Cultural History

EXHIBITION REVIEW: Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths at the British Library

Rating:

May 10, 2017

'A worker Sweeping Criminals out of the Soviet Land' from Russian Placards 1917-22 (c) British Library Board

‘A Worker Sweeping Criminals out of the Soviet Land’ from Russian Placards 1917-22 (c) British Library Board

The British Library seems the perfect place to host an exhibition dedicated to the Russian Revolution. With both Marx and Lenin having worked at moments in the reading rooms of its former premises, it can be easily seen as a cradle of the Soviet experiment. Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths, on view till 29 August 2017, cannot boast any exceptional archival discoveries, surprising artefacts or peerless artistic masterpieces, yet nonetheless creates a very balanced humanistic narrative, in which the course of these turbulent years is uncovered through the eyes of the many parties involved.

The library’s extremely rich collection of relevant documents – together with limitations of space – have forced the curators to choose each exhibit carefully to advance their argument.  The objects displayed are almost never allowed to speak for themselves, rather serving as a pretext for particular statements: an Imperial glass specially manufactured for the Tsar is juxtaposed with a modest souvenir cup for which more than a thousand people died in the crowd; leg irons introduce the theme of political convicts; imperial stamps once used in lieu of the banknotes demonstrate the monetary crisis and remind one of the Bolsheviks’ later refusal to acknowledge Russian international debt.

The general logic of the exhibition is quite linear and follows the chronology of events, architecturally enhanced within the corridor-like structure. At the same time the broader context is often provided, be it state-sanctioned anti-Semitism, details of the more recent historical developments in Poland, or the role of the Orthodox church in the political life of the Russian Empire.

White Army recruitment poster, circa 1919 (c) British Library

White Army recruitment poster, circa 1919 (c) British Library

The curators have amassed various types of documents: propaganda posters and photobooks, historic documents, statistical surveys, photographs, artworks, and diaries of eye-witnesses, parts of which are delivered with an awkward Russian accent through the headphones hanging around. Any ecstatic expression of enthusiasm is thus immediately counterbalanced with a gruesome display of atrocious reality. Next to an example of porcelain propaganda from the Reds is a countervailing book – Terrors of the CheKa – published by the White movement, with a photograph taken at the time of destitute children playing in the mud. The aesthetics of various ideologies are revealed in different styles of images created by the opposing forces, in which there were always more than two sides: the collapsing governments were criticised in caricatures published by the press, the Tsar denounced by the revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks waged war against groups from the White movement, the anarchists and the Allies: and so on. Every party was issuing statements, leaflets, posters and decrees, creating a chaotic atmosphere of a struggle of everyone against everyone else.

The exhibition gives voice to all the participating sides and breaks down the history of the Russian Revolution into various currents. There are detailed biographies of the main players, including the last Emperor and his family, key revolutionaries and other politicians. The suffering of ordinary people is traced from the beginning of the century through the years of the World War, Civil War and the Red Terror. Impersonal statistical data and maps give the feeling of the ‘objective’ knowledge (including a captivating video demonstrating the course of the Civil War in the very centre of the room). Finally, a significant body of documents show the subjective reactions of educated people – both in Russia and abroad – who became witnesses to these unprecedented events.

The only aspect of the exhibition that somehow spoils the general impression is its final part, dedicated to the legacy of the Revolution. This feels underdeveloped and unfinished, providing random examples of the influence of the Revolution upon the rest of Europe, publications of Soviet Nobel Laureates and some extracts from the Revolutionary cinema on a giant screen.

The organisers don’t ask broader theoretical questions and avoid making any subjective judgements. They have chosen to substitute their own point of view for a multitude of voices and declare from the very beginning in conciliatory manner that the Russian Revolution ‘opened opportunities to some, but caused calamity to others’. It’s impossible to disagree – and the viewers can always ask any further questions themselves, and try to find the answers in one of the library’s fabled reading rooms.

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Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths runs at the British Library till 29 August 2017.

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