Lenin on The Train by Catherine Merridale (2016)

Dominic Lieven’s book about the diplomatic build-up to the Great War – Towards The Flame – was very demanding, every page full of analyses and counter-analyses of complex international situations, which took a good deal of concentration to understand.

By contrast, Catherine Merridale’s book is like a series of articles in a travel supplement, or the book version of a TV script – chatty, opinionated, entertaining, lightweight and, in the end, a bit disappointing.

The story

In April 1917 the German High command laid on a sealed train to transport Lenin and 30 or so communist colleagues to war-weary Russia, in the hope that his subversive activities would weaken the Russian war machine. It was a strategy they’d been trying elsewhere. The Germans were arming independence fighters in Ireland and trying to foment rebellion against British rule in India.

This book sets out to recreate Lenin’s fateful journey, describing the broader context of the war, the nexus of German agents and dodgy Russian businessmen who arranged the deal, the journey itself, and the fraught political situation which Lenin found in wartime St Petersburg when he arrived.

Lenin's train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Lenin’s train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Three parts

Merridale’s book isn’t formally divided into three parts, but it felt to me like it fell naturally into three big sections.

Part one – Catherine’s adventures and pukka Brits

For such an important and, in its consequences, tragic subject, the introduction and part one are disconcertingly light, chatty and frivolous.

In the introduction Merridale describes her own attempt to recreate Lenin’s journey on modern-day trains and ferries, with a great deal of travel magazine observations – people smuggling booze on the ferry from Germany to Sweden, it’s very cold in Finland, and so on.

Her observations are often disappointingly trite – in one place she points out that when Lenin took the journey Europe was at war, whereas in 2016 – Europe is at peace! Back then it was a dangerous and uncomfortable journey – but now crossing frontiers is easy, and the seating is nice and comfy! Golly.

So much for the introduction. In the first 80 or so pages of the text proper she plunges us not into the fraught economic, military and political situation of 1917 Europe but… into the world of quirky upper-class characters who populated the British Embassy and diplomatic corps in 1917 St Petersburg.

It was, she tells us gushingly, a simply magical city!

The journey ends in the magical city of St Petersburg, Lenin’s wartime Petrograd, the second Russian capital. (p.17)

She introduces us at very great length to chaps like Sir Samuel Hoare, Sir George William Buchanan, Major-General Sir Alfred William Fortescue Knox, Sir John Hanbury-Williams, and so on.

Now, when Dominic Lieven introduces diplomatic personnel or political leaders into his narrative, it is always to summarise their ‘line’, their views on geopolitical issues, and to feed them into his intricate portrait of the complex debates about political and diplomatic strategy among the Russian ruling class.

When Merridale introduces key players, it is generally to tell us a funny story about their parrot or their umbrella.

When Lieven introduces Marxist revolutionaries, it is to explain their theories and how they had developed out of the economic and social situation of Russia, the threats they posed to the Tsarist order, and to clarify the complex concatenation of circumstances which made them viable.

When Merridale introduces her revolutionaries, it is to tell us about their love lives and taste in wine.

So, for example, she tells us that in 1905 Trotsky and his wife arrived at the Munich apartment of Alexander Helphand (known as ‘Parvus’), a Marxist theoretician, revolutionary, and activist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

You might expect Merridale to give us at least a hint of the theoretical discussions and how they influenced the man who went on to be number two in the Russian Revolution, but no. The Trotskies, she tells us:

became unofficial lodgers at the big man’s place, sharing all the news and imbibing Parvus’ theories of revolution along with his strong coffee and delicious late-night wine. The two men talked about the revolutionary potential of the general strike, they honed their idea of a world revolution (for Russia was only ever meant to be a starting point) and they dared each other to get tickets for the next train east. (p.60)

Instead of anything about his theoretical contribution or political strategy, we learn that Parvus was so fat that the children of German Marxist leader, Karl Kautsky, nicknamed him ‘Dr Elephant’.

When Parvus persuades the German High Command to fund his plan to send revolutionaries to Russia, we learn that he used the initial down-payments to set himself up in Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel where he established an entourage of bosomy blondes and ordered champagne for breakfast (p.63).

This may all be true, but these first hundred pages present serious, tragic, even catastrophic history, as jolly japes retold by Bertie Wooster. The British Embassy, we learn, was situated in the impressive Saltykov Palace, although the diplomats had to share it with:

an ancient princess, Anna Sergeyevna Saltykova, who still lived in the back with her servants and a loquacious parrot. (p.31)

The British ambassador to Petersburg was supported by his wife, Georgina, his daughter Meriel, and – a bad-tempered Siamese cat.

The acting head of intelligence at the time was Major Cudbert Thornhill, an old India hand and ‘a good shot with rifle, catapult, shot-gun and blowpipe.’ (p.33)

It feels a lot like ‘Miss Marple investigates the Russian Revolution’.

Part two – The Russian revolution and the train journey

Around page 100 things pick up. Merridale begins to pay more serious attention to Lenin’s beliefs and theories. We still get a lot about his haircut, his boots and how he was dragged off to a department store in Stockholm to buy new clothes so that he would look more presentable on arriving in Russia (plus some more gushing travelogue from Merridale who has, she assures us, visited as many of these shops and cafes and sites as still remain).

But for the central hundred and fifty pages or so Merridale’s narrative becomes genuinely gripping.

The genesis of the idea to send Lenin to Russia remains a bit murky. Some communist fixers-cum-shady businessmen (hence the portrait of Parvus and others of his type) appear to have volunteered their services as go-betweens with the communist agitators, at just the time that the German secret services were casting around for characters likely to cause the most damage to the Russian state.

Contacts and discussions had been floating in the foggy atmosphere of war more or less since the outbreak of hostilities. What suddenly kick started everything was the February 1917 Revolution – covered in gripping detail by Merridale – when a march of women to celebrate International Women’s Day attracted other protesters, swelled in size and then – crucially – the soldiers sent in to suppress it refused to obey orders, with some turning on their own officers.

After a winter of escalating strikes and unrest, exacerbated by severe food shortages, it was the mutiny of the soldiers in garrisons all across Petersburg which led to the Revolution.

The members of the Duma, the Russian Parliament, were confused by events. The conservatives fled, many resigned, but a hard core of liberals stayed on to set up what they called a Provisional Government, under the benign figurehead of kindly old Prince Lvov.

At the same time, there was unstoppable momentum from politicised workers (especially from the working class Vyborg area of Petersburg) and representatives of the mutinous regiments, to set up their own council or soviet.

Meanwhile, the Tsar had been forced to abdicate, excluding his sickly son from the succession, and passing the throne on to his brother, Grand Duke Michael, who himself deferred taking it up until ‘the people were allowed to vote through a Constituent Assembly for the continuance of the monarchy or a republic’.

This never happened, and it was Grand Duke Michael’s demurral, his refusal to accept the poisoned chalice of monarchy, which, in effect, brought the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty to an end.

Thus in a few hectic days came about a situation in which Russia had become a republic, but was lumbered with two governing bodies – the Provisional Government and the Petersburg Soviet – who eyed each other with suspicion.

The initial euphoria of the revolution settled down into a pattern of all-night debates and arguments in smoke-filled rooms – while all the while Russia was still fighting a war against an extremely professional opponent, imperial Germany, and the government was trying to motivate a huge army of some seven million men who now wondered what and who they were fighting for.

Merridale explains all this very well, not least because she draws heavily on the eye witness accounts of the British diplomats and writers present in Petersburg. It is only now that the reader understands why we were introduced to all these upper-class twits in the first 80 or so pages – it was because they would turn out to be invaluable source material for describing and interpreting the confusing chaos of events in Petersburg that fateful spring.

It would have helped a lot if Merridale had prefaced her opening chapters by explaining this, by saying: ‘I am now going to introduce you to a florid collection of British upper class eccentrics, incompetents and curiosities which might seem odd but, trust me, they will turn out to be vital eye-witness testimony to one of the most seismic events in history.’

Anyway, Merridale now skillfully intersperses pretty much everything that is known about the eight-day journey of the train – the organisation of the train by German authorities, the gathering up of Lenin’s associates, the setting off, the stops, the delays, the invasions by drunken soldiers, the professional and personal rivalries of many of the figures aboard it, the border passports control (which, I was surprised to read, included humiliating strip searches) – all interspersed with sections describing the fast-moving events in Petersburg.

Above all, for the first time, the narrative starts to sound political. For the first time Merridale descends into the feverish mesh of argument and counter-argument which engulfed every educated person living in Russia, and gives it a sense of urgency:

Should Russia continue fighting? Some socialists thought Russia should offer an immediate ceasefire in what was, after all, a brutal imperialist war. Liberal pacifists agreed. But right-wing traditionalists thought Russia must fight on to defend her honour, the Holy Church etc. And many socialists thought to surrender would be simply to allow imperial Germany to invade and conquer European Russia.

Among socialists there was fierce and bitter debate about whether the ‘revolution’ needed to be continued or whether it had achieved its aim. You have to understand that Marx thought that Western societies would inevitably and unstoppably pass through certain fixed stages of development, and that orthodox Marxists therefore thought that Russia had to pass from a peasant autocracy into a bourgeois democracy, before it could go on to have a workers’ revolution. The Tsarist autocracy had quite clearly been overthrown and the new provisional Government, made up mostly of lawyers, academics and some industrialists, quite clearly represented the triumph of the bourgeoisie. This stage should be given a chance to bed in, to establish Western norms of democracy, a free press and so on, while the socialists continued to educate the workers and peasants in order to prepare for the next stage, the socialist revolution which was just around the corner. Manana. Soon. Probably.

Merridale’s very English, pragmatic, unintellectual approach to the situation brings out some of the more basic, humdrum psychological explanations for delay – namely, that many of the so-called socialists and communists were in fact scared of assuming responsibility in such a perilous situation. Power looked like a poisoned chalice. Russia was losing the war and the people were starving. With the convenient scapegoat of the Tsar removed, whoever took the reins would get all the blame.

This is the fraught backdrop against which Lenin’s train finally steams into the Finland station and he is greeted by a large cheering crowd and dignitaries with bouquets of flowers etc.

Merridale has, by this stage, done such a good job of bringing out Lenin’s spartan, puritan, obsessive personality that we’re not at all surprised that he throws away the bouquets, ignores the pompous welcome speeches, and goes straight out onto the balcony to address the crowd of workers to announce that – ‘The Time Is Here, the time is now for uncompromising revolution. No-one must cooperate with the bourgeois provisional government. It must be stormed and overthrown and all power vested in soviets or communes of workers and peasants.’

Merridale brilliantly conveys the shock Lenin’s unbending zealotry had on absolutely everyone: the bourgeois liberals, the meek-minded socialists, let alone the cowering conservatives and scheming reactionaries. Even the radical Bolshevik faction of the Party, which Lenin had himself founded back in 1903, was surprised by his single-mindedness. Bolsheviks who had only just arrived back from Siberian exile such as Kamenev and Stalin found themselves having to readjust their positions to match Lenin’s extremism.

No-one else was thinking so radically and violently.

Merridale shows how Lenin was in a minority of one even among his own followers, and quotes both socialists and provisional government officials, who were eye-witnesses in the days and weeks that followed to meetings, debates, speeches and presentations in which Lenin was booed and roundly lost the argument.

The acting premier, Kerensky, initially worried by his return, watched Lenin alienate his entire party and confidently concluded that he was ‘finished’.

How to end?

If you think about it, Merridale and her publishers had always faced a problem with this book which is, Where to end it? The train journey lasted just eight days, from 9 to 17 April. How far either side of the actual journey should the book extend?

You can see how you’d need a build-up to the journey, in Merridale’s case using the accounts of British diplomats to paint in the privations and discontents of wartime Petersburg.

You can see how you’d need a middle section describing the shady activities of the immense swamp of spies, middle men, entrepreneurs, smugglers, double agents, conspirators, fanatics, political zealots of all colours and so on who infested wartime Switzerland, in order to give a flavour of the struggle the German High Command had to weed out hundreds of absurd plots from the handful of ideas which might really contribute to their war effort.

And how you’d then drill down to the specific contacts between Russian Bolshevik supporters (often themselves pretty shady businessmen) and try to identify the specific individuals in the German secret service who carried out the negotiations (whatever archive material still exists).

Merridale does all this and summarises what is currently known about the contacts, agreements, payments and practical details fixed up among these men.

Then you’d want a detailed description of the train journey itself, right down to the most trivial detail, right down to the way Lenin hated smoking and so insisted that people use the only toilet in his set of ‘sealed’ carriages to smoke in – which made it uncomfortable for people who actually wanted to use the loo as a loo. So that, in the end, Lenin devised a ticketing system: second class tickets for those who wanted to smoke in the lav, first class tickets for those who needed to use it for its primary function.

Then you’d want to gather all the eye witness accounts that exist, from the memoirs and diaries and letters of survivors, to describe Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station.

And then you’d want to follow the excitement of his arrival and track the stimulus it gave to the left-wing cause, on into the days and weeks afterwards to gauge the impact Lenin had on the political situation (and, incidentally, to assess the value for money which the German High Command got for what, it turns out, was quite a hefty investment in the train plan).

But where should the book end? One week after Lenin arrives? One month? A year?

In fact six months were to pass between Lenin’s arrival in April and the October Revolution which brought the Bolsheviks to power. Is Catherine going to describe all six months in the kind of intense detail with which she had described the crucial eight days of Lenin’s journey and the first week or so of his arrival?

No.

It would be too much, it would be too long. Other people have done it better, more comprehensively and thoroughly following the immensely complicated twists and turns of the revolution – and the ongoing fighting – for that six months and beyond.

Even if you took the story up to the October Revolution, you’d still have to stop at some stage – before the peace with Germany, before the Russian civil wars break out.

In the event Merridale continues her account of the fierce arguments among all shades of political opinion which Lenin’s arrival had brought to a head, up until the writing of the ‘April Theses’, the set of ten directives which Lenin hammered out immediately upon his arrival, announced in speeches on 17 April and subsequently published in Pravda.

The core of Merridale’s book is devoted to showing Lenin’s absolute, unwavering insistence that the next stage of the revolution needed to take place now, and required peace with Germany, the complete overthrow not only of the Provisional Government but of all the bourgeois instruments of the state, and the assumption of power by workers’ and soldiers’ soviets.

With the April Theses Lenin established clear blue water between the Bolsheviks and every other party in Russia, and positioned them as more or less the only alternative to the bodged ‘dual government’ situation of Provisional government and Petersburg Soviet. So, from Merridale’s point of view, there is a compelling logic to stopping here and this is where her chronological account of events does, indeed, stop.

Then something odd happens. The book changes tack completely.

Part three – German money and Catherine’s reflections

The historical narrative morphs into a chapter devoted to investigating one specific issue: how much did the German High Command fund the Bolshevik revolution? (‘Gold’, pp.242 to 266)

Quite clearly the German High Command laid on the train to carry Lenin back to Russia. His opponents weren’t blind to the propaganda value of this simple fact, and many of them – both rival socialists and opposition liberals and conservatives – set out to prove that the entire Bolshevik operation was in fact a German front designed to take Russia out of the war and let Germany win. That the Bolsheviks were German agitators, and traitors. But were they right?

Merridale lays out the pros and cons of these claims and shows how, down the years, opponents of Bolshevism continued to make them, on until well into the 1950s and even 60s.

Russians in exile after the Revolution spread the accusations that the Bolshevisks were hired dupes of the Germans and, from time to time, dubious individuals popped up, both in Russia and later in Europe, even including an American (Frank Chester) – all of whom claimed to have been involved and to have proof that the entire Russian Revolution was a German scam.

I found Merridale’s exposition of all this a little confusing. I think in the end she is saying that (apart from the obvious fact of the Germans laying on the train, making all the practical arrangements, arranging all the passports and visas etc) the initial operations of the Bolsheviks in Petersburg – the running of the printing press, distribution of pamphlets and so on – must have cost a lot more money than the party was making simply through membership fees (although membership of the Bolshevik party did rocket from some 13,000 to around 80,000 by the time of the October coup).

Where did this money come from?

Well, there is archive evidence that several of the dubious middle-men who we met earlier, socialist-minded fixers who ran a healthy smuggling trade from Germany through Sweden to Russia – did indeed receive substantial payments from German authorities, which can’t be accounted for solely by their business activities. So, yes, it is quite possible that the Germans continued to fund the Bolsheviks, after Lenin’s arrival, via various middle-men.

But this is all very murky. It was wartime. The Germans didn’t keep full accounts of their off-the-record espionage activities and anyway Berlin was bombed to the ground in 1945, destroying most archives. For their part, the smugglers didn’t exactly keep legitimate accounts. The Bolsheviks had no incentive to tell the truth at the time and, under Stalin, became past masters at suppressing any inconvenient truths.

So this whole question is sort of interesting in a gossipy, John le Carré sort of way, but I mentally consigned it to the same place as speculation about who killed JFK or whether an alien UFO landed at Roswell.

Does it really matter? Even if it could be proved that the Germans actively funded the Bolsheviks in the months between Lenin’s arrival and the October Revolution, it is only really icing on the basic fact that they sent Lenin back to Russia in the first place.

Moreover, no-one denies the fact that the Germans were pouring millions of marks into funding all kinds of subversive activity in Russia (in April 1917 alone, the German Foreign Ministry alone authorised five million marks to be used for propaganda, and there were numerous other German agencies doing the same – p.257).

And in any case, once the war in Europe was over, the civil wars in Russia got into full swing, and the sums of money which the Allies poured into Russia to support the White Armies dwarfed anything the Germans might have spent on the Bolsheviks.

The money, important on one level, is only really of interest to obsessives who think that somehow the Russian Revolution could have been averted – exactly like the geeky types who think that, if only JFK hadn’t been assassinated the Americans would never have gone into Vietnam and brought their own country to the brink of civil war. If only, if only, if only.

But, in my opinion, ‘if onlies’ like this, counterfactuals and hopeful speculations, are rendered irrelevant by the sheer scale of the economic and political crisis, the enormity of the vast social collapse Russia found itself in. It was falling to pieces. It was the Titanic sinking.

For me, this and the other accounts I’ve read tend to show that Lenin’s unflinching extremism matched up to the extremism of the situation.

If it hadn’t been Lenin, Russia would still have collapsed into chaos and probable civil war between red and white factions, maybe allowing Germany to have advanced into undefended territory and establishing a Germanic empire in Russia. Other extremists would have been pushed to the surface and into leadership roles, and any of these would have found it very difficult if not impossible to resist the soldiers’ calls for peace and the hundred million peasants’ clamour for land reform.

Extreme circumstances called for extreme solutions, no matter who provided them.

But none of these alternatives took place. Deeper realities prevailed. And even though sending Lenin to Russia did lead to not only political disruption, as the Germans hoped, but to a comprehensive revolution – which must have exceeded their wildest fantasies – and then to a hugely advantageous peace settlement in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, precisely what they wanted in order to free up their eastern armies to take part in the massive Spring 1918 offensive against the West —-

The Germans still lost the war. In the end, the entire policy of the Lenin train and payrolling the Bolsheviks was a failure for the Germans. So what if they funded the Bolsheviks. They still lost.

Aftermath and Catherine’s views

Having brought her historical narrative to an end with the discussion of the funding issue, Merridale then concludes the book with a chapter outlining the fates of the key characters and personalities we have met through the book, before jotting down a few final reflections.

Most of the Bolsheviks who greeted Lenin so enthusiastically, and were either appalled or enthused by the fierce line he took, were murdered in the 1930s during Stalin’s judicial purges. So the final pages turn into a litany of gruesome and ironic deaths.

The shrewdest members of the Provisional Government, such as the egregious Kerensky, managed to escape, living on in exile in Paris or New York. And the British embassy staff, with their Siamese cats and expertise at blowpipes, lived on to claim their knighthoods from a grateful monarch.

Merridale’s concluding thoughts mix reflections on the characters we’ve met in the narrative, and of her own visits to museums enshrining the memory of Lenin – in Zurich, or at his sisters’ flat in Petersburg (where he stayed in the period before the October Revolution) – with reflections about the lasting significance of Lenin in Russian history.

These are, to be polite, disappointing. Having worked hard to attain the level of Dominic Lieven’s intellectually demanding account of prewar Russian and European diplomacy, it was a long plummet back down to the Readers Digest level of many of Merridale’s reflections.

She is, basically, a nice Radio 4-type of white, middle-class professional lady, who often finds herself wondering why the world is such a beastly place. For example:

There is as much instability across the planet now as there once was in Lenin’s day, and a slightly different collection of great powers is still working hard to make sure that they stay on top. One technique that they use in regional conflicts, since direct military engagement tends to cost too much, is to help and finance local rebels, some of whom are on the ground, but some of whom must be dropped in exactly as Lenin was. I think of South America in the 1980s, of all the dirty wars in central America since that time. I shudder at the current conflicts in the Middle East. (p.9)

This paragraph contains almost no useful information at all, in fact it blunts understanding. Great powers use regional conflicts to their advantage? This is elementary, GCSE-level knowledge.

The most salient feature of the paragraph is the centrality of Catherine herself to it. The way she ‘thinks’ of South America in the 1980s doesn’t tell us anything at all about South America but is designed to emphasise what a thoughtful and concerned soul she is. And then, whenever she thinks about the current conflicts in the Middle East, Catherine shudders, yes shudders.

In these final pages we learn that Stalin used the cult of Lenin to underpin and validate his own authority, and so Lenin’s reputation was whitewashed as thoroughly as his body was preserved in its mausoleum.

That both Lenin’s memory and his body rotted in the stagnant decades of the 1960s and 70s due to incompetent mummification techniques. That the 1980s period of glasnost under Gorbachev was a period of ‘dangerous’ change. That after a decade of chaos in the 1990s, Russia reverted to the strong man rule of Vladimir Putin.

We learn, in other words, nothing that any fifth former studying history or anybody who reads serious newspapers, doesn’t already know.

Merridale’s book ends with sentimental descriptions of her visits to the fading museums of Leninism and chats with their sad curators.

Shame. There are few if any insights or ideas worth recording or summarising in her final section.

Still, to emphasise the positive – the long central section of the book detailing the personalities and circumstances surrounding the train journey, and Merridale’s description of the incredibly intense political crisis into which Lenin arrived, are thrilling, convey a gripping sense of the chaos and confusion and knife-edge political atmosphere of the time, and are worth reading.

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917 by Nicolai Babasiouk (1960)

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917, painted by Nicolai Babasiouk in 1960

Nowhere man

Maybe the most symptomatic of the various encounters Merridale describes having with railway officials, passport checkers, museum keepers and so on when she undertakes her own version of the Lenin journey, is when she arrives at the swanky Savoy Hotel in Malmö, where Lenin and his entourage stopped for lunch after an unpleasant crossing of the stormy Baltic Sea.

Merridale knows that Lenin ate here. In fact, she later finds a plaque commemorating his visit tucked away in a corridor. But when she asks about him, the concierge looks blank. ‘Lenin? Lenin? Oh, you mean John Lennon?’

Quite. The world moves relentlessly on. People forget their history and are busy with their own day-to-day concerns. And – it could be argued – that’s a blessing.


Credit

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale was published by Allen Lane in 2016. All references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 @ the Royal Academy

1. The historical context

The best book about the Russian Revolution I know of is Orlando Figes’ epic history, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. There is no end to the poverty, misery and bloodshed it recounts. Russia was an astonishingly backward, primitive country in 1917. On top of the vast population of serfs living in their primitive wood huts in a hundred thousand muddy villages, sat the class of landowners in their country estates, serviced by local doctors and lawyers. These bourgeois aspired to the fine things enjoyed by the upper classes in the handful of notable cities – Kiev, Petersburg, Moscow. They are the class portrayed in the plays of Anton Chekov (1860-1904).

In these big cities the fabulously wealthy aristocracy mingled with a small class of intellectuals – Russians called them the intelligentsia – who congratulated themselves on the flourishing of the arts which transformed Russian cultural life in the late 19th century, and was evolving quickly as the new century dawned. (Many of these artists, writers and impresarios were depicted in the wonderful ‘Russia and the Arts’ held last spring at the National Portrait Gallery.)

But when the weak Czar Nicholas II took Russia into the Great War in 1914, the weakness of Russia’s economy and industrial ability was painfully highlighted. Troops with few modern weapons, uniforms or equipment were quickly defeated by the German army. Among his many mistakes, the Czar took personal responsibility for the running of the war. There were soon food shortages and other privations on top of national humiliation at the many defeats. The surprise is that it took until spring 1917 for the Czar’s government to be overthrown and the Czar was forced to abdicate.

The provisional government which came to power in February 1917 was competing from the start against workers councils, or soviets, which claimed genuine authority, and were dominated by communists. The provisional government made the mistake of continuing the war and this, along with worsening privations and its own internal squabbles, led to its overthrow in October 1917, in a revolution spearheaded by Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks made good on their popular promise to bring the war to an end, immediately began negotiating with the Germans and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. But it was only the end of one kind of violence, for a massive civil war broke out in Russia, with so-called ‘White Armies’ led by Russian generals, fighting against what became known as the ‘Red Army’, manned and staffed by everyone who wanted to overthrow the rotten old regime.

After initial setbacks, the Red Army became better organised and slowly crushed their opponents. In 1920 Lenin ordered part of it to advance westwards through Poland with the aim of linking up with communist forces in the post-war chaos of Germany, and spreading the Bolshevik revolution right across Europe.

The heroic Poles fought the Soviets to a standstill at the Battle of Warsaw (described in Adam Zamoyski’s excellent book, Warsaw 1920), forcing the Red Army back onto Russian soil and, for the time being, curtailing the Bolsheviks’ messianic dream of leading a World Revolution.

During these years of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, the liberal or left-leaning intelligentsia experienced a wave of euphoria and optimism. There was a tremendous sense of throwing off the shackles and restrictions of nineteenth-century, personal, subjective, ‘bourgeois’ art. Artists and theoreticians rejected all its aesthetic and cultural and moral values in the name of creating a completely new art which would be for the people, the masses, communal art, popular and accessible art which would depict the exciting possibilities of the New Society everyone would build together. This led to radical new ways of seeing and creating, the cross-fertilisation of traditional artistic media with new forms, an explosion of avant-garde painting, music, architecture, film, agitop theatre for workers in factories and so on.

It is perfectly possible to be amazed, stunned and overwhelmed at the outburst of experimentation and exuberance and optimism expressed by artists across all media in the decade after the revolution – but still to be uncomfortably aware of the sub-stratum of revolutionary violence which it was based on and, in some cases, glorified.

And also to be bleakly aware that the death of Lenin in 1924 set the scene for the inexorable rise of the tyrant Josef Stalin. In fact the revolution was characterised from the start by the criminal stupidity of Soviet economics and social policy, which almost immediately resulted in worsening shortages of food and all other essentials. But laid on top of this was Lenin’s deliberate use of ‘revolutionary violence’ to intimidate and often, to simply arrest and execute anyone opposing the regime – violence which was taken up and deployed on an increasingly mass scale by Stalin later in the 1920s.

It was the combination of incompetence and slavish obedience to party diktat which led to the horrors of the Ukraine famine in the early 1930s (graphically described by Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin) and crystallised into Stalin’s mass purges of the 1930s and the creation of a huge network of labour camps across frozen Siberia, the infamous gulag archipelago. This economically incompetent tyranny was forcibly imposed onto the nations of Eastern Europe after the Second World War, and was then exported to China (which fell to Mao’s communists in 1949) and on into other developing countries (Korea, Vietnam) with catastrophic results.

It was the historical tragedy of countless colonised countries in the so-called developing world,  that when they sought their independence after the Second World War, it was in a world bitterly divided between a brutal communist bloc and an unscrupulous capitalist West, thus forcing them to choose sides and turning so many of the liberation struggles into unnecessarily protracted civil wars, covertly funded by both sides in the Cold War.

And then, after one final, brutal fling in Afghanistan (comprehensively described in Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite), the entire Soviet Union collapsed, communism ceased to be a world power, and Russia emerged from the wreckage as an authoritarian, nationalist bandit-state.

2. Atrocity and accountability

This long, sorry saga started 100 years ago this year and we can’t un-know what we all know about its grim legacy – i.e the mass slaughter of the mid-twentieth century, followed by decades of repression and decline. And this exhibition is frank about that.

  • A whole section is devoted to the collapse of pure communism in the very early 1920s and the way Lenin was forced to reintroduce some elements of market capitalism in his New Economic Plan of 1922.
  • Later, a room is dedicated to the forced collectivisation of agriculture – and the discrepancy between the heroic posters and silent movies showing happy, smiling peasants swimming in lakes of milk and climbing mountains of grain – while the actual peasants were, of course, in many places starving, killing their livestock and eating their seed grain rather than have it ‘stolen’ by the state and its often corrupt agents.
  • And at the very end of the exhibition there is a gruesome conjunction of state propaganda films of healthy young men and women putting on acrobatic displays in Red Square – contrasted with a slide show of mugshots of some of the millions and millions of Russian citizens who were arrested, interrogated, tortured, dragged off to labour camps for decades or simply executed, mostly on trivial or invented charges. All overseen by the man who, by the end of the period covered by this exhibition, was emerging as the Soviet Union’s brutal lord and master, Stalin.

Russian revolutionary art, the exhibition

This is an epic exhibition about an epic subject, a huge and seismic historical and social event, the creation of the ideology which disfigured and scarred the 20th century, leading directly to countless millions of avoidable deaths. But nobody at the time knew that. The exhibition makes a heroic attempt to reflect the contradictions, capturing the huge wave of euphoric invention which swept through all the arts, alongside the doubts many artists and creators had from quite early on, reflecting the revolution’s early economic failures, and then the looming growth of Stalin’s influence.

For example, an entirely new form of typography was developed with new fonts laid in bands across the page, often at angles, with photographs which were similarly taken from new and exciting angles, especially of new modernist buildings and the paraphernalia of the second industrial revolution – steelworks, electricity pylons, steam trains.

Some of the most appealing exhibits are the clips from heroic black-and-white propaganda films from the period, depicting smiling workers engaged in bracing physical labour, in shipyards and coalmines and construction sites, on farms and factories. Propaganda it obviously is, but they still have a wonderful virile energy.

Films, lots of photographs, paintings, magazines and pamphlets, along with revolutionary textiles, fabrics and ceramics, architectural and interior design, it is all here in overwhelming profusion, and all are introduced with excellent historical background and explanation.

1. Avant-garde versus traditional naturalism

I knew that by the mid-1930s the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ had triumphed as the official state-sanctioned form of Soviet art. But the exhibition for the first time explained to me how forms of realistic, figurative painting depicting heroic moments and the heroic leaders of the revolution existed right from the start – it wasn’t artificially created by Stalin and his henchmen, it was always there. Thus there were two main groups debating the fate of Soviet art throughout the period – futurists and traditionalists – and they co-existed at the same time.

The Futurists, many of whom had in fact been experimenting with abstract ‘formalist’ art since before the revolution, believed that the revolution required a complete break with the past, the deliberate abandonment of traditional aesthetic values and modes. ‘Death to art!’ wrote Alexei Gan in his 1922 book on constructivism. At the 1921 exhibition 5 x 5 = 25 Alexander Rodchenko presented three canvases, each of a single colour (red, yellow and blue), which he declared to be ‘the end of painting’. He abandoned painting in favour of photography and, even here, pioneered new forms of photojournalism, photomontage and book and poster design.

Not only was painting rejected on aesthetic grounds, but on moral and political ones, too. Old fashioned painting carried the connotation of subjectivity and individual genius, both of which were rejected in the name of capturing the new spirit of the people. Moreover, oil painting was also inextricably linked with the world of the ‘fine’ arts, wealth, power, patrons and exploiters.

By contrast, traditionalists believed in the ongoing importance of realistic representations of everyday life in a highly traditional figurative style, perhaps cranked up with a kind of heroic tone.

What’s fascinating is the way both traditions flourished side by side. Thus the exhibition opens with some big paintings depicting the unquestioned hero of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, as well as key historical moments such as the storming of the Czar’s Winter Palace and so on.

V.I.Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

V.I. Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

By 1928 the Soviet government was strong enough to repeal the New Economic Plan (a kind of state capitalism which they’d been forced to introduce in the early 1920s to stop the economy collapsing). The NEP was ended and 1928 was the year which saw the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans. The resulting clampdown on market enterprises ended support for avant-garde fringe groups who found it harder to get sponsors or exhibit their works. Meanwhile, the realist artists found themselves enjoying greater official recognition and support.

This exhibition ends in 1932, the year the term ‘socialist realism’ was first officially used. The proletarian writer Maxim Gorky published a famous article titled ‘Socialist Realism’ in 1933 and by 1934 Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar in charge of art, had laid down a set of guidelines for socialist realist art. Henceforward all Soviet art works must be:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

It was the death knell of the entire innovative field of futurist, constructivist, supermatist and all other forms of avant-garde experimental art. It was the triumph of the philistines.

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

In fact, this exhibition is itself based on one that was actually held in 1932 in the Soviet Union. Titled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, it contained works from all the disparate traditions which had flourished between 1917 and 1932. Many of the works which appeared in that 1932 exhibition are being shown here. However, the Royal Academy show isn’t nearly as big as the original (some 200 works compared with the original’s 2,640 by 423 artists!) – and it also includes photos, posters, films, ceramics and so on – a far wider range of media – which weren’t in the original.

The 1932 exhibition marked the defeat of the entire futurist-modernist tradition in Russia. The same year saw the incorporation of all independent artistic groups and movements into the state-controlled Union of Artists. Private galleries were all closed down, replaced by State-sponsored exhibitions. From now on it was impossible to be an artist or make any money unless it was working on state-commissioned, state-approved projects. Many of the avant-garde saw their work banned, were thrown out of work or, at worst, were arrested, imprisoned or even executed.

One of the great poets of the time, Alexander Blok, had died in 1921, already disillusioned by the direction the revolution was taking. ‘Blok’s death signified the beginning of the end of artistic freedom in Russia.’ The hugely influential Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovksy, who had devoted so much energy not only to revolutionary poems but to a new type of agitprop poster (many included here) committed suicide in 1930. The curator of the 1932 exhibition on which this one is based, Nikolay Punin, was arrested and sent to a labour camp. Later the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested and sent to a prison camp in 1938, where he died. The innovative theatre designer Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and shot by firing squad in February 1940.

The modernist poet Anna Akhmatova – her first husband killed by the security services as early as 1921, her second husband and son imprisoned in the gulag – went into her long period of internal dissidence, during which she produced some of the great poems which captured the atmosphere of mourning and loss under the Stalin dictatorship.

2. Famous artists

The exhibition includes some marvellous works by painters we are familiar with in the West: there are several examples of the fabulous zoomorphic abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky (who had the good sense to leave Soviet Russia in 1920, moving to Germany to become a leading light of the famous Bauhaus of art and design).

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

There are also a few of the wonderful dreamy fantasies of Marc Chagall, a kind of Douanier Rousseau of the Steppe (he hailed from the provincial town of Vitebsk in modern Belarus). Chagall was doubly fortunate – as both a Jew and an experimental artist – to survive Soviet Russia (he left for Paris in 1923) and the Holocaust (he fled France in 1941, one step ahead of the Nazis) and to live to the ripe old age of 97. A rare happy ending, which suits his gay and colourful paintings.

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

3. Kazimir Malevich

In the 1932 exhibition which this show is based on, Russian avant-garde painter had an entire room devoted to him. The RA exhibition recreates it.

Malevich (as we learned from the fabulous Tate Modern exhibition in 2014, and the Black Square exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery in spring 2015) thought intensively about representation and art. He wanted to ‘free art from the dead weight of the real world’, and boiled all art down to a kind of ground zero – his famous black square, painted in 1915. A painting is no longer a window into anything, a view of anything: it is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours which does its own work.

From this reductio ad absurdum he then built up a particular version of modernism which he called Suprematism, embodied in a series of works which use geometric shapes criss-crossing on the picture plane to generate purely visual feelings of dynamism and excitement. The colours have no tone or shading, so there is no sense of a light source or their existence in three dimensions. There is no perspective so no sense of how the objects relate to each other, if at all.

I liked the Kandinskys in the previous room, but for me they were eclipsed by the power and beauty of Malevich’s abstracts. These have a tremendous force and impact. For some reason to do with human psychology and perception, they just seem right.

However, as the doctrine of Socialist Realism took hold, Malevich found it expedient in the 1930s to retreat from pure Suprematism and to return to a kind of figurative painting. Figurative but with a very abstract flavour, not least in his use of blank eggs for heads, or very simplified heads painted in bright colour stripes. Socialist realism, Jim, but not as we know it.

The Malevich room here uses photographs of the 1932 hang to recreate it as nearly as possible, with the famous Black Square and its partner Red Square in the middle, flanked by suprematist works, with an outer circle of the strange 1930s automaton paintings, and then a set of display cases showing the white models, the skyscraper-like maquettes of abstract forms, which Malevich called ‘architektons’. It’s almost worth visiting the exhibition for this one room alone.

Here is one of Malevich’s later, semi-figurative works.

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

4. Constructivism

But there are many, many more works here – exciting modernist newspaper, magazine and book designs; clips from quite a few black-and-white propaganda and fiction movies (there are several split screen projectors showing scenes from the epic films of Sergei Eisenstein); agitprop posters and pamphlets, including the revolutionary graphic design of El Lissitzky.

‘The Constructivists compared the artist to an engineer, arranging materials scientifically and objectively, and producing art works as rationally as any other manufactured object.’ (Tate website).

This aesthetic, based on industrial designs and materials and workers, underpinned much of the work of the period and spread beyond Russia, into Germany and France and some extent the USA, because an explosion of new industrial techniques, with new products and designs was part of the spirit of the age.

There are even fabrics and ceramics which carried revolutionary slogans and images; huge paintings; photos of leading artists, directors, theatre designers and poets from the era.

5. Photography

Photography was perhaps the medium best suited to capturing revolutionary conditions.

  • Obviously enough, it was faster than painting – a photo could be published in newspapers, posters or pamphlets the same day it was taken.
  • Also, photos are, on the face of it, more truthful and ‘realistic’ than painting, capturing a likeness or a situation with an honesty and immediacy which painting can’t match. As Alexander Rodchenko put it, ‘It seems that only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life’.
  • In the hands of constructivist or futurist photographers, photographs also turn out to be the perfect medium for conveying the geometric or abstract quality of industrial machinery, and the bold new architecture of soaring factories, apartment blocks, electricity pylons and all the other paraphernalia of a peasant society forced to industrialise at breakneck speed.

Thus swathes of propaganda photography showing men and machinery in dynamic semi-abstract images of tremendous power.

A little more traditional is the photographic portrait. There is a sequence of works by Moisei Nappelbaum, a fabulously brilliant portrait photographer, who was working before the revolution and managed to survive the new circumstances, eventually becoming Head of the State Photographic Studio.

But at the same time as it could convey a ‘realist’ vision of the world, photography during  this period turned out to be capable of all kinds of technical innovations and experiments. A leading figure in both constructivist design and experimental photography was Alexander Rodchenko.

6. Movies

The most famous Soviet director was Sergei Eisenstein so there are inevitably clips from his epic films about key moments in the revolution – Battleship PotemkinThe Strike.

But there are plenty of other examples of propaganda films. One of the most striking is Man with a Movie Camera, an experimental 1929 silent documentary film with no story and no actors, directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova. Man with a Movie Camera shows city life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. From dawn to dusk Soviet citizens are shown at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life. The ‘characters’, if there are any, are the cameramen, the film editor, and the modern Soviet Union they present in the film.

The film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov uses, including double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, stop motion animations and self-reflexive visuals.

The film was publicised with a suitably constructivist poster.

7. Less well-known artists

So far, so well-known. But completely new to me were the works of the artists working more in the Socialist Realist tradition, a whole area which is usually ignored in 20th century art history. Many, it must be said, are very so-so.

Probably the most impressive is Isaak Brodsky, who established himself as a kind of court painter to the Bolsheviks, and produced works which are both wonderfully accurate masterpieces of draughtsmanship, combined with great technical finish with the medium of oil – a kind of communist John Singer Sargent. I like Victorian realism and so I responded to the warmth and figurative accuracy of these works.

Brodsky flourished under the new regime and would go on to become Director of the All-Russian Academy of Arts in 1934.

Another figure who we get to know throughout the exhibition, is Alexander Deineka, according to Wikipedia ‘one of the most important Russian modernist figurative painters of the first half of the 20th century’. His paintings are big and are a unique and distinctive combination of figurative depiction of the human body in attractively abstract settings.

Deineka’s paintings aren’t exactly pleasing, but are very striking. This one, supposedly of workers in a textile factory, doesn’t look remotely like any real factory and the people are hardly the big muscular men of Soviet propaganda, but rather fey elfin figures (bare footed!). The whole looks more like a science fiction fantasy than a work of ‘socialist realism’.

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Later in the exhibition there are more Deinekas, some depicting heroic war situations, others depicting sportsmen and women.

An entire room is devoted to 15 or so paintings by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who is little known in the West. Petrov-Vodkin managed to combine a formalist interest in geometry with a recognisably figurative approach, a bit like the later Wyndham Lewis. He is included by the curators precisely to redress the balance away from the avant-garde artists we in the West tend to know about, and to present a better sense of the Russian culture of the time. His paintings are wonderfully attractive.

And towards the end there was a flurry of realist works by another big name of the day, Alexander Somokhvalov:

Somokhvalov is in the final room, which represents the triumph of Socialist Realism: Is it kitsch? Is it rubbish? Possibly. Is it valuable in its own right, or because it sheds light on the ideology of the time?

Taken together, these relatively unknown Socialist Realist painters certainly provide a different vision, a way of looking at the world aslant from the usual Western heroes of modernism we’re used to. Giving them space and attention is one of this fabulous exhibition’s main achievements.

8. Tatlin’s glider

The Royal Academy is a big building and they’ve really gone to town here, filling the space with some monster exhibits. One entire room is devoted to a lifesize recreation of one of the glider-cum-flying machines developed by futurist designer, Vladimir Tatlin, between 1929 and 1932. Tatlin dreamed of building a machine which would genuinely allow humans – all humans – cheaply and easily to – fly! Hard to conceive a more utopian dream than this.

The glider is suspended from the ceiling and imaginatively lit so that, as it slowly rotates in the breeze, a continually changing matrix of shadows is cast by its elaborate wooden struts onto the walls and ceiling, forming ever-changing shapes and patterns. It’s a darkened, quiet and calming room. Small children came into the room and looked up at this strange flying machine with amazement. It reminds you that quite a few of these artists’ output may look radical and revolutionary, urban and atheist, but that they themselves often came from a deeply spiritual place: Tatlin, Kandinsky, Malevich.

9. Revolutionary fabrics

Vast amounts of fabrics and textiles were produced which contained and distributed revolutionary logos and imagery, incorporating wonderfully powerful constructivist motifs.

10. Soviet women

There are lots of strong women in Soviet art (as in Soviet life). They often feature or star in movies like Women of Ryazan (1927) as well as in countless posters and paintings hymning the gender equality which was an important component of Soviet life.

My favourite, and a standout work in the whole exhibition, was this stunning piece, a huge painting of a woman tram ticket collector titled Tram Ticket Lady, by Alexander Samokhvalov (1894–1971). It is enormous and enormously compelling – a wonderful picture of female pagan power.

Conclusion

This is a huge, wide-ranging and awe-inspiring exhibition, which does a good job of capturing the excitement and terror of one of the most important periods in human history and one of the most innovative eras in Western art.

Artists to remember


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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