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Review: ‘Russian Revolution – hope, tragedy, myths’

Reviewed by Niall Mulholland
“In 1917, the process of long-overdue social and political change in the Russian empire took the form of a revolution… [which] sparked hopes that an ideal social order was achievable…” Unlike the recent (London) Royal Academy of Arts’ seriously flawed narrative, the current British Library exhibition thankfully attempts to be informative and to provide historical context to the momentous events of 1917. Whereas the Royal Academy made passing reference to Leon Trotsky, here he is correctly placed alongside Vladimir Lenin as a pivotal figure among the Bolshevik leaders and as key to the successful outcome of the October revolution.
The exhibition includes fascinating photographs, film footage, posters, books, newspapers (including workers’ wall newspapers), and other artefacts. There are unexpected surprises, like the cuttings album of Prince Kropotkin, an influential 19th century Russian revolutionary, and Oscar Wilde’s play, Vera, which looks at the failed terror tactics of early revolutionaries (Narodniks) and predicts the tsar’s inability to reform. On display is Lenin’s written application (under a pseudonym) to join the reading rooms of the British Museum while he was living in exile in London.
The curator’s strivings to be ‘even handed’, however, giving as much attention to the anti-Bolsheviks, sometimes fall into generalisations. Moreover, the exhibition unhelpfully presents the revolution as overwhelmingly confusing and complex, as an “experiment that opened opportunities for some but caused calamity for others”. The Bolsheviks are described as an “extreme socialist party”.
If that is the case, who were the socialist moderates? Was it not the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries who went into coalition government with pro-capitalist parties after the fall of the tsar? Their ‘socialist ministers’ refused to end Russia’s ongoing involvement in the mass slaughter of the first world war or to break with capitalism and landlordism.

Marx and Russia
A first edition of the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels is accompanied by the assertion that the authors did not expect socialist revolution to spread to Russia. But in a preface to the 1882 Russian edition, Marx comments on a debate among the Russian left about the potential of the traditional rural communes to become the embryonic institutions of a socialist society. Marx’s general conclusion was that this could be realised only if tsarism was overthrown and, further, if revolution in Russia “becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the west so that both complement each other”.
Nonetheless, the curators are correct to say that Lenin adapted Marxist ideas to the “real conditions of Russia” in the late 19th and early 20th century. The first successes of the workers’ movement were seen in the growth of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. A poster produced by the party – the ‘pyramid’ – accurately depicts an extremely hierarchical and un-equal society, with the tsar at the top followed by nobility, big landlords, army generals and Orthodox Church heads, with the working class and poor peasantry shouldering the entire structure.
In contrast, a pro-regime ‘ethnographic map’ of the tsarist empire shows multiple peoples living “all together”. The reality is that the empire was a “prison house of nationalities”, as Lenin put it, where the mass of poor peasants lived in appalling, animal-like conditions. This is aptly depicted with a display of peasants’ primitive ‘bark shoes’.
The pillars of tsarist rule, like the Orthodox Church, are well-represented. Such was the power and mystique of the royal family that the 1896 coronation of Tsar Nicholas II saw the huge crowds panic, leaving many trampled to death. The callous indifference of the royals to this tragedy was an important factor in weakening the appeal of the tsar. The exhibition gives due emphasis to the rapid growth and political effects of the young, militant Russian working class, which jumped from 1.4 million in 1890 to 2.9 million in 1912. By 1913, 15% of the population was urban.
The dramatized recordings of the wife of a textile factory owner in St Petersburg (renamed Petrograd in 1914) indicate the fear of the ruling class during the 1905 revolution. Unfortunately, the crucial role of the Petersburg Soviet (workers’ council), with Trotsky at its head, is not featured. Counter-revolution succeeded in crushing that revolution but it had a major international impact. A remarkable French-produced silent film, made one year after the events, deals sympathetically with the arrest of a courageous revolutionary.
Alongside vicious repression, the short-lived ‘reforms’ by the tsar – the opening of the Duma (parliament) which proved ‘too radical’ and was promptly shut down again – only prepared the way for greater revolutionary storms. Contemporary satirical artwork on mugs show the almost universal contempt in which the regime was held.
As the first world war dragged on at enormous human cost in terms of soldiers’ lives and terri-
torial losses to the German army, as bread lines grew in the main cities and mass workers’ protests flooded Petrograd, the tsar’s rule became untenable. He was overthrown in February 1917. The exhibition correctly states that the Bolsheviks’ support grew due to Lenin’s position of “no compromising with the Provisional Government” that continued to prosecute the war and failed to answer the extreme social and economic crisis.

Bolsheviks take power
From here, the exhibition quickly moves on to the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in October. Refreshingly, this is not dismissed as a coup, as it is in most bourgeois accounts. Instead, room is given to the case that the Bolsheviks were able to take power because they had majority support in the soviets, and that the pro-capitalist Provisional Government had lost nearly all support.
Much attention is given over to the civil war between the newly-formed Red Army, led by Trotsky, and the White counter-revolutionary forces, backed by outside imperialist powers. A huge digital map shows the territorial gains and losses of both sides from 1917 to 1922, before the final Red Army victory. The exhibition recounts the White terror and its reactionary propaganda, including anti-Semitic incitement.
The White counter-revolution was unable to offer the peasants and workers any material solutions other than a return to land servitude and class exploitation. Particularly arresting are the handwritten ‘soviet orders’ issued by Trotsky on soldiers’ rights, pay and conditions. At the bottom of one is an unsigned comment, believed to be by Lenin, requesting that the matter is dealt with urgently.
Photographs show Trotsky’s agitprop train that was used to ferry the Red Army leader from one front to another. Revolutionary posters, proclamations appealing to British troops to refuse to fight for their capitalist rulers, items of Red Army uniforms and a banner (its cheap red colouring long-faded) with the legend, ‘Peace and Land: War to the Palaces’, help to bring home the determined, class-based defence of the young Soviet Union by the army of workers and peasants. The revolution’s impact on culture, arts and literature is considered, as are the social reform programmes initiated by the Bolshevik regime including mass literacy drives.
Joseph Stalin’s military role in the civil war is shown to be wildly exaggerated in later Soviet propaganda. Such myths were necessary in order to buttress Stalin’s leading role in the bureaucratic dictatorship that emerged in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The 1921 Kronstadt rebellion is also mentioned but not explained. (The unsuccessful uprising against Bolshevik rule at the Kronstadt naval base had been triggered by the harsh civil war conditions. It was led by anarchists and hailed by Mensheviks and other counter-revolutionary forces.)
The final parts of the exhibition look at the international impact of 1917, from film footage of the 1918 German revolution to publications about the short-lived, heroic Limerick soviet in 1919. Displays on the formation of the Communist Third International underline the importance the Bolsheviks put on world socialist revolution. Despite its flaws, a rewarding couple of hours await visitors to this well-designed exhibition.

The revolution displayed
Russian Revolution: hope, tragedy, myths
British Library, London
To 29 August

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