Russian Revolution

The state, and revolution, Part II: View from a Public Square Closed to the Public

By guest contributor Dr. Dina Gusejnova

This is the third and final installment of “The state, and revolution,” following the introduction and “Part I: The Revolution Reshuffled.”

The new age needed only the hide of the revolution—and this was being flayed off people who were still alive. Those who then slipped into it spoke the language of the Revolution and mimicked its gestures, but their brains, lungs, livers and eyes were utterly different.

—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (1960), trans. Robert Chandler (2006)

Scholarly interpretations of modern revolutions used to revolve around the idea of the state as the main structure for understanding them—mostly in national, sometimes in comparative, perspective. Since the last decade of the Cold War, however, many of the revolutions, which used to be known as English, French, American, Chinese, Irish, Russian, or Cuban, have been gradually placed in a different kind of order: like Grossman’s words, they began to enter into dialogue with other post-revolutionary legacies, aligned on an imperial meridian, put on a global scale, or, on the contrary, shrunk to the space of a single house. While some of the national labels have disappeared behind inverted commas, the very idea of ‘revolution’ has recently been replaced by a new interest in civil wars and the ‘roads not taken’. Peace itself is increasingly seen as a postwar pretext for new disputes over sovereignty, and the hybrid realities of paramilitary violence are being examined in terms of their effects on mass migration. This kind of revisionism is no longer just a reaction to the supposed end of history, but arguably, the beginning of a new response to the issues we are all facing in the present.

In contrast to this academic trend, most public responses to the latest centenaries are still wrapped in national flags, or at least, in national kinds of silences. In March 2016, I was briefly in Dublin, just before the centenary of the Easter Rising. A minimal common narrative of events appeared to have emerged, as the city was preparing for a large crowd, many of them from abroad.

1 Dublin airport 2016 photo dg

A stack of books on 1916, Dublin Airport (photo by Dina Gusejnova)

2 Dublin 2016 parade announcement

Poster announcing the parade (photo by Dina Gusejnova)

Some public history projects even revived the language of revolution to establish a connection between the events of Easter 1916, modern Irish sovereignty, and other world events. In Parnell Square, a uniformed “Patrick Pearse” read aloud the 1916 Proclamation every day at midday.

In 1916, one of the buildings in Parnell Square, the Ambassador Theatre, had served as the backdrop to a famous photo marking the defeat of the Rising by the British, who posed with an inverted Irish flag, which they had captured from the Citizen Army. In 2016, an exhibition by Sinn Féin used the building to show some original objects from the revolution, and a reconstruction of Kilmainham Gaol,  where the sixteen men of the Rising had been executed.

3 Parnell Square

The Ambassador Theatre at Parnell Square (photo by Dina Gusejnova)

Visitors were encouraged to take selfies and portraits while listening to recordings of their last words, and it was particularly striking to see a mother doing a photo-shoot of her children in front of the sandbags.

4 Ambassador 2

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

What a contrast to Russia where, in April 2017, nobody was reading the April Theses aloud, neither in St. Petersburg nor in Moscow. Granted, Moscow’s Red Square was certainly not as central to the revolution as Petrograd’s Palace Square had been, but it was, still, an important site of revolutionary action in November and December of 1917. Since the Bolsheviks had transferred the capital here, channeling the older, Muscovite center of Russian power, it remained the symbol of Soviet and now post-Soviet claims to global influence. Yet the one set of events that epitomizes this universal aspiration does not suit current plans. Instead, as always at the end of April, preparations were in full swing for the celebrations of an anniversary that the government felt more comfortable with: the Victory of 1945. In April 2017, the public square was therefore routinely closed to the public.

One of the visitors to the Square that month was Richard Bourke, professor of the history of political thought and co-director of the Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London. He had travelled to Moscow to attend a conference at the Higher School of Economics. Bourke’s recent intellectual biography of Edmund Burke places Burke’s responses to the revolutions of his age in an imperial, transatlantic, and party political context, disentangling Burke from his later image as a rhetorician of reaction. With Ian McBride, Bourke has recently also co-edited the Princeton History of Modern Ireland, and, with Quentin Skinner, Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective. I could not miss this occasion, therefore, to ask a few questions about the contrasting revolutionary legacies in Ireland and Russia, as they engage with the burden of anniversaries of 1916 and 1917.

Standing by the walls of the Kremlin, near a plaque marking the place where the eighteenth-century author Alexander Radishchev had been held prisoner before being deported to Siberia, offered a compelling setting for the discussion. The view of one-way traffic beneath the Kremlin towers, and a reference to W.B. Yeats, concludes these reflections on the politics and ethics of commemorations.

Video by Kseniya Babushkina

 

“Well, that is disappointing. This is my first visit, but when I arrive, it transpires that the Square is closed to the public.

Revolution as a foundation for political legitimacy—prudentially, that has to be discarded in Russia, surely; I can’t imagine the current government wanting to embrace it. Secondly, and equally challenging, there is the communist legacy itself: the attitude to capitalism and private property. Since attitudes to the original ideology have been so utterly transformed, what is there for the establishment today to take ownership of? 

For its part, Ireland is full of commemorations. So, in this case, historians tend to greet such festivities as an irresistible opportunity to publicize their views, and to generate putatively deep, manifestly more penetrating analyses than politicians can muster… whereas I think that risks ending up with a confusion of roles.

Before the Good Friday Agreement—before, that is, the current settlement of the Irish problem—commemoration had the power to rock the state. It was, in other words, a very serious thing. So, the peaceable passing of 2016 in Ireland is, from a political point of view, entirely gratifying.

The political utility of 1917—one can’t see that quite so readily at all. Hence, presumably, the reluctance to celebrate.

I see commemorations as essentially pieces of political theatre. I don’t regard directing them as the business of the historian. Presumably, in the Russian case now, a shared narrative is far more difficult to achieve by comparison with Ireland. There is a will to disavow the revolutionary legacy without that having ever been overtly articulated. On the other hand, in the recent Irish case, the Southern Irish state’s commitment to abjuring certain versions of the 1916 legacy during the thirty years of the Troubles [1968–1998] had already passed, and consequently the need for revolutionary disavowal had (as it were) already been “worked through” the polity by 2016.

With Ireland, you have to remember, in 1966—and that was just two years before the ‘reinauguration’ of the Troubles in 1968—and then over the next thirty years, the Southern state had to disown much of the legacy of 1916 for the next three decades. So, with the end of the Troubles, as a result, a certain distance between the Southern Irish state and the history of its own militancy was possible. Also, generally speaking, a mood of collaboration around a possible shared narrative emerged. There was a commitment all round to manufacturing—because these are essentially manufactured stories—to manufacturing a liberal, cosmopolitan vision: excavating the diverse roles of peoples in 1916; children in 1916; women in 1916—so a diversified picture, by comparison with the original “16 Dead Men” narrative. It was a sort of attempt to bring all parties on board: the British state could have a role, because they’d accepted all that now; Irish republicans could have a role; we could pretend that Northern Irish Protestants might have a role; we could pretend that we can fully acknowledge that the First World War at the time was a far bigger event in Irish history than 1916 had been—certainly, considerably larger numbers died. In effect, there was a mood of opening up to these diverse possibilities. Actually, it was quite a constrained vision, to be honest. But nonetheless, the self-congratulatory story was that tremendous “openness” was prospering, then and now. Having said that—having just put it critically—I was there in Ireland at the time for the centenary celebrations, and in truth I don’t think it was at all badly done. There was no inappropriate pomp: I went with my children, and it was perfectly inoffensive to be there. I am no purist: states habitually resort to such rites of passage, and it’s just a matter of coming up with productive versions of the fanfare—a conducive version of it.

There is one poem, just a single poem, which has had as large an influence on the interpretation of the events of 1916 on subsequent historiography as any other document or text—and that is, of course, W. B. Yeats’ poem of that title: ‘Easter 1916’. Many, many historical studies of the period invoke its version of what transpired. The final stanza poses a rhetorical question: Was it needless death after all? So, the poem has a provocative question at its very heart. And, in a way, that has the effect of casting doubt on the whole enterprise: it seems it was needless death, a vain exercise! That’s another way of asking: Was this whole undertaking without any positive justification? But then there’s a gear change in the poem, which amounts to proclaiming that, given the fact that a ‘terrible beauty’ has indeed been born, the national poet has no choice but to lay claim to the legacy of this martyrdom, and that’s what the author proceeds to do in the poem.

I am currently working on a book, which is on the relationship between the philosophy of history, on the one hand—that is to say, fundamental views about what drives the historical process, and its direction of travel—and, on the other hand, the effect of one’s philosophical commitment to a given vision of the kind upon one’s investment in particular historical narratives. So, basically, I am concerned with conceptions of progress, specifically the notion that history is progressing—a perspective that emerged in the eighteenth century as a basic, almost a priori assumption about historical development. I am interested in the connection between that assumption and the impulse to read events themselves as progressive or retrogressive. That amounts, in turn, to an interest in the very idea of being “on the right side of history” in the familiar sense—of deeming oneself to be making the right moral choices because these choices coincide with the overarching directionality of history. It is fascinating to reflect on how this mode of thinking about our world first emerged, and now frames our approach to the past and the future.

Despite the long shadow cast by the philosophy of history, practicing historians ought to think more multi-perspectivally about the past, and therefore in less partisan and party-driven ways. I think that’s an honorable vocation for historians, though it’s not always the one they choose.”

Dina Gusejnova is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming later in 2017).

The state, and revolution: A site-specific view of centenaries. Part I: The revolution reshuffled: Statelessness and civil war in the museum

By guest contributor Dr. Dina Gusejnova

The introduction to “The state, and revolution” can be found here.

Museums and libraries are the kinds of places that promise to transport you to any other time or place. But some people experience their structure as a constraint on their imagination. One reaction to their static and state-centered character might be to give up on the structure of museums altogether and resort to watching films instead. It is not surprising that this medium was most successful in marking the first decade after the October Revolution—celebrating it as a leaderless movement, without an obvious protagonist and certainly no national teleology. In fact, most of today’s museums have embedded films in their displays. Yet if you want to resist path-dependent constraints in interpreting revolutions, films are hardly a solution: they are the products of fixed scripts, of a specially built set, narrative music, and so on. (October was first performed to the sound of the Marseillaise, before new tunes could be composed).

Is a museum of the revolution necessarily an oxymoron? As a type of space, most museums have the advantage of being physical sites. In such places, visitors can recognize what they thought of as ownership of the present as a mere tenancy, which places them not only in a subordinate relationship to the landlord, but also in an imaginary relationship to the previous tenants, who may even have left things behind. From then on, it is up to them how many degrees of separation they establish between themselves and this past.

The Russian Revolution exhibition at the British Library—its interior designed in the style of a grand opera set — is one example of this kind of possibility. The Communist Manifesto is placed at the entrance as a relic of one of the Library’s most famous users, yet it is as feeble a guide to the Russian Revolution as Rousseau had been to the French. If anything, the curators emphasise, the Manifesto discouraged the Communists of its time from transporting ideas of revolution to unsuitable locations like Russia. Like the gimmicky poster of a Bolshevik, it functions merely as a hook, because what you find instead of a party line is an aspect of the revolution as the product of a social process of intellectual contagion. Connoisseurs of magical realism will appreciate this opportunity to trace how the revolution as an idea “became” an event in and through the library itself. What sorts of studies in the library collections led Lenin, who, between 1902 and 1911 identified himself to the library as Jacob Richter, supposedly a German subject of the Russian empire, to call for a revolution in Russia six years later under the more ubiquitous pseudonym of Lenin? For Marx, contemplation itself had been a kind of action, since he preferred a Victorian library to the barricades of Paris. But where did Marx’s theories of how to “change the world” connect to the Bolshevik practices of terror and violence? The exhibition hints at the unlikely friendship between the Victorian library curator Richard Garnett, Dostoyevsky’s first English translator, Constance Garnett (his daughter-in-law), and the exiled Popular Will activist Sergei Stepnyak. Without connections like this, would Lenin have found sufficient reading material on “the land question”?

Finally, how did readers decide where to change the world? Ideas did not just migrate from book to book in a Republic of Letters, nor were they confined to their author’s “home” states. In a postwar world governed by new frontiers, visas, and immigration detention centres, it was the librarians who mattered. In the twentieth century, you are more likely to find a folio edition of counter-revolutionary thoughts than a revolutionary manifesto, but the exiled socialists made sure that ephemeral pamphlets also got collected. Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, had been a librarian in St Petersburg before the 1905 revolution, working together with Nikolai Roubakine, who is introduced in this exhibition only as a social statistician of the late Russian empire. As an exiled revolutionary of 1905, Roubakine had started a new library in Switzerland, which also supplied Lenin with reading material during this time of his exile.

Instead of a state withering away, the visitor is confronted with the notion of a civil war that is only “Russian”  in inverted commas. The protracted statelessness of the “white émigré” exiles in the West coexisted alongside a Bolshevik-run Soviet apparatus in the East, which was eventually signed out of existence in a Byelorussian forest with the Belavezha agreement of 1991, as Katie McElvaney reminds us in her timeline. At the end of the magic, there is also the reality of censorship. Apparently, in 1922, a British library consultant concluded that some materials calling for revolution beyond Russia were not “desirable to be released to readers.” We may not know if the Library caused this or any other revolution, but we can certainly see that it had tried not to cause it.

To get away from issues of representation to the memory of revolutionary action, however, I had to travel further, to Finland, where, in March 2017, Tampere University had organized a conference called “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919.” Like many attendees, I was struck by the range of new insights into the Revolution that Russia’s former periphery offers, through the transnational perspective of the First World War in the work of Richard Bessel, and the concept of civil war as contextualized by Bill Kissane. Formerly an underdeveloped outpost of the Russian Empire, Finland had risen to the status of an autonomous Grand Duchy by the time of the Revolution. As such, it was the first post-imperial polity to gain sovereignty from the Russian empire, by Lenin’s decree—and to keep it, for the most part.

In the summer of 1917, Lenin was in Tampere as he worked on The State and Revolution. Eleven years before that, he had his first fateful encounter with Stalin here. The site of their encounter, a former Workers Hall, is the space for a newly redesigned Lenin Museum, which first opened here in 1946, under the close watch of Soviet authorities—one of the more visible effects of what is now called “Finlandization.” Its new curators have resorted to a combination between history and humor to tell the story:

Reproduced with kind permission from the Lenin Museum, https://museot.fi/en.php

The rest of the Lenin Museum has little to do with Lenin, and more to do with the history of Finnish democracy and the vicissitudes of European integration, after decades of civil war, partial Soviet occupation, and collaboration with National Socialism, before the gradual emergence of a Finnish brand of Social Democracy.

Seeing the city itself, surrounded by its stunning landscape, also offers other opportunities to reflect on how ideas might relate to the places in which they are formulated. How could this ethereally calming landscape inspire someone to work on a book called The State and Revolution? Could Lenin have instead become a twentieth-century Lake Poet?

9 Tampere Lake 1

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

10 Tampere Lake 2

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

11 Tampere Lake 3

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

As I walked through a working-class neighborhood of today’s Tampere, I noticed that its outer lake was still frozen, so I borrowed some skates to have a final look at the skyline: two days, two seasons. Lenin, of course, had missed the Finnish ice-skating season, with the revolution gaining speed in Petrograd just as the ice had begun to thicken. I thought about the remarkable contrast between the long-term outcomes of the revolution for Finland and for Ukraine—another imperial province, but with a much shorter history of post-imperial sovereignty, and an incomparably higher death toll in the twentieth century. This is a complex issue for historians, and one which, perhaps, will always call for the assistance of a writer like Vassily Grossman.

In the Labor Museum, a three-year long exhibition (2014–17) marks the cultural memory of the revolution of 1917 from the perspective of the Finnish Civil War of 1918, which the exhibition laconically identifies to its visitors as “a short, but traumatic and sorrowful period.” This exhibition is a unique, if slightly quixotic, place. The visitor will look in vain for any kind of partisanship here, with the Reds or the Whites, the Russians or the Finns, workers, peasants, or bystanders. What they see is a memorial to civil violence, a focus on human experience. It is challenging to try to capture a war inside the walls of a museum, but Tampere has clearly learned from commemorative practice in France and other countries, with their focus on reconciliation. The site of the museum belongs to one of the largest cotton weaving halls in the Nordic countries, Finlayson & Compagnie, a focus of socialist mobilization in 1917. The last Finnish factories were closed in 1995, but the company continues selling its products in Europe. Founded by the Scottish industrialist James Finlayson, it is also a reminder that a civil war always has not just local and imperial, but also trans-imperial dimensions. At the museum, I met social historian Richard Bessel, a first-time visitor to the city, and social theorist Rebecca Boden, who has recently moved there.

Rebecca Boden is a professor of critical management. She is interested in the effects of regimes of accounting and management on sites of knowledge creation, and the relationship between individuals and the state. She recently joined the University of Tampere as the Director of Research of the New Social Research Centre. Professor Boden also attended the conference “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919,” held at the University of Tampere in March 2017.

I’ve never lived in this part of the world, and as a British person, I know very little about it. So what strikes me is how little people brought up and educated in Britain know about Central and Eastern Europe. I’ve felt ashamed about some of the questions I’ve had to ask about the Finnish Civil War, in terms of understanding this part of the world. And I suspect, during my upbringing, it was during the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, so Central and Eastern Europe as very much an unknown quantity to people in the West.

What’s interesting to me is, in Britain, you’ve got a reversal of trends in history. There is greater and greater interest in British history, especially British imperial history, and that becomes dangerously xenophobic, and insular, and parochial. And I think the thing for Finland is—and I can say this as an outsider, they never would, because they are quite humble, quiet, understated sort of people generally—Finland has so many interesting things about it, it is such an interesting geopolitical space, it achieved so much so well, that I am urging people to get to know the Finnish story quite urgently.

A lot of the quiet places—very far from anywhere, on the periphery, small population, very thinly spread—they have to move themselves to make themselves heard.  All the isomorphic tendencies, policies and practices and cultures tend to move in the other direction. And it would be quite good to have the quiet places listened to. But part of it is, the quiet places have to find their voice. And that’s partly what I am doing, helping Finland to find their voice and engage with the outside world in a really proactive kind of way.

Richard Bessel is professor of twentieth-century history at the University of York. He works on the social and political history of modern Germany, the aftermath of the two World Wars, and the history of policing, and is currently co-editing, with Dorothee Wierling, Inside World War One? The First World War and its Witnesses (Oxford University Press, 2018). In March 2017, he travelled to Finland to attend the conference on “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919,” at which he delivered a keynote lecture.

I’ve never been to Finland, and it’s just a really interesting place to come to. And I thought it would be an interesting intellectual challenge to try to think about revolution and its relationship to the First World War, if not globally, certainly focusing more on Eastern Europe rather than on Western Europe.

I am finding Tampere very interesting, and … this is my first time in Finland! To be in a city which, as we see here, had such a fundamentally different history, with violence right in the middle of it. The differences, I just hadn’t thought about the differences to that extent. What in many ways looks and feels similar to Sweden, but then you scratch the surface, and you realize it’s not. And that surprised me, I hadn’t really quite expected that.

As I get older, it becomes more important both to me and also to colleagues: we talk about our families a lot. When I was younger, I wouldn’t do that professionally. When I was younger, we wrote history in the third person, and now we use the first person.

I’ve just been working through a book, an edited collection on ego-documents of the First World War, with a colleague of mine, which is also very much about the East and the South.

There is one question that I always wanted to get it on an exam, but nobody would allow me to do it. And the question is: when did the twentieth century begin?

Dina Gusejnova is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming later in 2017).

Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, London

by guest contributor Audrey Borowski

The imperial red hits you as soon as you enter the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition, “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932,” which sets out to explore the frenzy that gripped the Russian artistic scene between 1917 and 1932.

The artistic avant-garde initially enthusiastically extolled the ideals of the new Bolshevik regime. A new age had dawned on Russia, and its artists embraced their roles as apostles of this new vision. This exhibit explores the remarkable vitality and versatility of Russian art during that short but turbulent window, often presenting the viewers with lesser-known artists. From Isaak Brodsky’s studious portraits of its leaders Lenin and Stalin to Boris Kustodiev’s depiction of enthused masses, many artists set out to capture the euphoria that followed the revolution and the hope that it would be extended to the whole world.

At the heart of their endeavor lay the desire to create innovative paintings, sculptures, ceramics, crockery, textiles, and even architectural designs that would reach a mass, and for the most part illiterate, audience. New technologies were enlisted to convey these political messages and aestheticize the experience of the worker and peasant; through the magic of film and photography, the latter were refashioned as muscular heroic figures and Russia transfigured from a still overwhelmingly agricultural nation into a great industrial super-power. And whereas in the pictures, workers and peasants emerged liberated and sublimated, in reality, these machine-men and women were generally little more than slaves, dying of starvation in the name of communal collective agriculture. Reality, as this avant-garde movement would soon find out, fell dramatically short of its ideals.

Pavel Filonov, Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, 1920-21 (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

Pavel Filonov, Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, 1920-21 (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

Radical innovations had already been under way for a few years, but this artistic avant-garde seized the momentum of the revolution to precipitate change and formulate new art for a new world, exploring the full range of abstraction. In this era of radical experimentation, each artist developed his own particular visual language and vocabulary across a wide range of media. The painter Alexander Deineka deployed his characteristic use of geometric lines and collages of drawings, graphic images, and photo montages to convey workers’ dedication to the cause. Pavel Filonov’s method of “universal flowering” produced anguished phantasmagorias merging urban landscapes, heads, and geometric shapes in his “Formula for the Petrograd Proletariat.” Mikhail Matiushin projected pure cosmic teleology in his 1921 “Movement in Space.” Blok’s symbolist poetry greeted the revolution as a quasi-religious second coming. El Lissitzky designed new apartments for the new soviet lifestyle. The theatre director Vsevold Meyerhold designed biomechanics, a system in which emotions were experienced primarily through bodily movements and gestures. Vladimir Tatlin imagined flying gliders, Sergei Eisenstein recreated the revolution in his films, and Vassily Kandinsky conjured up symphonic abstract explosions.

Mikhail Mokh, State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, tea set "Metal," 1930 (The Petr Aven Collection)

Mikhail Mokh, State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, tea set “Metal,” 1930 (The Petr Aven Collection)

The artist Kazimir Malevich took geometric abstraction to a whole new level with his invention of “suprematism” in 1915. Art, he thought, should first and foremost express spirituality, away from the “dead weight of the real world.” The Royal Academy’s exhibition recreates his display at the original 1932 exhibit in which he famously exposed “Black square,” the work he claimed marked the “zero point of art.” And yet, as artists were increasingly urged to depict social realities, the soviet man caught up in a dynamic vision of the cosmos soon began to give way to visions of faceless figures far removed from the utopian visions of cheery peasants laboring for the cause in the golden fields of collective farm labor that the Party extolled. As artists grew more ambivalent towards the regime, they started deploying their art to subvert its imagery.

A particularly striking and, for western viewers, unusual piece is “Insurrection” (1925) by Kliment Redko. In it, the painter has replaced Christ with Lenin, surrounded by his disciples in a diamond of fire that burns the city. The atmosphere of the painting is dark and infernal; the city has turned into prison. The revolution was slowly morphing into state repression. While the Revolution of 1917 had heralded a new age of hope and equality for most, repression had already started to kick in by 1921, with artistic freedom increasingly constrained in favor of the collective ideology.

Kliment Redko, Insurrection, 1925 (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Kliment Redko, Insurrection, 1925 (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

The exhibit not only showcases the gradual shift in power over the years, but also brings to the fore the inner contradictions of the age. In the face of extreme conditions and growing misery after the collapse of the economy and the urban infrastructure in the wake of the civil war, many artists looked back towards an idealized Russian past with its birch trees, snowed-under villages, troikas and countryside churches. They sought comfort in a world they felt had been lost forever before one that was failing to materialize, like Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, a lesser-known painter who sought to discern the “optical magic” that coursed through reality. His pieces hark back to a more peaceful, curiously atemporal time, away from the tumult and prospect of hardship.

Over the years, the window for creativity and freedom of expression gradually narrowed, until Stalin decreed that socialist realism would be the only acceptable art form in the Soviet Union. 1932 simultaneously signaled the apex and the end of this artistic revolution; it was the year Nikolai Punin curated the exhibit “Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic” at the state Russian museum in then-Leningrad; it showcased more than two thousand works of art and has served as the inspiration for the present exhibition. That same year also sounded the final death knell of that era of dazzling creativity. Overnight, the Soviet state’s fittingly-named “People’s commissariat of Enlightenment” became the sole commissioner of art, and socialist realism the only acceptable art form. The soaring spirit of the avant-garde was brought to an abrupt halt.

While Lenin had envisaged art in mainly pragmatic terms as a tool of propaganda, Stalin had an acute understanding of the power of art and, with social realism, was intent on harnessing it towards the cultivation of his own legacy. His utopian vision celebrated physically perfect sportsmen and parading workers as the new heroes of this politically unified and collectivist vision. Art was to be in the image of regime: insipid, impersonal and soulless.

Disillusionment gradually set in. Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930; Meyerhold was executed in 1940; Punin died in a gulag in 1953. Many others would be purged in the following years.

Ultimately, the exhibit charts one of the human spirit’s greatest experiments in hope, as it first soared and was then violently repressed and crushed by a dream-turned-nightmare. Each piece documents a different facet of this human epic in striving and aspiration and bears testimony, in spite of mankind’s fragile memory and constant attempts to rewrite history, to the indomitable nature of the human spirit. That much is certain – and as I was walking away from the Royal Academy, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s fateful and all too timely words from 1921 continued to resonate in my ears:

“And since the crisis exists the world over—worldwide revolution is at their door—As clearly as two times two is four.”

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, London
Until 17 April

Audrey Borowski is a DPhil student in History of Ideas at the University of Oxford.