The British Library’s new exhibition marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Jason Hewitt gets a sneak preview.
As we have all experienced, the last twelve months has seen a series of seismic political shifts taking place across the western world. Whether it’s the surprise Brexit vote, the election of Trump, or France’s ousting of her political stalwarts in favour of a party that has never governed before, for many voters traditional politics has become out of touch with the needs of the people and if those who govern are no longer serving the people, the people will find somebody else who will.
This year the British Library commemorates the 100th anniversary of one of the biggest political uprisings the world has known. It looks at what caused the people of Russia to violently overthrow tradition and, with it, a royal dynasty that had autocratically ruled Russia for over 300 years, as well as the long-reaching consequences that brought about the world’s first communist state and made legends of Lenin, Trotsky, and Rasputin.
It’s easy, and perhaps foolish, to make comparisons with current politics (as I have) and the exhibition wisely steers clear of this, yet its hard to view the propaganda posters, film footage, news sheets, and photographs without filtering the story of the Russian Revolution through our own current experience of a changing political landscape.
Whether you know nothing of the Russian Revolution and how and why it came about, or already have a sound knowledge of events, there is plenty to keep you enthralled. The exhibition perhaps lacks the wow factor that some visitors new to the British Library might expect, with most of the displays presented within glass cabinets. However, get up close and almost every item offers its own story. Key exhibits include a rare first edition of the communist manifesto, Nicholas II’s coronation album from 1896, a newspaper pronouncing his abdication, Lenin’s memorial book, plus a wide array of Bolshevik and White Army propaganda (including propaganda wallpaper hand-painted by a local women’s committee in Yalta). There is even a letter written by Lenin in 1902 to the British Museum Library (now part of the British Library) requesting to become a Reader, signed as a pseudonym, Jacob Richter.
However, this was a people’s movement. The Bolsheviks were opportunists and the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II was brought about by the people – peasants, soldiers, sailors, students and factory workers – and the exhibition goes some way to providing an insight into these lives as well. For example, Maria Bochkareva, who was part of the First Women’s Battalion of Death, created to shame men into fighting during World War I and who from lowly beginnings ended up becoming an international celebrity and even had her photograph taken with Emmeline Pankhurst.
After the October revolution, the country was plunged into Civil War and saw the rise of the Red Army, the Red Terror and the Cheka. The exhibits dealing with this period of intense oppression are presented within an imposing iron frame structure in stark contrast to the light, aristocratic opening room and the dimly-lit walkway that follows as we head down into the dingier depths of Russian society. Clearly much thought has been given to how visitors should feel in each section and largely it works, even if some might find the bewildering and threatening nature of the design a little too effective to make their visit entirely enjoyable. It is with some relief then that we enter the final section looking at the impact of the revolution and international and cultural responses, where for those not rushing out for air, there are a few final gems to be spotted including a Russian first edition of Doctor Zhivago.
There are arguments that the February/October revolutions of 1917 were just two critical flashpoints in a hundred year stretch of turmoil from the famine crisis in 1891 to the final fall of the Soviet Union in 1997 but the exhibition wisely restrains itself to the causes, the 1917 events, and their immediate aftermath, culminating in Lenin’s death in 1924.
Ultimately, of course, one autocratic rule was simply usurped by another, and the course was set for the violent dictatorship of Stalin, the intensity of the Cold War under Khrushchev, and, coming full circle, Putin’s reclamation of the Soviet past. The triumph of the British Library’s exhibition lies not just in giving a fascinating insight into events and lives of 1917, but also in providing an understanding of Russia’s development ever since. It now only remains to be seen whether current attempts to overthrow the established ways of doing things in places like the US and France also ultimately result in more of the same.
- Red Army poster © British Library
- White army recruitment poster circa 1919 © British Library
- Novyi Satirikon April 1917, cover caricature of Grigorii Rasputin © British Library