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Russian revolution

The Russian revolution does not belong in the dustbin of history, although many would like to see it there.


Rusian Revolution book tion front cover gSean Sheehan


October 1917 was a transformative moment in human history, a time when the dispossessed rose in revolt against their government and everything their rulers stood for. The Bolsheviks who seized power in what was then Petrograd had a collective vision of a world based on economic and social justice.

In this centenary year, the exhibition at the British Library, with an accompanying book edited by the curator, Katerina Rogatchevskaia, is one of the many ways in which the Russian Revolution is being remembered.

Its subtitle, “Hope, tragedy, myths”, indicates the interpretative projective at work: people hoped for changed but found tragedy instead.

Myths presumably arose in the course of the downward spiral into disappointment and one senses that what is being indexed in the book and the exhibition is the proposition that revolutionary socialism is a myth that we can all do without.

‘Retreating, the Whites are burning the crops’, Soviet propaganda poster, c. 1918–20 © British Library

There is much to see in the exhibition and the book is a visual record of what has been brought together in the form of photographs, posters, magazines, curios and quotations. Much of the material is of a literary nature, unavoidably so given its home in the British Library, but there are artefacts as well.

One of the iconic peaked hats with folded earflaps, worn by  Red Army soldiers and known as the budennovka is on show and so too is a leg iron brought back from one of the Siberian prison camps set up under Tsarism.

The factual background to 1917 is recounted though information panels and enlarged photographs which are set amidst a profuse use of the colour red but the iconographic resonance of red as the colour of communism is not explored.

There is more of a deafening silence when it comes to acknowledging the utopian dreams and enthusiasm for radical change that swept across sections of Russian society in the years before and after October 1917.

Russian revolution a-worker sweeping criminals out of the soviet land from russian placards 1917-22- Copyright British Library board
‘A Worker Sweeping Criminals out of the Soviet Land’ collage artwork from Russian Placards 1917–22 © British Library

The Bolshevik government scared Western governments: Britain, France, the USA and other countries poured thousands of troops into the conflict, hoping to defeat what the Red Army stood for.

One of the photographs on display depicts British soldiers in the Arctic city of Murmansk. It is ironic that Lenin, one of the architects of the October revolution, once resided in London; his application letter for a reader’s ticket at the British Museum, using the alias Jacob Richter, is also on show in the exhibition.

The Russian Revolution is worthy of celebration because of what it stood for but the British Library exhibition erases this dimension by not drawing attention to it.

What you do see is a wealth of visual and written material relating to the event and if you bring along a healthy dose of imagination and empathy there is much to enjoy.

Exhibition at the British Library (until 27 August 2017). Exhibition book, “Revolution” edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia, published by British Library


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