Russian Revolution: Hope Tragedy Myths
Until 29 Aug 2017
The British Library
A new major exhibition at the British Library aims to enlighten the British public (and stray tourists) on a subject-matter that popular amnesia has long relegated to the mythical past – the Russian Revolution of 1917. Proclaiming in its title the ambition to uncover any “Hope, Tragedy, Myths” discernible from the centenary vantage-point of 2017, the exhibition grants access to material from a wide variety of British and European sources. These include propaganda and counter-propaganda placards, pamphlets and books, archival video displays and well-preserved photographs, as well as one of the early Red Army caps and, excitingly enough, Lenin’s letter requesting admission as a reader at the British (Museum) Library. It is advertised by way of decontextualised – or outlandishly “deterritorialised” – iterations of flashy Agitprop graphic design plastering the walls of London underground stations (even at Elephant & Castle).
That is not to say that anyone could identify the true “meaning” of the 1917 Revolution. When I was 17, I imagined I would spend 2017 walking around with a black armband of grief. Later, I imagined I would rejoice in the salvific potential of a true people’s liberation from the shackles of slave mentality. “Hope, Tragedy, Myths”, indeed: whatever we tell ourselves of the Russian Revolution, it’s unlikely to be close to the truth. That is, unless you’re an actual historian of the actual Russian Revolution, such as the outstanding Sheila Fitzpatrick. The British Library exhibition aims to alleviate this narrative impasse by purporting to represent a variety of voices and to paint a geographically, socially and politically diverse picture of the 1917 Revolution – up to the point of “everyday” experience of “ordinary” citizens. The press release states that the exhibits include a “propaganda wallpaper hand-painted by women factory workers”. A map of the Russian empire in the first room introduces us to the semi-global dimension of the empire and its Revolution; another dynamic map projected onto a solid desk in the second room goes on to illustrate the global extent of revolutionary struggle for control of territory, resources and infrastructure, depicting the constantly changing and extraordinarily complex pan-imperial political landscape of Revolution and Civil War between 1917 and 1921.
Yet the stated curatorial aim to shine “new light” on the Russian Revolution is not fulfilled. Of course, the genre of exhibitions that the British Library has the resources to deliver stands and falls with the material presence of exhibits, “real” carriers of authenticity. In the spirit of public service that characterises the British Library, the exhibition seeks to counter historical amnesia by displaying authentic objects that were “there” and have “survived” to “tell the tale”. Any exhibition on this subject-matter risks repeating schoolbook accounts of a phenomenon that defies easy regurgitation. In the case of this particular exhibition, the curatorial emphasis placed upon “diversity” is not corroborated by the actual objects on display, most of which relate to Russians, reds and whites, often from staunchly Christian families, and almost always Russian-speaking. The Russian Revolution is a thing that “the Russians” did. The “Ten Days That Shook The World” happened in Russia and the fate of the Russian nation was decided in a series of events involving Russians. The uncomfortable implication is that some citizens are more “ordinary” or “representative” than others – contrary to the press release-style rhetoric of the “diverse everyday”.
But then, there’s empire. The imperium of the Russians to this day extends to interpretive sovereignty over all narrative accounts of the 1917 Revolution. The curatorial choice of emphasising the “Russianness” of the 1917 Revolution betrays a curious identification with the interests of a Russian imperial state, such as it has been enforced and propagated since the eighteenth century. This view of Central Eurasian history might best be described as “Russocentrism”; or, the idea that the pantheon of everything that happens within the, say, 1897 boundaries of the Russian Empire tends to be occupied by “Russians”. Going through the rooms of the exhibition, one wouldn’t seriously consider any other possibilities – after all, it’s called the Russian revolution for a reason. This is perhaps the biggest unasked question here, the elephant in the room. According to the 1897 census of the Russian Empire, for instance, little over 40% of the entire empire’s population spoke Russian. Ukrainian, Tatar or other curiously, obstinately non-Russian languages were the native tongues of a good seventy million inhabitants of the Russian Empire. Seeing things with your own eyes and believing only what you can see may all be very well, but according to what can be seen in the British Library exhibition on the Russian Revolution, a homogenous nation of “Russians” shaped the entire history of a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual empire. This version of events, however, does not withstand historical scrutiny, and to point out the continuing logic of Russian state imperialism and its repercussions would probably not strain the attention span of visiting school groups more than original editions of books by H.G. Wells.
Need one, at this point, mention that the entire fascinating history of the Ukrainian Revolution (pitting itself, as it were, against the Russian one) is barely mentioned, even though a fifth of the empire’s population had Ukrainian as their native tongue, if one is to believe the 1897 Russian Imperial census? Like so many non-Russian, non-Orthodox, non-white, or non-male experiences and voices, this vast section of the population and its history is glossed over, a tendency that can also be observed in most schoolbook accounts of the Russian Revolution. Such is truly not the state of research, and there would have been plenty of accessible academic publications to draw from in order to compensate for this colossal bias. For what else is a revolution if not a truly spontaneous and collective overturning – that is, involving everyone? A hope. The myth perpetuated here, then, is that the Russian Revolution was something that was done by Russians: mostly Russian-Orthodox, mostly ethnically Slavic and Russian, mostly male, although the official press release goes to considerable lengths to convince us of the contrary. Of course, it is in the interests of an imperial state to posit its “titular nation” at the centre of history and as guarantors of political stability to the natural advantage of all subaltern peoples; and there would be no reason to question this account after witnessing all the historical traces brought together in the British Library. It is sad to see that even in 2017, one all too often needs to bring forward very basic but fundamentally necessary post-colonial arguments to too many historical accounts pertaining to all things Russian.
The redeeming qualities of this exhibition, which is very well worth attending, ultimately amount to the material, physical presence of objects that remain from a time that was utterly unlike our own, especially unlike the historical faux-endgame of the 1990s to which the millennial generation has until 2016 been accustomed. The almost tactile experience of viewing pro- and counter-revolutionary objects allows for a kind of visual “embodiment” or “empathy” of the viewer “into” them (as Wölfflin describes it in his influential 1886 art-historical treatise Prolegomena to a Psychology of Architecture). If the Russian Revolution directly touched upon the lives of some 130 million inhabitants of the Russian-Soviet empire, then it indirectly changed the course of the lives of billions and billions of humans: as meek as this point may seem, that’s all of us. To see this macro-narrative collide with the micro-narrative and real, actual presence of evidence that the Russian Revolution really did happen is a truly intellectually breath-taking experience. Thanks to this exhibition, one needn’t be someone whose family lost land, titles, lives, or Weltanschauung due to the Revolution in order to actually care.
Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is on at the British Library until Tue 29 Aug 2017. For more information, see here .
Martin Lohrer  is reading for a DPhil in Russian and German at Wolfson College, Oxford.