Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths at the British Library

PUBLISHED: 11:00 03 May 2017 | UPDATED: 11:45 03 May 2017

Red Army poster. Picture: British Library

Red Army poster. Picture: British Library


The British Library’s new exhibition is the latest in a line celebrating the centenary of the Russian Revolution

H.G. Wells in conversation with Lenin. Picture: British LibraryH.G. Wells in conversation with Lenin. Picture: British Library

How many cultural events marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution can a city fill itself with before reaching breaking point? The answer is: lots. On the second day of opening, the British Library’s Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths managed to attract a large crowd to its red-hued gallery space.

First up, an enormous map of the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century – a useful reminder of the size of the territory all aspiring Russian leaders, past and present, have had to contend with. Divided up into sections which blend into one another seamlessly, the exhibition begins with the last years of Tsar Nicholas II’s monarchy (and thankfully only briefly touches upon the overdone topic of Rasputin’s relationship with Empress Alexandra, which remains as lazily sensationalist today as it was when it first made news in the early 1900s).

The following sections discuss the period of the Civil War and the Bolsheviks’ seizing of power, before ending with well-curated, if brief, sections on art and literature from and about the Revolution.

Short video footage and audio recordings add gravitas at the right moments, breaking up the series of posters, photographs and letters on display. The focus, however, remains indisputably on the paper-based exhibits, just as the accent appears to be firmly on the protagonists and instigators of the Revolution, rather than the proletariat or the peasantry.

As a result, the masses remain somewhat of an anonymous mystery. This can be explained with the low literacy rates at the time of the 1917 uprising, and the fact that those who made up the Revolution had more pressing concerns than the diligent recording of their experiences.

The non-literary exhibits are few and far between, but there are some interesting ones –the perfectly preserved straw shoes of a peasant, for instance, or the ankle shackles worn by political prisoners in Siberian colonies, or a model of the Browning pistol with which Lenin was shot, almost fatally, in 1920. Alongside these are a few true gems, some breathtakingly rare: a first edition of the Communist Manifesto, or a 1920 letter by Lenin, signed under the alias Jacob Richter, applying to use the British Museum Library for research.

Another striking exhibit is a note by Trotsky discussing the implementation of compulsory army training service, with remarks scribbled under it by Lenin. To be able to see such an exchange on paper is remarkable: we are essentially witnesses to an off-the-cuff conversation between two giants of history in the format of a note passed in class, rather than a draft of state policy with the power to shape the lives of millions.

First edition of the Communist Manifesto. Picture: British LibraryFirst edition of the Communist Manifesto. Picture: British Library

This is what the exhibition does well: it paints the four decades around 1917 in broad brush strokes yet allows us to zoom into unexpected details.

But the greatest achievement of the exhibition is no doubt its successful bid to be comprehensive without ever feeling sprawling or overwhelming. Given the abundance of existing letters, posters, photographs and first-hand accounts of the revolutionary years, spare a thought for the curators who so effectively limited the collection to an accessible number and proved that less can be more.

On the whole, the exhibition feels didactic, rather than revelatory. It provides visitors the unusual experience of walking through a history book; indeed, there are several teenagers wandering and taking notes, likely due to the fast approach of A-levels season rather than a keen interest in the seals of the last Russian Imperial family.

And for those who feel like they’ve seen their share of Revolution-themed exhibitions, rest assured: there are enough bits and pieces here to ensure you’ll learn something new (look out for photographs of British soldiers stationed in the Arctic city of Murmansk, or the story of the Limerick Soviet, established in Ireland in 1920 and inspired by the nascent Soviet state).

Like many other brilliantly curated and fascinating centenary-themed exhibitions going on in London, this one may be the most accessible and satisfying yet, and, given the competition, this is no small feat.

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