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100th anniversary of… the Russian Revolution

| 22 Dec 2016

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, a series of events that would fill the squares of Moscow with red flags and transform the world.

Lenin and Workers Monument outside Gorky Park in Moscow, Russia

Lenin and Workers Monument outside Gorky Park in Moscow, Russia

Coming to a head in the middle of the first world war, the Revolution marked a moment when political processes broke down and people took to the streets to effect change. While many people lost their lives or were forced to emigrate at short notice, others were filled with dreams that a just and equitable society could at last be created.

Russian Revolution poster

Soviet poster dedicated to the 5th anniversary of the October Revolution

The hopeful aftermath of the Revolution was reflected in the passionate art of the time. It was widely believed that art and theatre could play a leading role in the transformation of Russia. With unparalleled energy and excitement, the arts were used to inspire people to embrace change. The trappings of privilege and bourgeois individualism were to be replaced with the signs of a bright, new reality.

Soviet posters from the Russian Revolution

Soviet propaganda posters. Left: “In order to have more, it is necessary to produce more. In order to produce more, it is necessary to know more”. Right: The benefits brought to the female worker and peasant due to the Russian Revolution. Building inscriptions read ‘kindergarten’, ‘library’ etc

In the fostering of this ideal, images, signs and slogans were spread across the country, in thrall to the possibility of a new world that was unrestrained by attachment to the past. For a few idealistic years, establishment politics and avant-garde art – which are usually at each other’s necks – served each other. All references to the historic precedents were jettisoned and the most radical abstraction in the world – unprecedented to this day – was born. Its enthusiasm is still contagious.

Rabochiy i Kolkhoznitsa (Worker and Kolkhoz Woman) of sculptor Vera Mukhina, Moscow

Rabochiy i Kolkhoznitsa (Worker and Kolkhoz Woman) of sculptor Vera Mukhina, Moscow

New styles of living and working gave rise to buildings, the like of which had never been seen before. Unlimited belief in the virtue of communal life led to experimental apartment blocks with domestic amenities shared between families. Reflecting an indomitable belief in the almost spiritual ability of technology and transport to transform the world, bus stations and telecommunications buildings were built to radical, dynamic designs that, in today’s world, would be associated with cutting-edge museums of contemporary art.

Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev, Bolshevik detail

Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev, Bolshevik (detail), 1920

The Moscow metro, a phenomenal feat of engineering, embodied the Soviet dream. Many stations, built in the 1930s, are decorated with rose-tinted visions of reality, in the widest range of media: aviation successes in swathes of mosaic; larger-than-life gilt bronze sculptures of citizen heroes; stretches of ebullient, bright ceramic wall panel celebrating the astonishing productivity of untiring farm workers.

Agricultural themes at Prospekt Mira station, Moscow, opened in 1952

Agricultural themes at Prospekt Mira station, Moscow, opened in 1952. Image © Andrew Spira

The heady years of hopes and dreams were not to last. In 1932, avant-garde art was deemed incomprehensible to the communist masses and was outlawed. A traditional, naturalistic style of painting and sculpture was enforced, but on a newly monumental scale that continues to impress and overwhelm. A close eye was kept on the arts to ensure that they conformed to party requirements. Optimism was compulsory. The craft of academic painting, rejected by some avant-garde designers in the 1920s as an outdated bourgeois indulgence, was reinjected with vigour. For three decades, this closely monitored, conservative style monopolised the arts. Only following the death of Stalin in 1953 did the possibility of a less establishmentarian type of art begin, tentatively, to re-emerge.

Andrew Spira leads the Royal Academy of Arts Moscow: Art of the Russian Revolution tour which departs on the 22nd July 2017. There is another departure on the 23rd September lead by Monica Bohm-Duchen. See tour details >



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