This bright life will come

Travelling to the British Library’s impressive and unmissable Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths exhibition, I read an article on Putin’s government’s suppression of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, writes Andy Stowe.

One of the first exhibits is an early 20th century illustration showing the cultural diversity of the Tsarist Empire with an accompanying text telling us that that anti-semitism was effectively state policy. The nearest approximation to acquiring full citizenship was to be baptised into the Orthodox Church. Anyone tempted to see some continuity between revolutionary Russia and Putin’s regime is making the wrong comparison as he crushes political and religious dissent while creating a reactionary nationalist ideology in a way any tsar would have understood.

This is a much better exhibition than the Royal Academy’s Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 which ended in mid April and is reviewed here. This runs to the end of August and you can book tickets here.

The tone of the earlier one was that revolutions are a really bad idea. My reading of the political intention with the British Library’s display is that it’s suggesting that tsarism had to go but that it would have been better if the revolution had stopped with Kerensky. The early section introduces us to the frightful backwardness and inequality of tsarist Russia while indicating that a new working class is forming in the cities. The presence of Vera Zasulich and other 19th century revolutionaries reminds us that the Bolsheviks emanated from a long tradition of often violent radicalism which was fighting a society of which Oscar Wilde’s presciently said: “Fool, nothing is impossible in Russia but reform.”

Wilde’s prediction was confirmed by World War 1. Only the Bolsheviks opposed it, arguing that the imperialist war should be turned into a class war. While the exhibition captures well how the February revolution led to the overthrow of the tsar and the establishment of Kerensky’s government, that administration’s collapse and the coming of the working class to power is explained by the fact that “Lenin insisted on an armed uprising against the government.” Yet it’s apparent from the photos, posters and film footage from the time that one person’s insistence was not sufficient to bring down a government.

Even for visitors who consider themselves fairly familiar with the Russian Revolution, there’s a lot that will be new and interesting. Maria Bochkareva was commissioned by Kerensky to set up a woman’s combat battalion and became friendly with Emmeline Pankhurst who called her “the greatest woman of the century”. Like many of the revolution’s participants, particularly those on the losing side, she died abroad and in obscurity.

The counter-revolutionary, or “White” side of the story is mostly unknown to people on the left. They were forced to leave Russia after the Civil War, often spending years stateless in refugee camps. In many respects the exhibition’s treatment of the Civil War is its most unsatisfactory aspect. Unless you know the history of the period you’d not glean from it that British, American, French, Czech, Japanese troops fought against the Bolsheviks to stop the revolution spreading. Instead we are told that “under Lenin’s leadership the Bolshevik government marginalised or eliminated opponents in the Red Terror”.

The degeneration of the Bolshevik and the workers’ state is eerily captured by a slogan displayed from 1924: “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live”. In those seven words we hear the Stalinist bureaucracy basing itself on the backward, reactionary Orthodox Russian traditions as it invokes the revolution’s leading figure in an atheistic prayer. And yet only a few steps away, in the final few artefacts, we are confronted with the possibility that everything could have been completely different.

There are posters, banners and leaflets from German, Hungarian and British working class revolutionary organisations whose struggles, if they had been successful, could have spread the revolution across Europe at a time when millions of working class women and men shared the hope of the Red Army soldier that “this bright life will come when we crush all bourgeoisie”.

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