The first thing you notice when you enter Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths at London’s British Library is the color red — lots and lots of it, from the panels to the images. Unfortunately, the show itself doesn’t match the vividness of that initial impression.
One of the exhibit’s strengths is the variety of media on display, from the expected photos and films to posters, political cartoons, audio clips, and clothes. These do more than capture a sense of time and place; they also show how historical moments can imbue familiar everyday objects with a powerful blend of nostalgia and political weight.
Iconic clothing is a good example. Birch-bark shoes known as lapti were associated with Russian peasants, and thus the term for the shoes also became a contemptuous one for the masses. And Russian hats, so important to soldiers, became a fashionable accessory for certain Western European journalist-observers.
The more unexpected objects are among the most moving ones. One example is a decorated cup given out at the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896. Attendees stampeded to collect the gifts, resulting in the deaths of 1,389 people. Another sobering item is a set of leg irons used on political activists — weighty both literally and figuratively.
Maps are also central to this exhibition, and the diverse range shows how subjective, if not blatantly propagandistic, mapping can be. There are maps with controversial borders, of course, but also, for instance, a vividly colored, pre-revolutionary map depicting different ethnic groups in a visual argument for their single imperial identity. A large digital map usefully shows the rapid changes in different forces’ territorial control during the post-revolutionary civil war.
What’s notably lacking here is curation that captures the upheaval of the time. This would be difficult for any exhibit, but Russian Revolution is surprisingly inert for such an important — and violent — historical event. The space should be loud rather than hushed, jumbled rather than staid, interactive rather than wholly glass-encased. A common object on display is a book open to its title page — historically significant, yes, but not terribly interesting to look at.
Unlike the displayed text, the posters are memorable and striking. Art in various forms was critical for expressing and giving rise to both royal and revolutionary sentiment. On the revolutionary side, this included illustrations that venerated Russian peasants and helped to drive home the contrast between the decadent royals and the hard-working common folk.
There’s a lack of subtlety to the propaganda posters, which in some ways makes them especially effective. One depicts Japan as a grotesque dragon; another shows Lenin literally going to Hell. An anti-Bolshevik and anti-Semitic poster portrays Trotsky as a massive demon with stereotypically Jewish features. And there’s no shortage of images depicting atrocities at the hands of soldiers, on multiple sides.
The curators contend that the (Bolshevik) Red Army — with its recruitment posters that point at you to create a sense of urgency and necessary sacrifice — propagandized better than the (anti-Bolshevik) White Army. One exhibition label reads, “As the Reds had more unity of purpose to build socialism, their propaganda was more effective.”
The revolutionary ferment clearly produced some intriguing art. This includes lithographs, from avant-gardist Natalia Goncharova’s Mystical Images of War series (1914), that manage to be both childlike and stirring.
There’s plenty of constructivist art on display, with strong outlines and vivid colors that are well-suited to depicting uncomplicated heroism. These propagandistic images are so stylized that they easily portray alternative or idealized realities, suiting a regime whose moral and political imperatives trampled nuances or attempts to capture objective truth. As one exhibition label notes, “The major achievement of early Soviet propaganda was to create a compelling parallel reality to fill this void [in political, economic, and personal life] at a time when actual reality was too chaotic to be faced.”
It’s impossible not to see echoes of current affairs in all this. During the Russian Civil War, for instance, reliable photojournalism was hugely important, given that events were proceeding too quickly for observers to easily keep up with them. The temptation to slip into simplified narratives (and images) was all too present. Even a historical figure as seemingly unique as mystic/political adviser Rasputin has a modern-day parallel, in shaman/political adviser Choi Soon-sil, who contributed to the downfall of South Korean President Park Geun-hye earlier this year.
Clearly the Russian Revolution’s historical legacy is enduring. It’s a shame that the British Library has somewhat neutered this history by making the exhibition so sedate.
Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths continues at the British Library (96 Euston Rd, Kings Cross, London) through August 29.