How does Russia remember its revolution?

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An exhibit at the State Museum of Political History of Russia

When a group of us visited St Petersburg and Moscow last month to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution we were not expecting much by way of official commemoration. We were pleasantly surprised to find lots of exhibitions marking the anniversary and even more gratified to discover that many portray the revolution sympathetically.

The State Museum of Political History of Russia, St Petersburg (entry 200 rubles/£2.50) is in the former house of the ballerina (and favourite of Tsar Nicolas II) Matilda Kshesinskaya. The house was requisitioned by the Bolshevik Secretariat as their headquarters in early 1917. Here you can visit Lenin’s office between April and July 1917. It leads out to a balcony from which he made many speeches. Also here are the offices of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. There are some wonderful exhibits including an armband of a delegate to the Petersburg Soviet. Also worth a visit (and included in the price of admission) is the exhibition “Women and Revolution”.

Nearby is the notorious Peter-Paul Fortress, which serves as a reminder of the tyranny the revolution overthrew. The cell Leon Trotsky occupied after the 1905 Revolution is clearly signposted, as are Gorky’s, Kropotkin’s and that of Lenin’s brother Alexander Ulyanov.

The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, incorporates the famous Winter Palace, where the Provisional Government sat in 1917. Its custodians have built a stunning exhibition to the Russian Revolution under the title “History was Made Here”. The exhibition opens with red banners carrying the slogans of the revolution directing the public to the magnificent ornate staircase hung with a banner celebrating 1917. This leads to a vast hall holding the main exhibition draped with huge posters of the Tsar’s royal family, Kerensky and the Provisional Government, and Lenin and Trotsky. The exhibition signboards try to evoke sympathy for the Tsar in 1917, insisting that Nicholas II turned parts of the Winter Palace into a hospital for wounded soldiers and that the princesses “tended the wounded” from the front there. This irritates, but nothing here is overtly hostile to the Bolsheviks and no royalist spin can disguise the achievements and hopes ignited by the October Revolution. Highlights include a first edition of Lenin’s pamphlet State and Revolution. The best of it is that visitors can trace the exact route taken by the Military Revolutionary Committee as they made their way through the corridors of the Winter Palace in November 1917 to the room where the Provisional Government sat waiting to be dismissed. The route has been festooned with red banners bearing slogans of the revolution: “Down with the Capitalist Ministers!” and “Bread, Peace and Land”. Wonderful.

Smolny Institute, St Petersburg (entry 1,000 rubles/£12.50) isn’t as easy to visit as the museums and galleries open to the public but it’s worth making the effort. The Smolny is the former “school for noble maidens” which became the Bolshevik headquarters in the summer of 1917, the venue for the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets in November 1917 and the seat of Lenin’s revolutionary government until it was transferred to Moscow in the spring of 1918. To organise a trip to the Smolny you need to email them directly (smolny300@mail.ru) giving them at least six working days’ notice to organise your visit. You must take your passports when you go or you won’t be let in. But once admitted you’re in for a treat. You’re led down the Smolny’s vast corridors to the modest apartment Lenin and Krupskaya shared. You’re then shown the office Lenin used when he was head of the Soviet government, and then you are taken to the huge White Hall. This is where the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets met on 8 November 1917. It’s where it was announced that the workers’ revolution had overthrown Kerensky’s provisional government and that the soviets were in power. It was where the Bolshevik programmes on land and peace were declared and where Trotsky consigned the Social Revolutionaries to the “dustbin of history”. It’s where Lenin mounted the podium to declare, “We will now proceed to construct the socialist order!” It’s extraordinary to stand in the footsteps of these giants. In addition one of the Smolny’s corridors hosts an exhibition dedicated to both Lenin and Trotsky — treating both with respect and acknowledging they were co-workers and architects of the great October Revolution. There are some fantastic photos and posters featuring them from childhood right through to their roles at the heart of the first workers’ state in history. Stalin was frequently rubbished throughout the tour. There is a selection of pictures showing how Stalin had images repainted to portray him in a better light and often to give him a superior position over Lenin.

The Russian Museum, St Petersburg (entry 450 rubles/£5.50) is one of Russia’s foremost museums of fine art. Its permanent display has a brilliant collection of revolutionary ceramics from the State Pottery Collective from 1919. It also has a fascinating exhibition called “Dreams of Universal Flowering”, which looks at the growth of the arts in Russia in the prelude to the revolution, during 1917, the exhilarating period of experimentation that followed the establishment of the new workers’ state and the crushing of those dreams during Stalin’s counter-revolution. The great experiments carried out by the likes of Malevich, Filonov and Kandinsky, many of which are on display here, were replaced by the dead thing called “socialist realism” which was neither socialist nor realistic. The interesting thing about the exhibition is that it celebrates the achievements of October and illustrates, without saying so outright, the difference between Leninism and Stalinism. The weakness of the otherwise excellent exhibition is that it doesn’t acknowledge the Proletkult debate of the 1920s. This was a discussion between artists and intellectuals in Soviet Russia as to whether there could be a new, authentic, working class art and culture and what relationship socialists should take to the culture of previous epochs. Lenin and Trotsky argued that workers needed to assimilate all the achievements of previous cultures. But as the counter-revolution overturned the perspectives of genuine socialism, the agit-prop rubbish favoured by the Stalinists triumphed. There is a room in the Russian Museum filled with four bloated canvases dedicated to the “great helmsman”. They are worthless as art and as propaganda.

The State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia, Moscow (entry 250 rubles/£3) has an exhibition entitled, “1917: The Code of Revolution”. It has some interesting exhibits, including a first edition copy of the Russian edition of Marx’s Capital from 1882 and some magnificent banners from the workers’ movement in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. But the reactionary line it takes on 1917 is a scandal and most in step with the perspective advanced by Putin and those around him. The exhibition praises the attempts of the Tsarist minister Stolypin to develop a reactionary class of property-owning peasants as a bulwark against revolution. It interprets the First World War as an unforeseen accident and denounces Kerensky as a dangerous radical. The exhibition invites us to sympathise with the Tsarist butcher Kornilov (whose own friends said he had the “heart of a lion and the brain of a sheep”) as the potential saviour of Russia. The tenor of the exhibition can be found in its sign which denounces the Bolshevik “attack” on religion — namely, the separation of church and state.