This year marks 100 years since Russian overthrew its Tsarist autocracy. Following the forced abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, Russia embarked on a turbulent period as different political and social groups battled to lead the country. To mark the Communist uprising, the British Library have curated a collection of propaganda and memorabilia from different sides of the battles.
Admittedly I didn’t know too much about the Russian Revolution before visiting this exhibition. I had been fascinated by the story of the ‘missing’ Grand Duchess Anastasia as a child, who has since been confirmed as murdered along with her family in 1918. The Russian Revolutionary period is convoluted and involves many different groups with different agendas and methods. The various parties were not only seeking power, but complete overhaul of society as a whole, so they needed to convert and influence the Russian people to their way of thinking… with propaganda.
In a bid to unravel this complicated period, the British Library have set out their exhibition in six stages – The Tsar and his People; Last Days of the Monarchy; Civil War; The Bolsheviks in Power; Threat or Inspiration?; and Writing The Revolution. The exhibition begins in the last days of the Russian Empire, featuring photos of the Imperial family juxtaposed against scenes of millions of Russians living in dire poverty. Peasants were being heavily taxed with little in return so it’s clear to see why there was rising resentment against the ruling classes. An impressive part of this initial section is a first-edition of the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which was published in London in 1848. Other impressive pieces is a coronation album of Nicholas II and a 1902 letter from the then-future Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin asking to use the British Museum’s Library under a pseudonym ‘Jacob Richter’, which he was using to evade the Tsarist police. Russia’s brewing social discord wasn’t helped by World War I, with conscription leading to labour shortages. Many Russians were unhappy over Tsarina Alexandra when she was put in control over the Government while her husband acted as Commander-in-chief of the military. Many were suspect about her relationship with the faith healer Rasputin – who is seen in photographs and as a caricature in pamphlets and posters.
The sections of the exhibition centring on the revolution itself features a range of propaganda and memorabilia from the period, including handwritten notes from Leon Trotsky with annotations by Lenin and pieces of Red Army uniforms. I particularly liked the electronic map of the different groups’ movement around Russia – seeing the Red Army swell, then retreat, before eventually achieving national dominance. Finally, the exhibition concludes with how the Revolution was captured in past tense, with the ruling party using propaganda to keep the status quo.
Using a varied collection of objects, posters, film, photos and other memorabilia, the British Library has provided a fascinating insight into the motivations behind the Revolution and breaks down the myths of what it achieved. It’s certainly heavy stuff and requires a clear head, but is a worthwhile visit from Russian history aficionados or novices.
- Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is on now until 29 August 2017. PACCAR Gallery, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB. Nearest stations: Euston, King’s Cross or St Pancras. Open Mon, Wed-Fri: 9.30am-6pm, Tues 9.30am-8pm, Sat 9,30am-5pm, Sun 11am-5pm. Tickets: £13.50 (free for members). For booking, visit the British Library website.
To win a pair of tickets to Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths at the British Library, like our Facebook page and fill out the form below. Closing date: Monday 24 July 2017. Winners must live in the UK and be able to visit the exhibition before it ends on 29 August 2017. Only the winner will be contacted after the competition closes.
For a guide to what else is on in London this month, click here.