Russia commemorates 1917 revolution—timidly

Ambivalence towards Soviet history has led to museums taking a cautious approach to tackling the centenary head-on

by Sophia Kishkovsky  |  13 March 2017
Russia commemorates 1917 revolution—timidly
Tsar Nicholas II and his son, Alexei. A show about the ill-fated family will take place at the Hermitage (Image: © GARF; the State Archive of the Russian Federation)
The centenary of the Russian Revolution is being commemorated this year by major museums in Europe and the US. The Royal Academy of Arts in London, for example, is hosting a show (until 17 April), with loans from Russia, which examines the extraordinary creativity that followed the revolution and lasted until Stalin’s brutal regime clamped down on all forms of creative expression. Meanwhile, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has drawn on its collection to tell the story of the Russian avant-garde (until 12 March).

Back in Russia, however, museums have been subdued in their commemoration of a year that changed the world. Russia’s relationship with its revolutionary past is far from simple. Ever since the Kremlin crushed a fledgling uprising by urban liberals in 2012, it has been propagating the idea that revolutions are insidious foreign imports. Yet the preserved corpse of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, is still on display in Red Square and statues of him dominate public spaces around the country.

This ambivalence has made it difficult for Russian museums to produce straightforward exhibitions commemorating 1917. Perhaps the fear of falling foul of the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, who is expected to run for another six-year term of office in 2018, underpins this timidity.

“Museums are taking the path of least resistance,” says Anatoly Golubovsky, a historian and curator. “If a museum has something in its collection connected to the events of 1917, [or an example of] revolutionary art”, it might choose to organise a show of these artefacts, Golubovsky says, but he does not expect “tough exhibitions that are capable of giving rise to discussions”.

Another difficulty for museums is the complexity of the story of the revolution. There were two very different uprisings in 1917: the February Revolution, which toppled tsarist autocracy and sought to establish liberal democracy, and the October or Bolshevik Revolution, which crushed the supporters of the previous uprising and led to the execution of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, and their five children in 1918. Both upheavals set Russia on the path to Soviet rule, Stalin’s Great Terror and decades of social and cultural oppression.

End of the Romanovs

The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is taking an uncontroversial approach by focusing on the tsar and his family. A revamped version of the exhibition 1917 Romanovs & Revolution: the End of Monarchy, which runs until 17 September at the Hermitage Amsterdam, will be seen in St Petersburg later this year. This show, which includes works of art and archival materials, is an attempt to illustrate “how choices and decisions made by the tsar made revolution inevitable”, according to the website of the museum’s Amsterdam outpost.

The Hermitage has also announced plans to tell the story of the Winter Palace in 1917 and to examine the relationship between the museum and those in power. For now, only a broad overview of the exhibition has been released, giving the museum plenty of room to manoeuvre if it becomes necessary to revise its plans. The storming of the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks became a symbol of the Revolution. Sergei Eisenstein’s cinematic version of the event will be examined in an exhibition that is due to open at the museum’s General Staff building on 8 November (until 5 March 2018).

Finally, the institution plans a one-off event on 25 October. “We will stage a mystery play on Palace Square,” the museum’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, said in a news conference in February. “There will be lighting to make the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building red.”

Another exhibition focusing on the Romanovs is The Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo and the Romanovs (until 15 January 2018) at the Tsaritsyno State Museum-Reserve in Moscow. Olga Barkovets, the show’s curator, effectively conveys the sense of impending doom of the family’s final few months. “We wanted to convey the feeling of terror of 1917 and what the family experienced,” Barkovets says. The show includes seven chairs from the living room in Alexander Palace, “where the family sat awaiting their departure”, Barkovets says. They departed to their deaths.

The State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia in Moscow, headquartered in a pre-revolutionary palace that was confiscated and re-christened the Museum of the Revolution after the Bolsheviks took power, is currently showing 1917: the Code of Revolution (until 12 November). The show combines materials from the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History with works of art to explain the origins and consequences of what it refers to as the "Great Russian Revolution." A handful of visitors were there on the first evening of general admission. Another show at the museum, of paintings and drawings by Ivan Vladimirov, whom the museum describes as “eyewitness to a complicated time,” closed on 12 March.

Indirect commemorations

Other museums are taking a less direct approach. Vladimir Gusev, the director of St Petersburg’s State Russian Museum, told reporters in February that the museum will mark the October Revolution with an exhibition that will address those events “not head-on, but through people’s lives and their art”.

Meanwhile, Alexei Levykin, the director of the State Historical Museum on Red Square, said that the good and the bad aspects of the revolution must be depicted. In an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official newspaper of the Russian government, he said: “We must treat what happened then as follows: this is our common history… in its victories and tragedies. If crimes and terror were committed and we lost millions of people, then we must speak of this boldly. But we also must not forget obvious achievements and victories.”

One notable exception among state-funded institutions is the Gulag History Museum in Moscow, which spells out its position on the revolution in no uncertain terms. At the beginning of its permanent exhibition, it states: “The spirit of freedom that seized Russian society during the revolutions of 1917 gave way after the Bolsheviks came to power to a sense of oppression and fear.”

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