Curator DR EKATERINA ROGATCHEVSKAI gives a guided tour of the new exhibition marking the centenary of the Russian revolution at the British Library
IN WHAT’S Left? Sheila Fitzpatrick excellent review of academic books published for the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the author reflects on its significance in 2017.
Not surprisingly, the issues of its meaning and magnitude are examined from the viewpoint of an academic historian. The review gives the readers a wide perspective on the discussions around the achievements and failings of the revolution and presents different approaches to scrutinising its events, as well as the authors’ political and philosophical standpoints regarding the historical necessity or inevitability of the revolution. It touches too upon some practical implications in constructing narratives of the historical processes and political theories.
But this still leaves us with the question of why marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution with an influx of well-written and thoroughly researched works should attract much wider audiences.
Today, people are not so much concerned about the faults of capitalist society but are trying to find their way through the new challenges of the global world. Even more difficult is the question of why cultural institutions outside Russia have found this anniversary sufficiently important, and at the same time sufficiently commercially viable, to organise art and historical exhibitions and rich public and educational programmes around it.
The major new exhibition at the British Library, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths, which runs until the end of August, and the programme of public events accompanying it, aims to tell the story of the Russian Revolution through a wide range of objects — documents, books, posters, postcards, maps, photographs, artworks, artefacts, film and music.
Seeing history made material in a small banknote or the hand-made wallpaper created by female factory workers can have a deep impact on exhibition visitors — it is not always knowledge but emotional experience that makes humans more resilient to challenges.
With a strong focus on personal stories of the common people, as well as key political players — extracts from diaries and memoirs and quotations from primary sources — the exhibition aspires to bring the events that happened 100 years ago closer to today’s public.
Although it does not really touch on the complex discussions around the role of a strong personality in history, the display of a poster with the portrait of Lenin’s brother Alexander Ulyanov, executed for an assassination attempt on tsar Alexander III, presented alongside an extract from Lenin’s letter to his mother on his way to Siberian exile, will hopefully inspire exhibition visitors to read around the subject and think about leaders and masses.
The exhibition emphasises the multiple experiences and perceptions of the events, rather than concentrating on various analytical aspects. Even so, such terms as masses, classes, workers and peasants, social groups, social spaces, the politics of the street and party politics are explicitly or implicitly referenced in it.
In the stories of people’s hopes and tragedies, the theme of violence comes across very strongly. The most striking pictures are documents and visual images of repressions organised by the ruling powers against the population, be it by the autocratic monarchy or the Bolsheviks, the brutal civil wars that cut across families, the devastating famine of the early 1920s, cynically exploited by propaganda or the calamities experienced by refugees.
It’s for academics to analyse the processes and their consequences but the show’s curators would like to believe that it can convey a simple idea that violence can only create more violence in response. If power is taken or retained by suppression or violation of the law, the chances that it will turn into an autocratic or totalitarian regime are very high.
The British Library’s links to the Russian revolutionary cause are quite intimate. Long before Vladimir Lenin, under the pseudonym Jacob Richter, requested admission in April 1902 to the British Museum Library — now part of the British Library — the museum had been frequented by other prominent Russian exiles such as Prince Peter Kropotkin and Sergei Stepniak.
Russian revolutionaries of all political outlooks worked in the reading rooms. They learned how to make dynamite, taught the Russian language to the family of one of the library’s senior staff, suggested titles that should be acquired for the collections and donated and sold their publications banned in Russia.
One of them was even arrested in the famous Round Reading Room. In 1921, having received an unsolicited donation in a form of a “sack of Bolshevik literature,” the British Museum authorities tried to convince the overcautious Foreign Office and Scotland Yard that the materials could be issued to readers.
The collection of visual art and literature held at the British Library on show includes many rare and unique items, including some little known or seen, even in Russia.
With the focus on those who created art at the time of the revolution, the intention is for the public to sense the blunt appeal to defend the new way of life and spread it across the world by Dmitrii Moor, the passionate enthusiasm of Vladimir Mayakovsky or the nervous ambiguity of the “music of the revolution” heard by poet Aleksander Blok and artist Yurii Annenkov.
We hope that the show leaves plenty of room for individual interpretations of the events in looking at the Russian Revolution as a quintessence of the history that each of us is living through now and that we all are agencies of.
Contemplation of Russia’s past and present are what the exhibition is meant to provoke.
But we would also like to believe that experiencing the hope and tragedy generated by the revolution and learning about its myths can bring history to life. We hope that visitors will reflect that somewhere in the world refugee camps are still part of the local landscape, young people are still radicalised because they are not able to otherwise channel their frustration with the world and that politicians are still playing dangerous games in their struggle for power.
One hundred years on, these and similar problems are still to be solved by society and the knowledge and experience of the Russian Revolution might still play an important role in understanding the modern world around us.