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Framing the Russian Revolution

Den­nis Broe takes West­ern cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions and crit­ics to task for their fail­ure to prop­er­ly con­vey the rev­o­lu­tion­ary ener­gy of Sovi­et art and pol­i­tics after 1917.

This month marks the 100th Anniver­sary of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, Octo­ber 25th on the Russ­ian Cal­en­dar at that time which was Novem­ber 7th in the West. The Cen­ten­ni­al is being cel­e­brat­ed and/or den­i­grat­ed with var­i­ous events, exhi­bi­tions, and inter­pre­ta­tions here in Europe. What is now emerg­ing as the dom­i­nant inter­pre­ta­tion is a pic­ture of the event in which the Feb­ru­ary 1917 over­throw of the Czar in Saint Peters­burg is now cel­e­brat­ed as the begin­ning of a democ­ra­cy that was bru­tal­ly extin­guished with the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion, in which Vladimir Lenin and the Bol­she­viks con­spir­a­to­ri­al­ly seized pow­er and which led inevitably to the foun­da­tion of an unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic regime in the guise of a dic­ta­tor­ship of the proletariat.

Like­wise, the art of the peri­od imme­di­ate­ly before and after the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion, a flour­ish­ing of all the arts includ­ing pho­tog­ra­phy, graph­ics, paint­ing, the­ater, cin­e­ma and music, is now for the first time being brand­ed as the mur­der­ous expres­sion of a total­i­tar­i­an regime, and this in the hero­ic peri­od of 1917 to 1932.

All kinds of for­mer truths are being chal­lenged, with the French mag­a­zine Tel­era­ma now refer­ring to the “myth” of Fran­co-Eng­lish impe­ri­al­ism ready to aggress Rus­sia as an excuse for the Bol­she­vik takeover and with the sup­pos­ed­ly left-wing dai­ly Lib­er­a­tion choos­ing on the week of the cen­ten­ni­al to run instead of a con­sid­er­a­tion of that event an exten­sive book review of the polit­i­cal camps, with the caveat that before mark­ing the rev­o­lu­tion it is first nec­es­sary to read the book The Goulag.

The most promi­nent anti-rev­o­lu­tion­ary book though is Berke­ley pro­fes­sor Yuri Slezine’s The House of Gov­ern­ment which essen­tial­ly presents the Sovi­et lead­er­ship as a cult that lived in the same state-owned build­ing. The book sees the rev­o­lu­tion itself as a sec­u­lar form of fanati­cism and the Sovi­ets as fanat­ics who took the reli­gious ver­sion of the final days and the apoc­a­lypse and rein­ter­pret­ed it as the inevitable com­ing of a glob­al rev­o­lu­tion that would redeem humanity.

To this lib­er­al onslaught must be added the attack by the British news­pa­per The Guardian’s art crit­ic Jonathan Jones on a mon­u­men­tal exhi­bi­tion on the “Art of the Rev­o­lu­tion” at the Roy­al Acad­e­my claim­ing that the cel­e­bra­tion of one of the most fer­tile peri­ods in the his­to­ry of art instead “sen­ti­men­talis­es” a “mur­der­ous chap­ter in human his­to­ry” and com­par­ing the Bol­she­viks in this ear­ly peri­od of the Rev­o­lu­tion to the Nazis.

Alexan­der Deine­ka, the Defence of Pet­ro­grad, from the RA exhibition

The review appeared before the exhi­bi­tion opened and func­tioned as British lib­er­als replay­ing Churchill’s dic­tum about the Sovi­ets that he would stran­gle the baby in its cra­dle, here stran­gling the exhi­bi­tion before it could be seen. It is worth not­ing that the attack is large­ly being waged by the lib­er­al press, coin­cid­ing with a new McCarthy­ism being led in the U.S. by the Democ­rats, in which every­thing Russ­ian is and now must be demonized.

No doubt the fail­ures of the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion were numer­ous, includ­ing famine and star­va­tion in the Ukraine and a rapid instal­la­tion of camps for polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, but so were the tri­umphs. Lenin seized pow­er with the sup­port of the army and the work­ers on one burn­ing ques­tion, an end to the war which was dec­i­mat­ing the work­ing class­es of Europe. He was near­ly the only per­son to urge what he called “Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Defeatism,” claim­ing that a defeat for the cap­i­tal­ist nation­al­ists in the war meant a vic­to­ry and a halt to the slaugh­ter­ing of work­ing peo­ple by each oth­er in the trench­es and by new tech­nolo­gies of increas­ing­ly dead­ly and remote killing machines.

It is very easy to make the claim that it was the Sovi­et takeover and the actu­al threat of inter­na­tion­al rev­o­lu­tion that end­ed World War I since the West­ern pow­ers rec­og­nized they no longer had the lux­u­ry of slaugh­ter­ing each oth­er since there was now a real threat to their exis­tence and they, the U.S., France and Britain most promi­nent­ly, at the time of sign­ing the armistice, sent expe­di­tionary forces to destroy the Sovi­et state.

Sovi­et Poster, 1920.The inscrip­tions on the build­ings read “library”, “kinder­garten”, “school for grown-ups”, etc.

To this may be added that it was yet again the Sovi­et “cult” and the Russ­ian peo­ple that two decades lat­er halt­ed the next form of West­ern cap­i­tal­ist bar­bar­i­ty in the guise of the Nazi con­quest of Europe. At the height of the Civ­il War, 1918–22, while bat­tling for their sur­vival, Lenin’s Bol­she­viks pur­sued a pol­i­cy of com­bat­ting illit­er­a­cy, teach­ing read­ing and writ­ing in the var­i­ous republics in 40 dif­fer­ent lan­guages and dialects and refus­ing to impose Russ­ian Cyril­lic. In 1919, at the worst moment of being attacked and under siege, the Sovi­ets boast­ed 1200 read­ing clubs and 6200 polit­i­cal, sci­en­tif­ic and agri­cul­tur­al cir­cles and by the end of the war 5 mil­lion chil­dren were in schools, revers­ing the Czar’s pol­i­cy of edu­ca­tion only for the elite under which only one child in five was educated.

Along with this new lit­er­a­cy, dur­ing the war and after, until the end of the first five year plan in 1932, went a flour­ish­ing and democ­ra­tis­ing of espe­cial­ly the visu­al and more cru­cial­ly the graph­ic arts, par­tic­u­lar­ly posters with elab­o­rate and splashy typog­ra­phy and image and pho­to col­lages which appeared in trams, on fac­to­ry walls and through­out the cities in places where crowds passed.

This was a kind of embrac­ing of pop­u­lar media which in the West would sim­ply be absorbed into the adver­tis­ing indus­try. The­atere began to incor­po­rate pop­u­lar ele­ments of the cir­cus as Mey­er­hold coun­tered Stanislavski’s psy­cho­log­i­cal real­ism with a bio­me­chan­i­cal method stress­ing col­lec­tive and machine-like move­ment. Con­struc­tivism, like­wise an incor­po­ra­tion of the pow­er of the machine into paint­ing and cin­e­ma, took the pre-war dynamism of Ital­ian Futur­ism at a moment when that form was embrac­ing a fas­cist mil­i­tarism and instead rein­ter­pret­ed the machine as a source for good in the ser­vice of the peo­ple and not as sim­ply a killing machine.

Sovi­et avant-garde art, the cur­rents of which began before the war and was let loose by the ear­li­er Rev­o­lu­tion of 1905, great­ly influ­enced the West in the the­atri­cal exper­i­men­ta­tion and de-psy­chol­o­giz­ing of Brecht, in the bring­ing of abstract notions of design to mass pro­duc­tion in the Weimar Bauhaus School, and in the ways Eisenstein’s mon­tage in the films Strike and Bat­tle­ship Potemkin were incor­po­rat­ed into the cin­e­ma of Hitchcock.

The peri­od also fea­tured a rethink­ing of the pur­pose of the muse­um, oppos­ing the col­lec­tor instinct of muse­ums in the West as being dead archives or con­verse­ly as sim­ply pre­sent­ing art as utter­ly sep­a­rat­ed from life and only relat­ed to its own his­to­ry. To counter this, the Sovi­ets pro­posed open air muse­ums inte­grat­ed into the com­mu­ni­ty, and a broad­er def­i­n­i­tion of what con­sti­tut­ed art to include folk art and street design. These inno­va­tions are now offi­cial pol­i­cy — uncred­it­ed to the Rev­o­lu­tion of course — of many muse­ums such as the Chica­go Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art whose direc­tor boasts their incorporation.

The Rev­o­lu­tion though in the year of its cen­te­nary has in many ways been side­lined. The Roy­al Acad­e­my exhib­it was Europe’s most exten­sive. Paris’s Pom­pi­dou on the oth­er hand chose instead to high­light Russ­ian dis­si­dent art in its exhib­it Kollek­t­sia, which traced exten­sive­ly the decades from the 1950s to the 1970s, an unin­spired peri­od which broke down into Sots Art which was the Russ­ian equiv­a­lent of Pop Art and var­i­ous returns to the Constructivism.

Else­where, there is a cur­rent exhib­it at the library of the Muse­um of the Army titled “And 1917 Becomes Rev­o­lu­tion” with exam­ples of this flour­ish­ing of the arts along­side West­ern fig­u­ra­tive paint­ings of the pope bless­ing and sanc­tion­ing the slaugh­ter of the troops. There is also a recount­ing of how two French mem­bers, out of a del­e­ga­tion of four, sent to con­vince the Sovi­ets to stay in the war instead “went native” and con­vert­ed to their side in favor of the revolution.

It’s a nice exhib­it but very dif­fi­cult even to find in the muse­um and over­shad­owed by the cur­rent Army block­buster about the every­day life of a sol­dier, an exhib­it more in favor of war. And indeed World War I over the last three years is every­day hon­ored in its cen­ten­ni­al while the event that halt­ed the war is slighted.

By far the most inter­est­ing Euro­pean exhib­it was in Venice at the Palaz­zo Zatere which has been tak­en over by the V‑A-C Foun­da­tion, a joint Moscow-Venice group that staged “Space, Force, Con­struc­tion” which attempt­ed to update the rad­i­cal thrust of the arts in this peri­od with con­tem­po­rary art with a polit­i­cal bent over the last three decades. Here was: Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge,” a geo­met­ri­cal descrip­tion of the Sovi­ets out­num­bered and sur­round­ed but sur­viv­ing by ingenuity.…..

.…..and a recre­ation of Tatlin’s Mon­u­men­tal “Tow­er of the Future” which was an attempt to address the mis­takes of the Tow­er of Babel.….

.….…and Rodchenko’s design for a worker’s lunchroom/study cen­ter, where eat­ing and acquir­ing of knowl­edge go on simultaneously.

Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law

Prob­a­bly the continent’s most thrilling exhib­it of Sovi­et art though is the cur­rent­ly ongo­ing French Cin­e­math­eque series “The USSR of Cineast­es” which cov­ers the peri­od of the 1920s through the end of World War II. Beyond Eisenstein’s Strike and Potemkin, the series con­tains screen­ings of the anti-petit bour­geois House on Trub­naya Street, a com­e­dy by Boris Bar­net about the mal­treat­ment of a peas­ant woman by the building’s small busi­ness elite; Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law, a mon­tage exper­i­ment and adap­ta­tion of a Jack Lon­don short sto­ry about how the greed of an inter­na­tion­al min­ing expe­di­tion in Alas­ka turns dead­ly; and The Yel­low Tick­et, Feodor Ostep’s por­trait of a wet nurse, abused by her baro­nial employ­er and then cast out into prostitution.

Feodor Osteps, The Yel­low Ticket

Why the down­grad­ing of the Rev­o­lu­tion? Is it not because in these times which due to increas­ing income dis­par­i­ty in the West, the bru­tal­i­sa­tion of the world by indus­tri­al cli­mate change, and the ever dis­ap­pear­ing sup­port of the state for any form of work­er aid or com­fort, Rev­o­lu­tion is cer­tain­ly on the table and dis­com­fort­ing to an increas­ing­ly shrink­ing cadre of elites?

Yet the dis­sat­is­fac­tion in whole dein­dus­tri­al­ized areas left for dead in France, the US, and Britain is being chan­neled into pro-nation­al­ist, anti-immi­grant sen­ti­ment that is the oppo­site of Lenin’s call for an inter­na­tion­al join­ing of the work­ers across the West and the world to rise up.

Instead the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, which twice halt­ed cap­i­tal­ist bar­bar­i­ty on a glob­al scale, is char­ac­ter­ized as mere­ly bar­barous itself. At the moment when the world is most in need of it, West­ern elites have been very care­ful in this year of the cen­te­nary to ignore or deny the ener­gy that inspired one of the great hopes of human­i­ty in the twen­ti­eth century.

First pub­lished by Cul­ture Mat­ters, on Novem­ber 3, 2017.

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