Dennis Broe takes Western cultural institutions and critics to task for their failure to properly convey the revolutionary energy of Soviet art and politics after 1917.
This month marks the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, October 25th on the Russian Calendar at that time which was November 7th in the West. The Centennial is being celebrated and/or denigrated with various events, exhibitions, and interpretations here in Europe. What is now emerging as the dominant interpretation is a picture of the event in which the February 1917 overthrow of the Czar in Saint Petersburg is now celebrated as the beginning of a democracy that was brutally extinguished with the October Revolution, in which Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks conspiratorially seized power and which led inevitably to the foundation of an undemocratic regime in the guise of a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Likewise, the art of the period immediately before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, a flourishing of all the arts including photography, graphics, painting, theater, cinema and music, is now for the first time being branded as the murderous expression of a totalitarian regime, and this in the heroic period of 1917 to 1932.
All kinds of former truths are being challenged, with the French magazine Telerama now referring to the “myth” of Franco-English imperialism ready to aggress Russia as an excuse for the Bolshevik takeover and with the supposedly left-wing daily Liberation choosing on the week of the centennial to run instead of a consideration of that event an extensive book review of the political camps, with the caveat that before marking the revolution it is first necessary to read the book The Goulag.
The most prominent anti-revolutionary book though is Berkeley professor Yuri Slezine’s The House of Government which essentially presents the Soviet leadership as a cult that lived in the same state-owned building. The book sees the revolution itself as a secular form of fanaticism and the Soviets as fanatics who took the religious version of the final days and the apocalypse and reinterpreted it as the inevitable coming of a global revolution that would redeem humanity.
To this liberal onslaught must be added the attack by the British newspaper The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones on a monumental exhibition on the “Art of the Revolution” at the Royal Academy claiming that the celebration of one of the most fertile periods in the history of art instead “sentimentalises” a “murderous chapter in human history” and comparing the Bolsheviks in this early period of the Revolution to the Nazis.
Alexander Deineka, the Defence of Petrograd, from the RA exhibition
The review appeared before the exhibition opened and functioned as British liberals replaying Churchill’s dictum about the Soviets that he would strangle the baby in its cradle, here strangling the exhibition before it could be seen. It is worth noting that the attack is largely being waged by the liberal press, coinciding with a new McCarthyism being led in the U.S. by the Democrats, in which everything Russian is and now must be demonized.
No doubt the failures of the October Revolution were numerous, including famine and starvation in the Ukraine and a rapid installation of camps for political prisoners, but so were the triumphs. Lenin seized power with the support of the army and the workers on one burning question, an end to the war which was decimating the working classes of Europe. He was nearly the only person to urge what he called “Revolutionary Defeatism,” claiming that a defeat for the capitalist nationalists in the war meant a victory and a halt to the slaughtering of working people by each other in the trenches and by new technologies of increasingly deadly and remote killing machines.
It is very easy to make the claim that it was the Soviet takeover and the actual threat of international revolution that ended World War I since the Western powers recognized they no longer had the luxury of slaughtering each other since there was now a real threat to their existence and they, the U.S., France and Britain most prominently, at the time of signing the armistice, sent expeditionary forces to destroy the Soviet state.
Soviet Poster, 1920.The inscriptions on the buildings read "library", "kindergarten", "school for grown-ups", etc.
To this may be added that it was yet again the Soviet “cult” and the Russian people that two decades later halted the next form of Western capitalist barbarity in the guise of the Nazi conquest of Europe. At the height of the Civil War, 1918-22, while battling for their survival, Lenin’s Bolsheviks pursued a policy of combatting illiteracy, teaching reading and writing in the various republics in 40 different languages and dialects and refusing to impose Russian Cyrillic. In 1919, at the worst moment of being attacked and under siege, the Soviets boasted 1200 reading clubs and 6200 political, scientific and agricultural circles and by the end of the war 5 million children were in schools, reversing the Czar’s policy of education only for the elite under which only one child in five was educated.
Along with this new literacy, during the war and after, until the end of the first five year plan in 1932, went a flourishing and democratising of especially the visual and more crucially the graphic arts, particularly posters with elaborate and splashy typography and image and photo collages which appeared in trams, on factory walls and throughout the cities in places where crowds passed.
This was a kind of embracing of popular media which in the West would simply be absorbed into the advertising industry. Theatere began to incorporate popular elements of the circus as Meyerhold countered Stanislavski’s psychological realism with a biomechanical method stressing collective and machine-like movement. Constructivism, likewise an incorporation of the power of the machine into painting and cinema, took the pre-war dynamism of Italian Futurism at a moment when that form was embracing a fascist militarism and instead reinterpreted the machine as a source for good in the service of the people and not as simply a killing machine.
Soviet avant-garde art, the currents of which began before the war and was let loose by the earlier Revolution of 1905, greatly influenced the West in the theatrical experimentation and de-psychologizing of Brecht, in the bringing of abstract notions of design to mass production in the Weimar Bauhaus School, and in the ways Eisenstein’s montage in the films Strike and Battleship Potemkin were incorporated into the cinema of Hitchcock.
The period also featured a rethinking of the purpose of the museum, opposing the collector instinct of museums in the West as being dead archives or conversely as simply presenting art as utterly separated from life and only related to its own history. To counter this, the Soviets proposed open air museums integrated into the community, and a broader definition of what constituted art to include folk art and street design. These innovations are now official policy - uncredited to the Revolution of course - of many museums such as the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art whose director boasts their incorporation.
The Revolution though in the year of its centenary has in many ways been sidelined. The Royal Academy exhibit was Europe’s most extensive. Paris’s Pompidou on the other hand chose instead to highlight Russian dissident art in its exhibit Kollektsia, which traced extensively the decades from the 1950s to the 1970s, an uninspired period which broke down into Sots Art which was the Russian equivalent of Pop Art and various returns to the Constructivism.
Elsewhere, there is a current exhibit at the library of the Museum of the Army titled “And 1917 Becomes Revolution” with examples of this flourishing of the arts alongside Western figurative paintings of the pope blessing and sanctioning the slaughter of the troops. There is also a recounting of how two French members, out of a delegation of four, sent to convince the Soviets to stay in the war instead “went native” and converted to their side in favor of the revolution.
It’s a nice exhibit but very difficult even to find in the museum and overshadowed by the current Army blockbuster about the everyday life of a soldier, an exhibit more in favor of war. And indeed World War I over the last three years is everyday honored in its centennial while the event that halted the war is slighted.
By far the most interesting European exhibit was in Venice at the Palazzo Zatere which has been taken over by the V-A-C Foundation, a joint Moscow-Venice group that staged “Space, Force, Construction” which attempted to update the radical thrust of the arts in this period with contemporary art with a political bent over the last three decades. Here was: Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge,” a geometrical description of the Soviets outnumbered and surrounded but surviving by ingenuity......
......and a recreation of Tatlin’s Monumental “Tower of the Future” which was an attempt to address the mistakes of the Tower of Babel.....
........and Rodchenko’s design for a worker’s lunchroom/study center, where eating and acquiring of knowledge go on simultaneously.
Lev Kuleshov's By the Law
Probably the continent’s most thrilling exhibit of Soviet art though is the currently ongoing French Cinematheque series “The USSR of Cineastes” which covers the period of the 1920s through the end of World War II. Beyond Eisenstein’s Strike and Potemkin, the series contains screenings of the anti-petit bourgeois House on Trubnaya Street, a comedy by Boris Barnet about the maltreatment of a peasant woman by the building’s small business elite; Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law, a montage experiment and adaptation of a Jack London short story about how the greed of an international mining expedition in Alaska turns deadly; and The Yellow Ticket, Feodor Ostep’s portrait of a wet nurse, abused by her baronial employer and then cast out into prostitution.
Feodor Osteps, The Yellow Ticket
Why the downgrading of the Revolution? Is it not because in these times which due to increasing income disparity in the West, the brutalisation of the world by industrial climate change, and the ever disappearing support of the state for any form of worker aid or comfort, Revolution is certainly on the table and discomforting to an increasingly shrinking cadre of elites?
Yet the dissatisfaction in whole deindustrialized areas left for dead in France, the US, and Britain is being channeled into pro-nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment that is the opposite of Lenin’s call for an international joining of the workers across the West and the world to rise up.
Instead the Russian Revolution, which twice halted capitalist barbarity on a global scale, is characterized as merely barbarous itself. At the moment when the world is most in need of it, Western elites have been very careful in this year of the centenary to ignore or deny the energy that inspired one of the great hopes of humanity in the twentieth century.
Professor Dennis Broe teaches Film and Television at the Sorbonne. He is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America's Dark Art; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost. His segment "Bro on the World Film Beat" appears on Arts Express on the Pacifica Radio Network and is also available at The James Agee Cinema Circle.