Art Expo: ‘The Energy of Dreams’

– 100 years since the Revolution at the State History Museum

By Ross Hunter, Headmaster, The English School of Science, Lefortovo

The final act of remembrance of the 1917 Revolutions is in an excellent show, from now until 28 February – don’t miss it! Go to the State Historical Museum, OUTSIDE Red Square, nearest to Ploschad Revolutsii Metro – and houses with an equally enticing permanent exhibit celebrating 1812.

1917 saw the world turned upside down, to an arguably unparalleled degree. The almost continuous anarchic chaos in Russia is labelled the February and October Revolutions, but in reality enveloped the whole year, and on until at least 1923. It nearly changed the outcome of WW1, left Russia in tatters, the world on edge and took 70 years to play out. An incredible period, worthy of a lifetime’s study. Yet its commemoration her in Moscow has been extraordinarily muted. This alone deserves serious investigation, when the time is right. For now, we have to assume that the top of ‘The Power Vertical’ determined that despite the eventual success of the small Bolshevik party, the overall messages from that year are far to equivocal to be publicised safely, especially in an election year; and the death toll during and following two revolutions, July days, getting out of the War, the civil war and war communism, and there-conquest of the Russian/Soviet empire are simply too horrendous to ‘celebrate’. All this makes sense.

But it leaves writers of history and museum curators with a very awkward balance to strike. The ‘Patriotic Wars’ of 1812 and 1941-45 can be presented as triumphs of national will and purpose. The birth pangs of the Soviet experiment are more equivocal, to say the least. This exhibition is remarkable both for the range and variety of exhibits it has brought together, but also for the skill and subtlety with which it finesses these terrible experiences.  The scale of damage and suffering is properly shown elsewhere, in the Museum of the Revolution on Tverskaya, and at Park Pobedy (and in the Leningrad museum, of course). All three should be required, essential visits for any expat seeking to understand our host country.

The current collection is only open for a couple more months. See it! It is very compact, and beautifully presented (with the sole exception of a film clip with a martial music recording which is short, repetitive and very grating). Many of the great and often familiar classics are there: the dramatic and effective famous posters, beautiful early Soviet ceramics, hagiographic paintings of Lenin in assorted dynamic situations, paeans to railway dynamism, home-produced tractors are on view. But there is much more. Politically, it is far more balanced and nuanced than might be expected. The doomed Tsar, the oft-vilified Kerensky and Kornilov get a fair showing; Trotsky is shown as both  statesman and organisational genius, and as vile murderer and public enemy. Stalin is almost totally omitted.

The gains and losses of the civil war are fairly shown – recognising that the early days of the new regime were anything but triumphal procession. The interference of panicking foreign powers is documented, but not exploited. (As a Brit, did you know that in 1918-23, we, along with ten other countries, had soldiers fighting against the revolution in northern Archangel, southern Baku and eastwards along the railway? We have chosen to forget – it is little surprise that successive Soviet/Russian governments have not).

Having dealt with all the desperate times, the ‘cauchemar’ before the dream, the exhibition then covers the building – literally – of the new Soviet society. Energy and Power are at the core – hence the title. Coal production overtaking European great powers; electrifying the nation (with ‘Lenin lightbulbs’ in even the most humble home); industrial output aimed at ‘Overtaking And Surpassing’ the west are all celebrated. Dramatic photos of HEP dams, smoking railway yards and heroic workers in cotton, tennis racquets and engineering factories abound. Most of all, pride in the almost instantly developed aircraft industry is celebrated, in a pre-echo of the later space programme. From nothing, to a single engine monoplane making it all the way to pacific North America is remarkable. (When you visit the epochal Novodivichy cemetery, note that martyred airmen get equal treatment to scientific and political greats). In the world’s most expansive country, air power was seen as both a unifying force, and the means to spread the new gospel.  In summary, a powerful exhibition, in every sense.