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Hope, Tragedy, Myths—British Library throws the book at the Russian Revolution

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Issue 2552
Publicity for the exhibition featuring a poster of a Red Army soldier
Publicity for the exhibition featuring a poster of a Red Army soldier

The centenary of the Russian Revolution is casting a long shadow over cultural institutions this year.

This latest exhibition, at the British Library, starts by setting out the horror of peasant life under the Tsar. It’s done very effectively using state literature promoting its ideology, including antisemitism.

You also see how ordinary people challenge their situation—and produce revolutionary literature. One example is the beautiful handwritten Musha (Worker) from Georgia in 1889.

There are repeated assertions that the October Revolution was upon the insistence of a power-hungry Vladimir Lenin.

It’s a shame that the curator underestimates the role that ordinary people played.

Unsurprisingly the Bolshevik Party is also portrayed as paranoid, violent, selfish and anti-democratic.

Leon Trotsky’s role as a revolutionary leader is all but forgotten, aside from one speech and an antisemitic poster depicting him as the devil.

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A weakness of the exhibition is its limited artefacts showing the political and social advances in this period.


There is little mention of the liberation oppressed groups fought for in the revolution.

The printed literature is fantastic, including bulletins printed on placards and “wall newspapers”. They give a sense of the terrific thirst for ideas and the ingenuity of people short of resources.

There are interesting exhibits such as leg irons from a Siberian prison camp. We see the distinctive budenovka hat worn by the Red Army in the civil war and a beautiful banner gifted to the Shipley Young Communist League.

The political conclusion from the exhibition is poor—the Russian Revolution teaches us “the vulnerability of democratic procedures in the face of organised violence”.

Unfortunately this fits with the popular narrative.

Socialists take different lessons from the events of 1917. We can see the huge leap forwards for the working class and an example to guide the way forward for the future.

Whatever political differences you may have with the curator you can enjoy the opportunity to see a collection of artefacts marking the Russian Revolution’s centenary.

Russian Revolution—Hope, Tragedy, Myths is at the British Library until 29 August, tickets £13.50

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