Revolutionary Art

Recently the Guardian published an article about a (then-upcoming) exhibition on post-Revolution Russian art at the Royal Academy, specifically referring to it as “brutal propaganda” and worrying that our admiration of it “sentimentalises one of the most murderous chapters in human history”. Unfortunately, the author seems deeply confused not only about what the exhibition represented but about his own opinions. This may, of course, be a reflection of the hazards of reviewing something that you haven’t seen yet.

To give him his due, Jones is particularly concerned with arguing that art should be placed in its proper social and political context; I agree, especially with art that had such a political and social motivation as some Soviet art did.

And yet, after visiting the exhibition, nobody could fairly claim that it failed to give the political context of the art — nor is it possible to say that the Royal Academy understates the “brutality” of the Soviet government, not only under Stalin but (as Jones is at pains to point out) under Lenin too.

From my perspective, the exhibition goes too far to the opposite extreme; the historical background on the wall of every room misses no opportunity to criticize the Bolsheviks, but in doing so completely fails to explain why anybody might have been motivated to create art for or about them. As pointed out on Twitter, for example, it’s not difficult to figure out why the Lithuanian Jewish graphic designer El Lissitzky, several of whose works feature in the exhibition, might have found it difficult to mourn the downfall of the Russian monarchy and the deeply anti-semitic Russian Orthodox church that supported it, nor why he might have felt positively about a government that took the risk of anti-semitic violence seriously. For Jones, though, putting Lissitzky’s in historical context means identifying them as “calls to merciless violence”: a partial contextualization that is perhaps even more misleading than a total lack of context would be.

More broadly, this is a mindset that does not allow any reason to support revolution, even revolution against a cruel and arbitrary autocratic monarchy and the backwards social conditions it perpetuated. Lenin and other leaders, it is taken for granted, planned from the outset a dictatorship for their own benefit; anyone who might have supported them from outside a position of power was merely misguided, and their motivations need no further explanation. After all, how could anybody seriously have imagined, as Lissitzky did in the late 1920s, a world in which ordinary people might have modern, spacious homes?

Of course, Jones could hardly be said to be an objective reviewer; on the one hand, he claims that we should “never stop looking at the art of the Russian avant garde”; on the other, he compares it to an exhibition of Nazi-era German art, to which there would “rightly be an outcry”. And, yet, a few years back he was arguing that “brutal regimes and empires have long contributed to a legacy of eye-popping realism” in the context of the Spanish Inquisition. I wonder what changed?

Book: A History of Modern Russia, by Robert Service (2003)

The original edition of this book covered up until the 1990s. This is a review of the second edition, extended up to 2002; there’s also a third edition up to 2009.

Service’s biggest problem boils down to his lack of self-awareness. He has a number of unexamined assumptions about what constitutes a correct way of managing an economy and a government, and thus applies these without justification. Of course, there are plenty of things to criticize the USSR for, but, for example, while the arbitrary nature of the legal system might be something most people would agree is bad, on the other hand one might reasonable wonder if there are not valid debates to be had over the size of the state sector of the economy (Service repeatedly refers to it as “hypertrophied”). To take another example, in the conclusion he presents ‘free’ elections as held in the 1990s as being an unquestionably positive step, even while admitting that, in practice, these elections where deeply flawed. One might wonder why a flawed democratic process that pretends to be “liberal” is fundamentally better than, or even any different to, a flawed democratic process that does not. Perhaps what one pretends to be is more important than what one actually does?

Another tendency that irritates me is his constant assumption that, unlike all the Soviet leaders and officials discussed in the book, he (Service) has interpreted Lenin (and, to a lesser extent Marx) correctly.

All in all, this is not the worst history of the Soviet Union. While his liberal and anti-communist sympathies are clear throughout, Service for the most part refrains from moralizing and rejects the most exaggerated nonsense claims that have been made about the scale of the USSR’s problems; for example, he recognizes that the famines of the 1930s were not somehow orchestrated by Stalin. (He also avoids the self-importance of Figes, who seemed to think he was doing Soviet leaders a favour by accusing them of only mass-murder, rather than genocide, and that the biggest flaw of post-Soviet leaders has been not to run the country as he would have.) He’s also better on the Cold War than some other histories have been, and so while Carr (for example) is better on the early years of the Soviet Union (1917–27), Service is the best I’ve read on Stalin and the post-Stalin period (which admittedly isn’t saying much). The post-Soviet era is covered increasingly briefly, with Putin’s election in 1999 being almost the final event of note despite the book claiming to cover up to 2002; it also suffers, to be fair, from the most significant parts of Putin’s leadership having taken place after this edition was published (and so I’ll give the third edition the benefit of the doubt in this regard).