Saturday, May 20, 2017

Russian Revolution Hope, Tragedy, Myths

Whatever else 2017 brings it has at least improved my knowledge and understanding of the Russian revolution. It's not something that we particularly studied at school (beyond that it happened, and that it pulled Russia out of the First World War) and since then the way it's cropped up in my reading, or viewing, has been just as incidental. That, and there's been so much history in Russia over the last century that it's not always easy to keep up with it all.

Seeing Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932 at the RA earlier this year made me realise a couple of things, the first being that my whole view of the country is filtered through the tail end of the Cold War, which is to say with a hangover of suspicion. The second is that it's essentially passed out of living memory within my lifetime, and whilst I know that's stating the obvious, it's still surprisingly difficult to grasp - It's a reminder that my memories are someone else's history lesson.

The British Library exhibitions I've seen have, without fail, been excellent. This one was no exception. Printed material might not have quite the same initial impact that the RA's exhibits did, but the much greater need to read about what they are, or represent, means much longer spent contemplating them. There's the time and space to absorb much more information.

The strength of this exhibition is that it essentially starts in 1896 with the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and the increasingly unsettled political situation in Russia as neccesary reform, along with neccesary infrastructure, failed to materialise. Things did not go well in the war with mismanagement of resources exacerbating shortages, a German born Tsarina would have been an easy target for resentment, and the rest is history.

What might have happened if it hadn't been for the war is an interesting question. There's a suggestion here it had lessened the perceived value of human life, and increased the capacity for violent action. The following years of civil war saw ten million lose their lives, and another two million leave the country, along with five million who died as a result of famine. Those are incredible numbers, how to imagine the impact that must have had?

All of it certainly had an impact on the imagination though - in books, in art, in aspiration, hope, and myth making, and that battle for hearts and minds - from both sides - is thoroughly explored here. There's also room for odd little bits; I didn't know Arthur Ransome (the Swallows and Amazons one) had been a journalist on the scene, or that he married Trotsky's secretary. The letter that granted Lenin's application to use the British Library (under an assumed name) is also present. These are the things that bring the subject to vivid life, that and the pamphlets and posters that were in common circulation. Allow at least a couple of hours to get round it all, and go, it's fascinating.

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