London: Russian Revolution; Hope, Tragedy, Myths @ the British Library

For the United Russia, 1919.

When I was unexpectedly given a Wednesday off work (albeit without pay, but hell, I’ll take it. Anything is better than being at work!), my first plan was to go home, change back into my jimjams, and catch up on some reading, but then I thought, “nah, I’m already dressed and out of the house, might as well make the most of it!” So, even though it was a bleak, rainy day, I had a great time. I went up to Golders Green to restock my bagel supply (whatever I don’t eat fresh, I throw in the freezer for bagel emergencies), got roti canai for lunch at the Roti King, and, most importantly for the purposes of this blog, decided to go see the new exhibition at the British Library.

The Happy Worker in Sovdepia, 1918. (From the Electronic Museum of Russian Posters)

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths opened at the end of April, and runs until 29 August 2017.  At £13.50, admission is not cheap, but if you go with someone you can get a National Rail 2-for-1 deal (with valid train ticket), or you can get half price admission with a National Art Pass. Honestly, the British Library is one of the few places where I don’t worry overmuch about the expenditure, because I know their exhibitions are of a consistently high quality (that said, I did still use the 2-for-1, because £6.75 buys a lot of bagels).

The Godless at the Workbench, 1923.

And indeed, “Russian Revolution” was no exception. In keeping with the theme, most of the decor inside the exhibit space was red. After an initial slog through a slow-moving crowd of people to look at the displays in the first section, I was relieved that the exhibit then took me through a maze-like structure of red plastic-mounted photographs (it looked better than my description makes it sound) of the Revolution with displays hidden here and there amongst the structure, which seemed to really cut down on crowds building up for some reason (maybe people were getting lost? Though it wasn’t really a maze…).

Retribution for the Reds, 1919-1920. (From the Hoover Poster Collection)

Ostensibly, the exhibition was divided up into sections including “The Tsar and his People,” “Last Days of the Monarchy,” “Civil War,” “The Bolsheviks in Power,” “Threat or Inspiration,” and “Writing the Revolution,” though the ordering was more chronological than anything, which makes sense when you look at most of the section titles. It was only the last two galleries that felt thematically defined, and saying “gallery” where “Writing the Revolution” is concerned is a bit of a stretch, because I’m pretty sure it was just a single glass case full of books at the end of the exhibition.

Retreating, the Whites are Burning Crops, 1918-1920. (From the British Library)

As is typical with British Library exhibitions, there were some fantastic artefacts here (I’d love to have a look in the bowels of their archives…I can only imagine the incredible stuff they’ve got stashed away). Near the start of the exhibit, there was a first edition of the Communist Manifesto (which I couldn’t see very well because some guy was hogging the case) and Lenin’s original Reader’s Ticket from the British Library, issued to him under the alias Jacob Richter, which he used when he was living in London in 1902 whilst on the run from the Tsarist Police, as well as the letter he wrote to the library requesting the pass. I’ll say this for the man; he might have turned into a monster once he got into power, but he did have extremely clear handwriting.

Rasputin, New Starviken, April 1917. (From the British Library)

There were also various copies of rare Soviet books that had been mostly destroyed during purges, maps galore, letters from other prominent Bolsheviks (though not as easy to read as Lenin’s, since they were written in Russian), and even some ceramics (just as good as the plate I mentioned in “Imagine Moscow”), but the best thing by far was the propaganda posters. They shoved so many of them in here, and they were all really fantastic, as you may have been noticing (because the BL never allows photography inside their exhibitions, I’ve chosen to illustrate the post with some of them, with sources credited when known). My favourite was probably the one with a very crudely drawn Rasputin (see above), which was actually from the cover of a satirical magazine, but they were all great, though the Trotsky one below is disturbingly anti-Semitic.

Peace and Freedom in Soviet Russia, Trotsky the Red Devil.

I have to admit, when it comes to analysing the exhibition as a whole, rather than just describing individual objects, it’s been a bit of a struggle to put into words exactly what I mean (I’ve re-written this paragraph about ten times, and it’s still not great). Although the exhibition undoubtedly did have a narrative, it was also simultaneously perhaps a bit vague? I guess what I mean is that if I had to grade the content of the exhibition as if it were an essay, it would earn some points for stating all the relevant facts, but maybe lose points on interpretation. Basically, the exhibition did a great job of explaining the many catalysts that led to the Revolution (though perhaps another problem was that they didn’t make enough of a distinction between the February Revolution and the October Revolution, or spend enough time explaining what happened in the period between the two), but I still left feeling unsure how they all came together to give Russia that one last push into open revolt, and how the Bolsheviks managed to step in and seize power when some of the earlier experiments in moving away from autocracy were more democratic in nature (it is thus perhaps unsurprising that I only got a “C” when I took Russian history). However, I don’t know if this is an issue with the exhibit so much as my own reading comprehension (or lack thereof), since I did skim over some of the captions in places, or maybe my lack of understanding is because in retrospect, it’s difficult to see the appeal of communism. Which is not to say that I didn’t learn anything (the section about the civil wars was particularly interesting, because I’d somehow missed all that in that Russian history class (and now I’m kind of impressed that I even managed to pull off that “C.” I probably deserved a “D.”)), just that I felt that the exhibition could have done with more explanation in places, though then I suppose it would run the risk of being overly text-heavy.

Go and Save Them! 1918-20. (From the V&A)

Other than that quibble, and my issue with the layout of the first section of the exhibit space, which caused traffic to block up (especially when some woman decided to stop right in front of the display case and watch a video, instead of maybe stepping slightly to the side so she would have been out of everyone’s way), there was still so much to like here. The exhibit managed to pinpoint exactly when the Bolsheviks turned from all their lofty ideals and theories (which, let’s face it, were ultimately about them maintaining power) into just massacring people who disagreed with them, and it was chilling, but also fascinating. The artefacts chosen were also excellent, and the whole exhibition really did paint a magnificent picture of what went wrong with Russia in both the Tsarist and early Soviet days, even though I’m still hazy on some of the finer details of the Russian Revolution itself. 4/5 – a very enjoyable way to spend a day off!

Dimitrii Moor, Alphabet of a Red Army Soldier 1921. Text Reads: The earth burns, set alight by the worker’s hand. (From the British Library)

 

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6 comments

  1. Great sampling of posters! I think the Godless at the Workbench is my favourite – it’s really something else – but I also enjoyed the Rasputin cover (I’ve a kind of repulsed fascination for him – which might be the only kind you can have.) Also, I was interested to see that a couple of the posters feature dragon imagery – that was new to me … but then I probably deserved an E in Russian History.

    1. I love Godless at the Workbench too, and I also like the bottom panel of Retribution for the Reds a lot, which shows all the ways the “godless” Soviets would be tortured in hell. I guess the dragons are probably meant to symbolise Imperial Russia? There were so many more fantastic posters in the exhibit, but these were the only ones I was able to track down online.

  2. Again, too bad you couldn’t take photos, but thanks for including posters! I understand your frustration with the exhibition content. Russian history, especially the revolution, is definitely challenging to present concisely.

  3. Ah ha, I also attended this exhibition recently with my brother! I felt exactly the same way as you did – the exhibition itself is solid and very interesting, but I felt that there was a lack of clarification between the two revolutions, the length and brutality of the Civil War, and characterisation/motives of the main players themselves. In this regard I think just simple biographical boards would work for Trotsky, Lenin, Kerensky, etc.

    Still it was a delight to see Lenin’s handwriting and the posters, film, books, etc., though I missed the first edition of the Communist Manifesto as it was so busy at the beginning of the exhibition itself, like your experience it was crowded but then thinned out later on.

    1. I think you’re right, biographical boards would probably have been a big help, especially for some of the less well-known names, and there really should have been a lot more about the Civil War, since that seems to be an oddly neglected part of history, at least in my experience.
      It was only one guy blocking the manifesto in my case, rather than a whole crowd, but sometimes one person is all it takes!

      1. Indeed it does! Big exhibitions are always a tad difficult to view in a wheelchair as people crowd round and obstruct the view, then when you try and get close you realize you also obstruct the view! It really is, though I loved that huge map of Russia that showed the areas held and lost by the various forces throughout the Civil War. it is always amazing to me that the Bolsheviks actually managed to hold onto the power following the revolutions and always devastating to read about and see the destruction, terror and famine that followed.

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