28 April 2017
Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths
The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths opens today, marking the 100th anniversary of the Revolution, an event that changed history and profoundly influenced the course of the 20th century. The exhibition follows Russian history from the reign of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, to the death of Lenin in 1924, telling the story not only from the perspective of key players and ‘great men’ but from that of the ordinary people who lived through these extraordinary times.
On entering the gallery, visitors will see two vast maps of ‘European’ and ‘Asian’ Russia before the First World War, giving an idea of the sheer scale of the Russian Empire. Alongside them is our rare first edition of the Communist Manifesto, the slim 24-page pamphlet whose influence would help to overturn that huge empire.
The first main section of the exhibition explores the last years of Tsarist Russia in more detail, looking at the vast social and ethnic diversity of the Empire, at the growing political opposition to the monarchy and at the revolutionary events of 1905 which led to the establishment of Russia’s first parliament (Duma). Star exhibits here include the lavish album published to commemorate Nicholas II’s coronation and Lenin’s letter applying for a reader’s ticket for the British Museum Library.
The second section takes us from the outbreak of the First World War to the Revolutions of February and October 1917, the latter of which saw Lenin’s Bolshevik faction seize power. Among the documents on display are a copy of the Tsar’s abdication declaration, and ‘Order no.1’ issued by the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies on 1(14) March 1917, which overturned traditional military discipline and had a powerful effect far beyond the Petrograd garrison to which it referred. And one exhibit has a hidden personal story: a display of banknotes issued by the Provisional Government come from the family of the exhibition’s lead curator.
In the third section we look at the Civil War which engulfed Russia in the aftermath of the October Revolution. In order to try and explain some of the complexity of this period – more correctly referred to as Civil Wars in the plural rather than a single two-sided conflict – a large animated map shows how the different factions gained and lost control. The formation of the Red Army is examined, with hand-written memoranda by Trotsky among the items displayed, but also in this section are some examples from the British Library’s collection of rare propaganda from the White (anti-Bolshevik) movement, ranging from seemingly uninspiring pamphlets on cheap paper to striking posters.
As the Civil Wars raged, the Bolshevik party were trying to consolidate and maintain their grip on power, and this is the theme of the fourth section. The devastating famine that spread through Russia and the Bolsheviks’ war on religion are also examined here, and of course we look at the fate of the Tsar and his family. Yet alongside these tragic events there was an outpouring of optimism among some that a better world was being born. We show some striking art and propaganda produced not only by avant-garde artists such as Mayakovsky but also by a group of women factory workers from Yalta, who produced their own ‘wall newspaper’, with essays, poems and pictures celebrating their work and their new-won literacy. This section also looks at the cult of Lenin that developed in Soviet Russia and at the experience of flight and exile for opponents of the new state.
The last section looks at international dimensions of the Revolution, first from the perspective of foreigners living in Russia during the period: journalists reporting on the situation, soldiers involved in allied anti-Bolshevik intervention during the civil war, and spies reporting on Russia’s new rulers. Then we turn to the influence of the Revolution outside Russia. The Bolsheviks hoped that revolution would spread from Russia, ‘setting the world on fire’, and indeed revolutions did break out in many European states, notably Germany and Hungary, but there were short lived ‘soviets’ in many other places, and communists around the world advocated the Soviet cause and formed links with Russian institutions. A banner presented to the Young Communist League of Shipley by Russian textile workers, and on loan to the exhibition from the People’s History Museum, illustrates such connections. Finally we look at the struggles for independence in states of the former Russian Empire and the formation of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s.
Finally, an epilogue looks at how the Revolution was depicted on film and in literature in the 20th century, featuring clips from famous and less well-known Soviet films, and the work of four Russian Nobel literature laureates.
The exhibition runs until 29 August, and we hope it will inform, inspire and intrigue visitors, taking them on a journey through a world-changing period of history and raising questions about how it should be understood today,and what contemporary resonances might be found in the events of 100 years ago. There is also a season of events with something for everyone from a late-night ‘Storming of the British Library’ to readings and lectures. Full details can be found on our website.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies, and Co-Curator of Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths