Thursday, 23 February 2017


The Royal Academy’s Russian Revolution Exhibition poster shows the giant, triumphant figure of a Bolshevik carrying aloft the red flag. Look closely: the colossus is striding through, and stomping upon, myriads of tiny, scurrying, ant-like human beings below. The onward march of the revolution will not give a damn for the rights of puny, bourgeois individuals. A clear, if chilling, message.

A fake fact - a lie or a factoid – irked me. This exhibition conflates the Russian Revolution with the Bolshevik revolution. Actually, the first 1917 Revolution in Russia was in February. It overthrew the Tsar but it did not install a ruthless dictatorship. That was Lenin’s doing, later in October. He jumped on the bandwagon and pursued the job with utter ferocity.

Yet the revolution unleashed a tremendous explosion of artistic creativity. In poetry, painting, sculpture and cinema. Films were especially important to spread the cause. Sergei Eisenstein’s stirring movies October and Battleship Potemkin were designed to inspire oppressed workers of the world to unite and rise up against capitalism. (Dr Goebbels was a fan. He saw the opportunities for Nazism.) Beyond propaganda, they were superb works of cinematic art. Helped by clear plots and narratives. By contrast, Dziga Vertov’s exciting experimental movies, like ‘I am a Camera’, annoyed the Bolshevik establishment. The masses could not understand them. (Alas, we know: the masses are thick.) The Communist inquisition accused him of the terrible elitist crime of ‘formalism’. He had to grovel and repent.

Christianity, the ancestral faith of the Russian people, was an early target of Communist hatred. A drug, the ‘opium of the people’, Marx had so slandered religion. The Bolsheviks set about their demolition and persecution work with systematic fury. Priests and monks were either shot or sent to concentration camps. Churches were blown up. One of Dziga Vertov’s films likens alcoholic addiction to religion, again seen as an opiate. Images of devout, prayerful and icon-kissing worshippers by St Isaac’s Orthodox Church are shown next to degraded wretches, drunks asleep in the streets. Crude but diabolically effective, when the Church, under the Communist heel, was unable to argue her case.

The Cross was not the only religion to suffer under Bolshevik rule. To redeem himself from ‘formalism’, Vertov shot the more structured ‘Three Songs for Lenin’. An entertaining hagiographic paean dedicated to the dead leader. The films unfold in the Soviet East. Muslim lands. Uzbek women walk shrouded in burkas or wearing nikabs. Then ‘a ray of light penetrated that darkness’, the caption says. The ladies discard their veils and join the local women’s rights collective. (Pretty topical, eh?) Same for Muslim men filmed at prayer. Backward, turbaned fanatics, they are contrasted with cheerful youths parading to the music of revolutionary songs. You get the picture.

To build the grim Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square the Communists reached back to a more ancient religion: paganism. Its design aped that of the Egyptian pyramids. Quite suitable, as Lenin’s body was not buried, as Christian tradition would have, but embalmed as a mummy. Does anyone get the irony? The leader’s mummification anticipated the future fate of his creed. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the former dynamic revolutionary creed had degenerated into just that: a mummy.

Hammer and sickle was the Bolsheviks’ famous emblem. It shows up in the exhibition. Symbolising the presumed alliance between industrial workers and the peasants. In reality, the peasants were not partners but victims. That too went back to Marx, who hated the peasantry. His notorious phrase, ‘the idiocy of rural life’, was the ideological prelude to Stalin’s 1928 industrialisation of the Soviet Union, plus the collectivisation of agriculture. One million richer peasants – the kulaks – were deported, along with the families, making five million, and exterminated. But all peasants, not just the wealthy, resisted the abolition of private property, so more were killed or deported. The Ukraine famine followed during which another five millions of peasants were deliberately starved to death. Thus Stalin’s bloody hammers hammered a holocaust of sickle-bearing peasants into their graves.

Stalin is generally cast as the villain of the piece when it comes to revolutionary art. A provincial Georgian, he could not understand sophistication, they say, upholding instead the banalities of ‘socialist realism’. Actually, Stalin’s judgement could be sharp. When his aesthetic watchdogs persecuted writer Mikhail Bulgakov, Stalin defended him. He went to see his play, ‘The Days of the Turbins’, several times. It portrays the revolution through the eyes of a well-to-do, middle class family. ‘It shows the ineluctability of the triumph of Bolshevism’, Stalin opined. The tyrant was no fool…

An ardent partisan of the revolution since his youth, the poet Vladimir Mayakovski in 1930 shot himself through the heart. Was it because of disappointed love? Love of a woman or love of the cause? Or was it the secret police? Maybe Plato was right in banishing poets from his Republic. A totalitarian state is no suitable place for poets and artists.

Smaller Soviet posters, boasting of the future prospects of Bolshevism in Britain, amused me. The comrades of the English ‘Cheka’ – the name for the Communist secret police – will sort out the capitalists, words bombastically threatens. Ahem, that’s a touching self-deception, dear comrades. English Socialists were always the tamest of pussycats. Revolutionaries here could not organise a piss-up in a brewery. Until God sends another, more successful Guy Fawkes…no chance!

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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