (RLKSM), a youth organisation in the Soviet Union, was renamed the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League  (VLKSM) in 1922, though Solodovich referred to the organisation as RLKSM. RGAE, f. 396, op. 2, d. 29, l. 54.

[7] Christopher Stolarski, ‘Another Way of Telling the News: The Rise of Photojournalism’, , Kritika, 12:3, (2011), p. 575.

[8] Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv rossiiskoi federatsii, f. 7279, op. 8, d. 15, ll. 65-66.

[9] Stolarski, ‘Another Way of Telling the News’, p, 563.

[10] Stolarski, ‘Another Way of Telling the News’ p, 589.

[11] Susan Sontag, ‘On Photography’, pp. 174-5.

[12] Hannah Parker, ‘Education, Labour and Self-Worth in Women’s Letters to Soviet Authorities, 1924-1941’, in Agnes Arnold-Forster and Alison Moulds (eds.), Feelings and Work in Modern History: Emotional Labour and Emotions about Labour, (London: Bloomsbury, 2022), p. 102.

[13] Peter Kenez, The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilisation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 16.

[14] Elizabeth Edwards, ‘Objects of Affect: Photography Beyond the Image’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 41, (2012), p. 226.

[15] Stolarski, ‘Another Way of Telling the News’, p. 563.

[16] Jeffrey Brooks, ‘The breakdown in Production and Distribution of Printed Material, 1917-1927’, in Abbot Gleason, Peter Kenez and Richard Stites (eds.), Bolshevik Culture: Experiment and Order in the Russian Revolution, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), pp. 153-4; Romanenko, ‘Photomontage for the Masses’, pp. 33-34.

[17] Susan Sontag, ‘On Photography’, p. 174.

[18] Stolarski, ‘Another way of telling the news’, p. 563.

[19] Katie Barclay, ‘Falling in Love with the Dead’, Rethinking History: the Journal of Theory and Practice, 22:4, (2018), pp. 459-473.


All images in the text are the author’s own, created from photocopies. No re-use without permission.

Cover Image. Crop of Soviet poster, available through Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 1. F. Azhbalina. Source: RGAE, f. 396, op. 2, d. 31, l. 69.

Figure 2. E. Matveevna. Source: RGAE, f. 396, op. 2, d. 31, l. 66.

Figure 3. A. Solodovich. Source: RGAE, f. 396, op. 2, d. 29, l. 54.

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