Russian Revolution: Fascinating exhibition at the British Library

01 June 2017

Russian Revolution: A fascinating exhibition at the British Library

 

One of the first exhibits as you enter this rich display is a thin green booklet sitting unobtrusively in a glass-covered case. Apparently harmless, it has proved more explosive than any Molotov cocktail: for this is a first printing of the Communist Manifesto, a tract whose ideas of class-based revolution would divide the world.

 

A treasure trove of posters, film, banners, pamphlets, photographs, music, uniforms, banknotes, and memoirs brings to life the state of Russia from the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896 to the death of Lenin in 1924.

 

Russia 1‘We are marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand.’ –

Vladimir ilyich Lenin

 

The autocratic rule of the last Romanov emperor began ominously enough: 1,389 people were crushed to death at the celebrations, and as many again were injured, although this is not mentioned in the lavish coronation album on display. When it became apparent, even to the tsar, that reform was needed, it was too late: revolution was in the air, fermented by stubborn Nicholas and his empress. Tsarina Alexandra echoed Marie Antoinette with her complaints that ‘young people run and shout that there is no bread’ and her relationship with the enigmatic Rasputin, who is mercilessly caricatured, stoked the anger.

 

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin made his way from Zurich as the revolution began; by train, of course. Germany permitted his crossing its frontiers in a locked carriage because its rulers felt he would help to weaken Russia, and so help the Berlin war effort. Once there, Lenin sought to impose his vision of socialism and Marxism onto a vast land of 126 million inhabitants made up of 170 ethnocultural groups.

 

In contrast to the Tsar’s coronation, the Bolshevik revolution began without bloodshed: troops defending the Winter Palace had drifted away by the time of the rising. But the events of October 1917 heralded a conflict that would cost more than 10 million Russian lives with a savage series of civil wars and hostile external enemies.

 

The Bolsheviks found themselves fighting a range of different White armies; hordes of internal socialists championing different tactics; and, eventually, once Great War alliances and tactics had been satisfied, the armies of most of Europe, especially when the Romanovs ‘disappeared’.

 

Russia 2‘It is my will. Remember, we live in Russia. Therefore I shall not consider the possibility of resigning.’ – Tsar Nicholas ii

 

A copy of diplomatic correspondence explains that King George V liked his cousin, but refused him asylum, fearing ‘serious consequences’ from the extreme left in this country which could ‘stir up public opinion against us’. Self-preservation, for the British royals, proved thicker than blood ties.

But the revolution attracted its supporters. The novelist HG Wells was one, for a time, travelling to meet Lenin in 1920 and coming away calling him ‘The Dreamer in the Kremlin’. There is a banner presented to the Young Communist League of Shipley, in Yorkshire, promising ‘Determine to win – and we will help you’ as well as an account of the shortlived Limerick Soviet in 1919.

 

There is a magnificent display of propaganda from both Red and White armies at the exhibition, that not only explains differences but also shows the extent and diversity of Imperial Russia: one poster, seeking Caucasian Muslim support for the Whites, is written in four languages. Then there is an image of the anarchic Nestor Makhno’s guerrilla army that, at various times, fought the Whites, the Reds and the Ukrainian armies!

 

Just when the scope of the exhibition threatens to become overwhelming, there are homely gems to be found, like the 1902 application form of one Jacob Richter to become a reader at the British Library. It was one of the pseudonyms used by Lenin, in exile in London, and anxious to avoid Tsarist agents. Another letter to the library on show is from Scotland Yard, requesting the removal of Bolshevik literature, lest it help ferment discontent. And then there is the diary of Meriel Buchanan, daughter of the British Ambassador to Imperial Russia, who had a front seat for these world-shattering events.

 

‘The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.’ – Leon Trotsky

 

All manner of uncelebrated people brush shoulders with the vast names of Lenin, Trotsky and Rasputin; which makes the exhibition accessible. Women like Alexandra Kollontai, the first woman in Lenin’s cabinet, who later became Soviet Ambassador to Norway; and Maggie Jordan, the millworker who led Shipley’s young communists to Petrograd.

 

For good or evil, the Russian revolution was an enormously important historical event, bursting with enthusiasm, violence, antagonism, idealism and tragedy. This exhibition brings it alive in a treat for the eyes and the mind.

 

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is at the British Library in London until 29 August.

 

 

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