100 years on: a very short history of the Russian Revolution told in 10 objects


Celebrating the cultural achievements of the early Russian revolution which had at its centre a commitment to the politics of socialism.

We might begin with Lenin, and that most lapidary of formulations: “ Soviets+ electricity = communism”. It is certainly a seductive formula, and it was one that many cultural workers, not only in the USSR, responded to with enthusiasm.

Another such slogan reads: “With the State there is no freedom, freedom exists when there is no State.” This is the Utopian Lenin, who dared the Party to “DREAM”. The Lenin who saw those democratic organisations originating in workplaces and districts – i.e the Soviets  –  as abolishing the State and the Party!

Yet there is no doubt that for the Left, Lenin poses a problem, a century after that moment when he and the Bolsheviks unleashed the process of revolution. For many that first slogan was to be re-formulated as Party hacks + forced industrialisation = totalitarianism. That this latter form is one we associate with Stalinism leads one to ask-  was it already inherent in bolshevism?” That question I leave hanging.

But there is no doubt that Bolshevism in power under Lenin was the – perhaps inadvertent- midwife for some fifteen years of a culture that can be called revolutionary. This was revolutionary not in the sense of a Heartfield attacking  capitalism and fascism, i.e. a critical revolutionary art, but a celebratory art form.

Here I want to celebrate some of those achievements, and in so doing offer for thought the notion of a culture which rethought that very notion as it existed in the West, i.e. a practise both high and autonomous. This will reveal an idea closer to the anthropological reading, i.e. one that contains- dialectically- the idea of the ‘high,’ and also embraces forms of the’ low’. Let us say a culture that can embrace abstract art and the newspaper, or even a sweet wrapper. Not only that, but a culture which has at its centre a commitment to a certain politics: the politics of socialism.

Such simplification of course hides some problematic facts. The Left, then as now, loves factionalism. So alongside those who enthused about the newspaper were those convinced that the future of literature lay in the remodelled 19th century novel. Alongside those embracing the multi-reproducible image of the photograph, were those advocating a19th century realism in paint. This might be further reduced to a tussle between those believing (as did Lenin) that the culture appropriate to the USSR was to draw its lessons from that of the bourgeoisie, albeit with a ‘social’ slant. And those on the other hand who were  committed to a wholesale dislodgement of the Academy and its bourgeois support. It is basically with the latter that I am concerned.

My first object is a drawing by Yuri Annenkov for a mass festival of 1920 (1). It celebrates the moment three years earlier when troops and Bolshevik supporters “ Stormed the Winter Palace.” That moment “(iconic” is the right word here) when the Bolsheviks deposed Karensky and the Provisional Government.

1. Annenkov “Design for a mass pageant”

1a. Storming the Winter Palace

 Annenkov was one of those artists/ cultural workers who at this time became a enthusiastic supporter of the new State. He also staged a “hooter symphony” i.e. factory sirens, ships whistles etc., co-ordinated in order to produce a machine music to flood the urban environment.  The nature of this kind of activity is obvious, they take theatre from the proscenium to the street

The photograph 1a shows the actual re-enactment, sometimes published as the real thing.

Annenkov was one of those who found the new order to be not as sympathetic as he would have liked, and left the USSR for Paris.

02 El Lissitsky: New Man

My second illustration is by El Lissitsky: it’s the figure of the “New Man” (2), one of the characters in an electro-spectacular production of a theatrical piece called “Victory Over the Sun’ This is dated 1923. The first production of the play seems to have been rather makeshift. On stage in 1913 characters moved around in geometrical outfits designed by Kasimir Malevich.  Makeshift or not, it’s known to art history as the first manifestation of the elements of Malevich’s Suprematism, i.e. a non-figurative art based on geometric forms. Such abstract art was soon to become prolific in Russia. Its relevance to Lissitzky is twofold. Firstly he saw the need to project this theatrical piece into the mechanolatric world seemingly envisioned with the advent of the new post 1917 situation. Secondly it records his new position in the role of educator.

After the revolution many academicians, previously scandalised by Malevich and a host of other non-figurative artiists, left for the West. In their wake the avant-garde moved in. Malevich established an art school in Vitebsk, and Lissitsky became one of its staff. The institute was called Unovis, i.e. project for a new art. Soon one was to see their abstract art adding a dynamic character to the streets of Vitebsk and its buses. We hear of students walking half way across Russia to join the community.

Lissitsky’s figure has become emblematic: here is the New Man of the Revolution. Mechanised, electrified, the red star in his eyes, his pace taking him into the future. As a project of course it could not be realised, Russian technology famously ”lagged behind that of the West”, not that the West could have fulfilled Lissitsky’s plan.

Like so much it remains a wonderful image of the Utopian.(Though some might find such a Utopia scary).  Lissitsky’s move from this rarefied zone was to turn to the photgraph, a new means of production first taken up by “artists” in the USSR.

03 Kozlinsky: Poster

My third object is a poster by Kozlinsky, (3) celebrating the Paris Commune. The text reads “The dead of the Paris Commune have risen up under the Red Banner of the Soviets.” Such posters produced for the Russian Telegraph Agency were known as Rosta windows.

They were produced using stencils – aiming for some kind of mass distribution. We refer to that whole phenomenon as Agit-Prop. If some of this lacked sophistication, it certainly did not lack a powerful charge. Many pieces remain inspiring.

The way the figure fills the space, the flag bursting out of the frame ( like Delacroix’s famous Revolution) is one tie to history.

But what we might also note is this appeal to history; an appeal, and vindication of the role of the Communards of 1871, their retribution. It is also an indication of the new State calling up its ancestry, celebrating its intellectual heritage.  Naturally there were to be monuments to Marx and Engels, but also to Rosa Luxemburg. Invoked too were the visionaries and poets from Goethe, Schiller and Heine, to anarchists – Bakunin, Kropotkin and Fourier. All found their way on to new or detourned monuments. Even famous assassins were invoked. I find this extraordinary. It is to the credit of the Soviets that this happened. And that it took place in the time of Civil War and Foreign intervention.

04. Adolf Strakov poster

My next object is a poster by Adolf Strakov (4). Its message reads 8th March. Women’s Emancipation Day. 8th March 1917 saw a strike by Russian women, a strike of four days, for Bread and Peace. It initiated the fall of the Tsar and the inauguration of the (short-lived) Provisional Government. It has since been internationalised. The USSR was definitely in the forefront of this move.

As Lewin writes –“Mironov is right to insist that ‘no other country in the world has experienced such a high level of female participation in the world of work and culture.’ (Though as he also writes ‘this was not the case with regard to the Party hierarchy.’)

This image, which prefigures that of Kozlinsky, has the same diagonals, (here chimneys – many women entered factories at this time) and the same red flag. The woman depicted also looks ahead to the future. She is both strong and beautiful, her working clothes somehow having an air of  the future called up by sci-fi images. Again, simplicity equals dynamism and power, and the poster equals mass distribution.

05. Gustav Klucis lino-cut

The fifth object is a lino-cut by Gustav Klucis;  (5). This is a project (unbuilt) for a street kiosk. Again the concern is the mass media as it existed then. There is a screen at the top for projected images, and below we have racks for newspapers. Lenin had foreseen the need for the new media – particularly radio and film; and Klucis was an undoubted Leninist. We have a collage from him of Lenin striding across the world with an electricity pylon tucked under his arm. In fact Klucis left us a whole portfolio of Marxist/Lenininst works. As for electricity that too was high on Lenin;s priorities, witness my opening sentence.

Although the kiosk was a wooden structure it has all the hallmarks of Modernism, a geometric foundation laid bare, the whole being energised by diagonals and its simplicity making for rapid reproduction.

Klucis was a true believer. In the 1930s he moved to photomontage – some of his most famous images showing Stalin. It did him no good; in 1935 we are in the counter-revolution and Klucis is one of the many – the millions – to disappear.

06. Rodchenko poster

My next item is a poster by Rodchenko. (6) These things I have chosen might seem to have something repetitive about them, But we are dealing with a country that recognises itself as ‘backward’ in relation to the West; a country with 60% illiteracy, and a group of artists anxious to serve the State, and communicate with the masses.

Whether Rodchenko’s poster did that, we do not know. What we do know is that it has become an icon of graphic design, reproduced endlessly, appropriated, altered and enjoying an afterlife he could never have considered.

The woman is Lily Brik, mistress of the great poet of the Revolution – Mayakovsky  He of the slogan  ‘The squares are our palettes, the street our brushes’

What Rodchenko ( co worker with Mayakovsky on hundreds of Rosta posters) has Lily declare, in that wonderful image of abstract design become megaphone, is ‘Books on all kinds of knowledge’; published by Lengiz – a State publishing house.

This dream of a mass, a people, that is both literate and educated is one we still live and struggle with. The failure of that dream in the West being all too obvious. ”The ruling ideas of the time are those of the ruling class” as Marx only too clearly put it.

07 Shaiket photograph

Next up is a photograph by Shaiket (7) It shows peasants welcoming – almost as believers at communion  -the coming of electricity. As mentioned, Lenin envisioned  this modern wonder throughout the country . And he had tapped into a great reservoir of hope. With the advent of such moments as that shown in Shaiket’s photograph we have to note a profusion of names entering the Soviet style of nomenclature – Electrifikatsia, Dinamo, Industriya  Others names  included Barrikada, Octyabrina- and  Avantgarda.

In this penetration into the Russian ‘byt’, everyday life, we have further evidence that this was an extraordinary period.

08 Dziga Vertov film

Next we have a still from ‘Man with a Movie Camera’, (8) a film made by Dziga Vertov in 1929. To me this has always seemed the greatest cultural artefact of the Russian revolution. Ostensibly the film is a documentary, following everyday life in the USSR, from getting up to going to bed. One has to say “ostensibly” because this is also a movie celebrating movie making. And it has been voted the greatest documentary ever.

We see people going to work, milling through the streets but we also see Kaufmann – the cameraman filming them. He is then montaged on top of his camera, shown chasing his subject on a motor cycle, turning the camera’s crank. We see him capture episodes, and follow these to the editing room where we see the shots being cut, spliced together or discarded. We also see an audience come to view the film, with us watching them…. In the final five minutes the whole thing is repeated at vertiginous speed. It’s an assault on our senses. We need those earlier moments, at the beach, in the club as periods of calm to remember

In the first account I read of it in 1965 Jay Leyda spoke of ‘reeling out of the cinema.’ I saw it with Richard Hamilton – his comment ‘Everyone should see that movie – once.’ But in its desire to record ‘life slap up’ and to subject that to the potentialities of the cinematic apparatus it gives us a definite sense of what the Soviet utopia might have been.

09 Varvara Stepanova poster

At (9) we have a poster by Varvara Stepanova. As Lewin mentioned, women definitely moved into some positions of power. She married Rodchenko, and like him became a ‘designer’: of stage sets, books, clothing, and, as here, posters. She should be here in her own right as one of the Russian ‘Amazons ‘ of the avant-garde’. But she features here, not only as a photo-montagiste, but as one documenting a specific moment; the fulfilment of the first five year plan.

These plans, inaugurated by Stalin, under the rubric ‘keeping up with the West’, mark a seismic change in the cultural life of the USSR, though this is not yet evident in Stepanova’s rather jolly image.

By the date of its production we are entering the’ counter-revolution’. Soon those Bolsheviks responsible for the literacy project, the light hand and willingness to contemplate and practise various cultural styles are being rounded up, tried, and disappeared.

‘Socialism in one country’ might sound pragmatic; in practise it was another horrific variant of totalitarianism. Stalin ruined the very notion of socialism; whether he was later denounced or not , that stain remains.

In 1919 the (yet again) one-time abstract artist Vladimir Tatlin designed a ‘Monument to the Third International’. This monument was to be a building – one to house the delegates coming to the Third International, while they pondered how to spread the revolution. Higher than the Eiffel Tower, and straddling the Neva, it became for many years THE symbol of the new cultural ambitions of those who supported the Socialist regime. Gigantic and electronically and technologically astounding, its internal buildings revolving within a great spiral, it was perhaps the iconic image of the revolution.

10. Vladimir Tatlin glider

Twelve years later he gives us a glider or ornithopter (10), a flying machine taking its inspiration from nature, from his study of birds – cranes in particular.  This is no longer part of the mechanolatry of the early years of the Revolution. It has no motor, it’s a piece of craftsmanship. It is difficult to see it as serving the State. But, what it does have is beauty, a word Tatlin uses very emphatically, a word not usually bandied  about by the avant-garde of the twenties. I’ve always seen it as a symbol of the desire to escape, as well as part of the wonderful dream of flying, and as such its poignancy is not easily forgotten. My illustration is of a reconstruction from 1969 for a five year old child

It, with the other objects mentioned here, leads me to cherish these few years of fervour, of sheer inventiveness, commitment, and energy.

This is the centenary of the revolution, vilified and now buried in all but a few outposts. One of which, paradoxically, is the Royal Academy, right next to Burlington Arcade. Making  good now by showing us some of these artefacts. It’s just a pity we can’t relive the atmosphere on the streets of Leningrad or Vitebsk from one hundred years ago.

Still, in these baleful days we must be grateful for small mercies.


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