A fascinating exhibition at the British Library paints an ambiguous picture of the events of 1917
The exhibition takes visitors on a visual journey which presents the history of the revolution in a series of photographs, documents, posters, film footage and, of course, books. The curators present the revolution as complex and full of ambiguities, a ‘palette of mixed colours rather than a black and white chess board’.
The curators are far from sympathetic to the Bolshevik Party. For every image or artefact which supports the Bolsheviks there is one produced by supporters of Imperial Russia or the White Armies. They are all part of the history of the revolution. While the pro-socialists exhibits are inspiring, the reactionary artefacts show the depths of the anti-Semitism regularly deployed against the revolutionaries and large numbers of ordinary people. However, unlike the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, the commentary is largely informative and deepens our understanding of the revolution. Statistics and quotes give context to and enlarge on the significance of the images and artefacts on display. Together they give a sense of the rotting, corrupt and vicious nature of Tsarist Russia, the terrible extent of the slaughter of World War One, and the amazing achievement of the Bolshevik government in winning the Civil War.
The exhibition begins with life under the Tsars and the international ruling class they were born into. Opulence co-existed with desperate ignorance and poverty. Amazing old film footage and contemporary paintings show huge crowds of ordinary Russians celebrating the Tsar’s coronation in 1896. Photographs from the time reveal the appalling conditions enduring by peasants who headed to the big cities to find work. The disgusting inequalities of turn of the century Russia provide the context for the growth of the revolutionary movement.
How did revolutionaries organise in a police state? Leg irons from Siberia hint at the extent of the repression those who opposed the regime faced. Some, like Lenin, were in exile. His application to join the British Library is on show here. The first generation of revolutionaries worked underground and adopted terrorist methods of assassination. There is a picture of Vera Zasulich who was one of these populist terrorists before she became a Marxist.
Some artefacts celebrate the 1905 Revolution and the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin. The swift eruption of the revolution, so soon after the masses cheered the Tsar at his coronation, shows how quickly ideas can change on a mass scale. The 1917 revolution is followed swiftly by the Civil War. The revolutionary regime had no time to recover from the devastation of World War One before it was plunged again into a series of battles in which civilians were treated appallingly. It was a war of propaganda, as well as a war of weapons. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a huge digital map that shows the progress of the Red and White Armies from 1917 to 1922. It showed how close the Bolsheviks were to losing out to the neo-fascists and imperialists of the white armies.
Some of the images on display hint at the revolutionary government’s attempts at social reforms. Perhaps it is not surprising that one example is the drive to increase literacy and establish libraries. There could have been much more about how the revolutionary government attempted to transform people’s lives. Another really fascinating section of the exhibition is the room devoted to world revolution. This underlines the fact that Lenin and Trotsky knew that they could only win if their revolution spread, an aspect lacking from so many accounts. There was a sense of the revolts that did occur across Europe at the time, and the footage of the German Revolution of 1918 was really memorable.
Focusing on the iconography and literature of the Russian Revolution has its limitations. It is not the obvious way to explore social movements, for example, but it also has some strengths. The wall newspapers, for example, which activists pasted up to tell people the latest news were a revelation. So were the old film clips and photographs and some of the paintings. Check out the Library’s exhibition page for videos, articles and a useful timeline.
British Library, until 29th August 2017, full price ticket £13.50
Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.