The creative flowering that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917 is an extraordinary example of how art can play a major part in the struggle for a better society.
Russia was generally seen as politically and culturally “backward” when the revolution broke out. Yet despite this “backwardness”, it was workers and peasants who took the leading role in overthrowing the Tsar and building a new world.
After the revolution people who had been downtrodden and excluded from all levels of society were desperate to explore the cultural world previously closed to them. Art was seen as crucial to this – it was viewed as an essential part of human life.
Artists of all varieties were mobilised to promote the new society. “Our workers have earned the right to a truly great art,” said the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, who helped launch a programme of public art.
A key aspect of this programme were public festivals, which rapidly spread across Russia. Artists and craft workers transformed whole towns for these festivals. Art was now for the masses, with art clubs existing in almost every factory.
These festivals embodied hopes for the future and were incredibly popular among people. Amazingly, these art programmes continued even during the civil war that tore Russia apart after the revolution. The revolutionary Victor Serge was greatly moved by this. As he wrote in 1919, as the city of Petrograd lay under siege from Tsarist armies:
“One day, when these things are discussed with a concern for justice and truth, when, in the society of the future that we shall ultimately build, where all the wounds of humanity will have been healed, then the revolution will be praised because it never, even in its most tragic days, lost the concern for art.
“It never neglected rhythms, fine gestures, beautiful voices full of pathos, dream-like settings, poems, anthems played on the organ, the sobbing notes of violins. Never.
“And I cannot help discovering in this obstinate quest for beauty, at every hour of the civil war, stoicism, strength and confidence.
“Doubtless it is because the Red city is suffering and fighting so that one day leisure and art shall be the property of all.”