Volume 16 (1998)

Images of Enemy and Self:
Russian "Popular Prints" of the Russo-Japanese War*

Yulia Mikhailova

"Popular Prints" in Russia
Images of War with Japan
Japanese Wartime Woodblock Prints: a Comparison

"Popular Prints" in Russia
From the second half of the 17th century till 19188 lubki prints and literature played an important role in the life of the Russian people as the main means of mass culture. The first lubki prints were mainly religious in contents. In the 18th century several monasteries near Moscow specialized in their production. Then secular subjects came to be represented as well. Thus, heroes of knightly romances, genre scenes, real and imaginary birds and beasts were the subject of secular lubki. Especially popular were the characters of the "world of laughter." Jokes, irony and satire, caricature and ridicule poked fun at serious aspects of life, exposed unfairness and showed up human feelings and weaknesses.
"Popular prints" were not really created by the people themselves, as songs, fairy tales or anecdotes were. They were rather meant to be produced for people. Anonymous authors of lubki, who aimed at mass consumption, knew well expectations of the lower levels of society. For centuries lubki prints or books reproduced the same topics again and again - love triangles, a valorous knight or a merry Punch - giving them numerous variations. Lubki were popular exactly because they reflected the popular taste, everybody's "likes" and "dislikes." However, since the 19th century the expression lubochnyi (lub-like) acquired the meaning of anything primitive, vulgar or crudely made.
In the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century the production of lubki concentrated at a few large scale workshops in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and a small number of workshop masters and publishers decided what the repertoire and the style of prints should be.9 As time passed, wood was replaced by copper, then by lithographs and chromolithographs. All "popular prints" became subject to censorship and at least one sheet of each picture was directed to and kept in main national libraries of St. Petersburg and Moscow. "Popular prints" usually contained explanatory texts, often written in verse. Names of artists and printers were not written, however, those of the texts' authors usually were.10 The name of the workshop and its address were also indicated.
"Popular prints" were sold in large numbers at fairs and by peddlers and occupied the most honorable places in houses of peasants, craftsmen and merchants - the so- called "red corner," a place reserved for icons. They could also be fixed to the inside of a coffer cover where they easily caught the eye. Pictures remained there for years until they went into dust. Thus, lubok images came to be well ingrained into the people's memory.
War often figured among the subjects of prints. The importance of the war theme is well justified. War was perceived by people as an event of a global, cosmic scale, as an act of the Almighty God, the same as heavenly signs: earthquakes, plague, starvation or miracles. This association gave birth, for example, to some religious motives in allegoric prints of the Russo-Japanese War. Prints were also an important source of information about the course of war. Peasants, mostly illiterate, could hardly grasp information from newspapers or books, remember figures and facts. Even more educated city dwellers had them in at one ear and out at the other. On the other hand, cock-and-bull stories and rumors enjoyed popularity in the countryside and in city taverns for ordinary folks. Lubok prints quickly absorbed fresh rumors and stories, represented them in traditional graphic forms which were then brought back to villages and towns. At the same time prints often made fun of enemies Russia waged wars with. For example, some of the 18th century "popular prints" represented Russian Cossacks defeating Prussians who were depicted with long mustaches and called Prusaki, a synonym for cockroaches in the Russian language. "Popular prints" of the war against Napoleon usually mocked the sufferings of the French during the cold Russian winter or glorified the heroism of Russian peasants. Prints which appeared during the 1877-1878 wars against the Turks made jokes about their sluggishness and inability to fight well. No wonder that the war with Japan gave birth to a series of lubki prints relevant to the events.