October 2, 2023

A dry look at the Russian Revolution from the British Library collections #BLRussia1917

Now it is the turn of the British Library to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Their exhibition lasts the entire summer and is subtitled Hope, Tragedy, Myths. It is not a clear, all-inclusive explanation of the Revolution but rather, as the curator explained, a look at how the Revolution is documented in the British Library collection. Objects and items have been borrowed from elsewhere, but much of the show is books and documents from their own well-stocked vaults, including Lenin’s application to be a reader at the British Museum Library.

This of course is what you would expect from an exhibition from a library. But books are not made to be experienced like artworks. Even to look at an artwork from 1917 in 2017 is to experience only a tiny part of the impact that it had on the original viewers. But to look at a page of a Russian book conveys almost nothing of what the book was written to convey. The exhibition becomes less here is the story of the Russian Revolution and more look what we’ve got in our collection.

The problems continue with the huge red climbing-frame structure which fills the centre of the show. This displays many large photographs, printed in red and white on gauze. These overlap, are unlabelled and the overcomplicated frame throws shadows that make the images hard to see. An interesting picture of the pyramidal make up of Russian society is particularly badly displayed.  Projected high on this structure are some documentary films – Fish factory in Astrakhan would probably win no Oscars, but it’s hard to tell, as to watch it you’d have to stop and block the stairs.

A worker Sweeping Criminals out of the Soviet Land from Russian Placards 1917 22 c British Library Board

‘A worker Sweeping Criminals out of the Soviet Land’ from Russian Placards 1917-22 (c) British Library Board

The British Library know how to put on a slick show and they have filled the dark subterranean space with plenty to see and many books propped up for you to peer at. There is a first edition of the The Communist Manifesto. But the only effect it can really have on you is to let you say I have seen the cover of a first edition of The Communist Manifesto. (It’s green and made of flimsy card). There’s what we are told is a ‘lavish’ Coronation album. But of course it’s only open at one page so we have to take the curator’s word for that. An Illustrated London News shows snowy scenes from Petrograd and releases the non-Russian speaker from the tyranny of the labels for a moment. One photograph that is displayed normally is an image of Rasputin surrounded by female admirers, demonstrating something of the magnetic appeal he must have had. Look out for some propaganda wallpaper hand-painted by women factory workers and an interesting constructivist image, A worker Sweeping Criminals out of the Soviet Land.

1st Edition of Communist Manifesto c British Library Board

1st Edition of Communist Manifesto  © British Library Board

This exhibition is unlikely to inspire anyone to revolution. However the BL is using the show as a foundation for a series of events that will bring the period to life in a much more interesting way. These events will explore how the Russian Revolution changed the world and impacted on Russian literature, architecture, music and artistic expression. They will also examine the life and times of key figures. A Dacha will pop up in the Piazza at the end of May, and personal stories, talks, performances and music will celebrate and consider many facets of the Revolution. You can even be part of a restaging of the storming of the Winter Palace!

For the general exhibition-goer Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is too dry and too dependent on labels, and we all know how hard it is to see the labels in a busy exhibition. But the accompanying events should enliven and broaden the dusty narrative and add some of the zing that the exhibition lacks.

28 April 2017 – 29 August 2017

Details of exhibition and events

Russian revolution

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