People won’t tolerate stagnation, economic, political, or social,” Katya Rogatchevskaia emphasises to me over the phone, “the [tsarist] regime in Russia was unable to reform, it was stiff and stable – this we need to remember.”
She’s an enthusiast, an academic still ardent about her field. Rogatchevskaia is the Lead Curator at the Eastern European Collections of the British Library, and the driving force behind the critically acclaimed exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths (which was on from 28th April to 29th August 2017 at the British Library), which marked the centenary of one of the most momentous years in world history.
Behind the scenes, she says, “There was a lot of discussion about how we should describe it, and we decided on ‘marking’ the Russian Revolution—definitely not a celebration. I wanted to be objective about the facts and people’s experiences.” Rogatchevskaia didn’t want to be trapped by the ideologically-weighted conclusions often drawn around the events of 1917, and instead return to a level of historical rigor often missing from discussions about the Revolution.
Both exhibition and centenary arrive at just the right time – as Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote in the London Review of Books earlier this year, “In purely scholarly terms, the 1917 revolution has been on the back burner for some decades now, after the excitement of the Cold War-fuelled arguments of the 1970s.”
If we’ve moved beyond the heady rhetoric of Capitalism versus Communism, then it seems a ripe moment to re-evaluate the Revolution. For Rogatchevskaia, there are clear lessons to be drawn for the present: “the Russian Revolution and [subsequent] civil war shows that politicians should have a very clear message of the future. You can’t keep the status quo, as the White [Russians] wanted.
“The Bolsheviks showed the future and won. It was a mythical future, but it still won out.”
Dr. Rogatchevskaia, who studied Russian literature before joining the British Library, notes that “I wanted to show the emotional effects of the revolution and civil war,” with the Library’s holdings in photographs, posters, books, and maps, recreated the material qualities of the era.
She reflects that amongst all the exhibition’s items, two of her favourites were “the tribute book to Lenin, [where] every single ribbon from his funeral procession was documented. It was the first luxury Soviet book,” and “the Who’s Who in the Revolution,” published in England for British and American audiences confused by the rapidly changing governments after the fall of Tsar Nicholas II.
The exhibition’s strong visual design, with dark red curtains, chandeliers, and reproductions of photographs on metal plates suspended above display cases, was created by the design company Hara Clark.
Rogatchevskaia confesses with laughter that “I’m not a visual person! But when we first saw their idea, my team immediately loved it.” The subdued lighting created an intimate atmosphere, compelling visitors to take their time over the exhibits. “People are quiet in the exhibition, they read the labels. Some people spend two hours!”
Rogatchevskaia is motivated by a desire to enlighten a public unaware of the true scale and impact of the Revolution: “visitors were surprised by the amount of devastation caused [it]. Many people now see the threat of revolution to Britain and the British involvement in the civil war; it comes as a surprise. Many of my colleagues were surprised by the extent of the British involvement.” The Revolution was far from exclusively Russian: from Japan to the United States, the rest of the world became rapidly embroiled, trying to undermine the Bolsheviks.
However, this lack of historical awareness runs both ways. “Being Russian myself, I didn’t know much about World War One myself,” she says, “as the Russian Revolution overshadowed it as trauma and because of the Communist [Party] narrative.” She points to the current absence of discussion of Russia’s role on the eastern front during the First World War as another side of the story “talked very little about.”
Rogatchevskaia though, is especially interested in the links between Britain and the Revolution, pointing out that Marx and Lenin were readers at the British Library, which later became a centre of Russian émigrés who had escaped from the civil war during the 1920s. “[It] was a literary hub, people came to learn, they were intellectuals…Some of the Russian exile families were close to the families who operated the British Museum. They suggested what books to buy—they saw it as their own library and we’ve tried to keep that heritage.” By offering an objective point of view for audiences to make up their own minds, the exhibition was refreshingly free of political didacticism.
When I conclude our conversation by asking whether the Russian Revolution will continue to resonant with people, she replies, “The results of the Russian Revolution—the experiments in communism, the Cold War, all these problems with the totalitarian state, economic development in the region – everything influenced and caused by the revolution will stay pretty hot in the agenda for still some time.”
We still cannot escape its shadow, so Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths offered our best chance for a long time to understand it.