Cherwell

The Russian Revolution was a kind of orgy

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Revolutions defy order and the status quo in order to abolish that very order. An orgy is disorganised, incoherent, a rebuke to conventional order. It is, in its contempt for normative morality, a revolutionary act. The Russian Revolution, then, was an orgy – of violence, of course – but also of optimism, frustration, confusion, didacticism. For the Russian Revolution, like its orgiastic antecedent, the French Revolution, was founded on texts and political thought. Which is not to claim the Russian Revolution was a pure Marxist upheaval of the Tsar’s rule and the replacement with a dictatorship of the proletariat, pace Joseph Weydemeyer. The Revolution had many fathers, although only an uncle—Uncle Joe—was to be victorious.

The strength of the British Library’s centennial exhibition, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths, is in bringing together books, documents, posters, uniforms, letters, photographs, and memoranda, letting us see the whole paraphernalia of the state in a state of transformation, in the pivotal year of 1917 and after. One extraordinary example is a placard from that year, issued by the Provisional Government, that reads: “Newspapers are not being published. Events are happening too fast. The population should know what is going on.” They were distributed in major cities with bold headlines to spread news as quickly as possible, the conventional methods having broken down as the country writhed in war, both internal and external.

Yet the exhibition is able to draw out small personal moments amidst the almost overwhelming sense of history. There’s a hand-written note from Lenin requesting to join the British Library, and sprightly watercolours by Edward Barnard Linttot, Secretary to the British Ambassador in Moscow, painting the Revolution as it unfurls on the streets below his office window. In an exhibition full of such fascinating curios, one that stands out is an English Who’s Who of the Revolution, published in 1919, which detailed the prominent personalities, events, and concepts, of the Reds and the Whites, to allow English audiences to understand what was happening. The pace of change was too quick, disorientating bystanders. The Great War had accelerated the modern world to the speed of a hurtling bullet. Following the February and October revolutions, the nascent Bolshevik state crumbled into civil war, with counter-revolutionary White forces backed by Britain, the US, France, and Japan.

The curator though, Katya Rogatchevskaia, an experienced academic in Russian studies, indulges in her own kind of orgy: as you enter the darkened, hushed exhibition space from the airy atrium of Colin St John Wilson’s British Library building, we pass plush, red velvet curtains with mock chandeliers overhead, the desire to recreate tsarist decadence infusing the whole show.

Disappointingly, photos recording Russian history from 1905 into the nineteen-twenties are printed on red tinted metal plates, lines the route through the exhibition, which not only removing the material agency from the images themselves, but suffocates the viewer with its red-tinged aura. Subtlety has been abandoned, subtext shunned in favour of text; not so much radical as obvious, it nevertheless fails to torpedo the works on display. Their power is too strong to be crushed.

Scale is introduced early on by two vast maps of Russia, one covering ‘European’ Russia and the other, ‘Asian’ Russia, a country stretching across the world. In 1917, it totalled 8,800,000 square miles, larger than the US and Europe combined. One of the key points revealed by the exhibition, is that mass, rapid communication was crucial. The still commanding Bolshevik propaganda posters were effective tools for spreading propaganda, all hard lines and blocks of vibrant colour, such as Dimitri Moor’s 1920 poster Have you volunteered?, a testament to the rare confluence of modern art and revolution (as Robert Hughes has remarked elsewhere, radical art and radical politics rarely operate in unison). Intriguingly, the more ordinary White posters feature Muslims and Cossacks in an attempt to mobilise marginal groups against the Soviet regime, which achieved a limited success during the civil war.

Stalin makes little appearance here, emphasising that he was not a major figure in the early days of the Revolution, despite his own revisionist historiography. Rogatchevskaia may have been concerned that to trek too far down the path of Stalinism would derail the exhibition and loose its narrative focus, although when it comes to the closing years of the civil war, we are left with an incomplete picture. Nevertheless, it is striking that in Stalin’s promotion of a personality cult, in many ways echoed Tsar Nicholas II, only far more ruthlessly efficient. Stalin had no time for the passing Soviet fads for constructivism or creativity: orgies had no place in Stalinist Russia.

The Russian Revolution lives on, of course. Not necessarily in Russia, which under Putin has been unsure and cautious about how to approach the anniversary, downplaying any commemoration. No, its influence resides in a flimsy green pamphlet, published in 1848, and presented near the beginning of the exhibition: The Communist Manifesto. Its language of class, imperialism, capitalism, socialism, the bourgeoisie, has seeped into our language, the language of the academy and of the social sciences, not least economics itself. Marx’s (and Engels’) terminology lives on in the critiques levelled on the post-Great Recession West launched by leftists from within Labour, to Syriza and Podemos. Yet those who claim to inherit the Marxist mantel seem callow savants in comparison to the cunning, awesome drive of the Bolsheviks. We have retreated from the orgy.

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is on at the British Library until 29th August 2017.