History@Portsmouth

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Using Material Culture: The Russian Revolutionary Plate

Cameron Meeten, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog entry on a plate produced in revolutionary Russia for the Introduction to Historical Research Unit. Cameron demonstrates how the plate gives us an insight into the ways in which the Soviets tried to steer and influence ideological thinking in the Soviet Union. The unit is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth. 

Russian revolutionary plate designed by Mikhail Adamovich, 1921

Material culture is the use of objects created or modified by people which directly or indirectly reflect the ideology of those involved with their creation, as well as the beliefs of the society in which they were created. [1] This is evident in the Russian Revolutionary Plate, which was designed by Mikhail Adamovich, an employee of the State Porcelain Factory, designing plates portraying Soviet imagery for the use of the Soviet state.  [2] Before working in the factory Adamovich was a revolutionary guard and created numerous plate designs glorifying Soviet leaders such as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. [3] The significance of the plate is in its representation of the Russian Revolution as a triumph over capitalism; this is demonstrated through the imagery of the worker trampling the word Kapital. The Russian Revolutionary Plate is, then, a valuable source of material culture. It is an explicit example of the socialist revolutionary ideology of its creator, and 1920s Soviet society more generally, and thus provides an insight into the components of the ideology which were valued and brandished.

The plate was initially created in 1901, in the Imperial Porcelain Factory whilst Tsar Nicolas II was the emperor of Russia. Adamovich’s decoration was applied later in 1921. This can be used to show the intended statement of the design, as it demonstrates how luxury goods from the Tsarist autocracy were being overtaken and repurposed for socialism. The design of the red factory on the plate illustrates the Soviet rebranding of the Imperial Porcelain Factory into the State Porcelain Factory, symbolizing the fall of free market capitalism, and a heroic rise of a workers’ state. This demonstrates how consumer goods can be created as a form of propaganda. Indeed, this perspective is taken a step further by Samantha Oswald who claims that ornaments were created in the Polish Peoples Republic using the artistic design of socialist realism in order to forward the interests of the Socialist state. [4] Material culture can, therefore, be used to analyse political ideology through its representation in goods.

However, Richard Grassby has stated that cultural historians can place too great an emphasis on the importance of the symbolism of material culture, rather than the utility of the object. [5] It is, then, paramount to keep this in mind when analysing this source, as this plate had the purpose of being Soviet propaganda. This idea is corroborated by Alison Hilton who argues that the Soviet-produced porcelain plates were not designed to appeal to the masses, but rather act as communicative tools for the revolutionary ideology, as well as a means to convey a positive image of the Soviet Union towards the elite. [6] Therefore, the plate is more useful as a representation of Soviet propaganda attempting to drive societal ideology, rather than as a genuine representation of the ideology of the people living in that society. The plate was created before the regime, yet redesigned in a state-controlled factory with Soviet imagery to convey a positive message about the ideology of the regime. This demonstrates how the utility of the plate changed with the redesign, from a luxury commodity, into state propaganda.

Adrienne Hood argues that material culture is not a discipline in itself, but rather an investigation into cultural history using artefacts and relevant documentation. [7] The use of the Russian Revolutionary Plate highlights how relevant documentation is essential alongside the use of material culture.  The origins of the State Porcelain Factory detail the nature and purpose of these plates, whilst in isolation they have face value in their representation of socialist realism as an art form and Soviet ideology. Researching why these plates were made and how they were used amplifies their value as a historical source; for we not only gain knowledge of their use, but the perceptions of the ideas they portray too.

One of the key debates among historians regarding material culture is whether it is created and defined by the market. This is highlighted by Grassby who states that early modern European societies incorporated economics and culture, with culture becoming a distributable commodity through which individuals measured their self-worth. [8] However, the circumstances of the existence of the Russian Revolutionary Plate demonstrate that this is not always the case, for in this instance the material culture represents the antithesis of a market itself. It can thus be argued that this is representative of the Soviet government-controlled market. This plate design was not created to be a distributable commodity; if anything its value is in the act of defacing a porcelain plate, which itself would have been a valuable commodity. Catherine Richardson argues that a European market allowed for cultural goods to be transferred between major cities in different countries, observing that these goods were important in “shaping individual and national identities”. [9] This demonstrates that the market is useful as an explanation for people’s interactions with material culture, and also indicates how societies acknowledged that too. However, this does not account for the historical significance of the initial utility and creation of such artefacts. The ways in which Western Europe reacted to Eastern material culture can be valuable in learning about Western European Society, but this tells us little about the material object, or the society from which it came. This is true for the Russian Revolutionary Plate, as focusing on it from a market standpoint loses the initial impact and utility of the object which is more valuable in the case of such an explicit depiction of Russian society.

To conclude, the Russian Revolutionary Plate is a valuable historical source, as it illustrates the tearing down of the old system to be replaced by socialism. However, whilst symbolising a revolutionary attitude, it is not necessarily reflective of Soviet society, as the utility of the plate is, as a form of Soviet propaganda, an important distinction from its symbolism. This demonstrates the importance of analysing utility in addition to symbolism. Whilst providing historical value through symbolism, greater knowledge can be extracted through its use with additional sources to assess true cultural impact. The key debate as to whether material culture is created and defined by the market can be questioned in this case, for the plate is created not in a market sense, but rather an ideological one. The creation of the plate design does not originate in an incorporation of culture and a capitalistic drive for profit, but rather an attempt to reinforce a socialist ideology. This piece of material culture, then, provides valuable insight into the ways in which the Soviets wanted to steer and influence ideological thinking in the Soviet Union.

 

Notes

[1] Adrienne D. Hood, “Material Culture: The Object”, in History Beyond the Text: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, ed. Sarah Barber, and Corinna Peniston-Bird. (London: Routledge, 2013), 176.

[2] “A History of The World in 100 Objects, No. 96, Russian Revolutionary Plate.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/QReTVeCrQBW86UScSIMAtw, Last accessed 19 March 2018.

[3] Victoria E. Bonnell, Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters Under Lenin and Stalin (London: University of California Press, 1999), 47.

[4] Samantha Oswald, “Fired Ground: Warsaw’s History in Brick” in Objects in Context: Theorizing Material Culture ed. Stephanie Anderson, and Cierra Webster (London: Routledge, 2013), 50.

[5] Richard Grassby, “Material Culture and Cultural History” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35, No. 4 (2005): 591.

[6] Ian Wardropper, News from a Radiant Future: Soviet Porcelain from the Collection of Craig H and Kay A. Tuber (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992) 50.

[7] Hood, Material Culture, 177.

[8] Grassby, Material Culture and Cultural History, 596.

[9] Catherine Richardson, Tara Hamling, and David Gaimster, The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge, 2016), 22.

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