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Fantasy: Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin

The Royal Academy is host to an exceptionally well-presented and startlingly original exhibition of the art of Russia from the year of the revolution to the critical turning year of 1932.

There is very much to absorb and the show repays repeated visits. Monumental art, propaganda, industrial design, painting and sculpture, photography and graphic design, ceramics and fabric design all find a place.

The show bears the marks of much confused thinking, even incompatible ideas and, in slyly subversive ways runs somewhat counter to the crude anti-communist narrative which sees all developments in the Soviet cultural sphere as an unrelieved subordination of the avant garde to a dreary propaganda art.

The principal failing of the way the exhibition is presented is to consider the art through a Cold War prism which distorts much of the political and economic reality in which it was created.

The wall panels which introduce each section are adorned with laughable errors of fact and interpretation and appear to have been written by the petulant children of minor Russian gentry deprived of their inheritance by the land reform and nationalisation.

To repeat the trite sally — as does the opening panel — that “Freedom of the individual was crushed in favour of a collective ideology” offers little justice even to the classically bourgeois propositions in that philosophical debate.

Schoolboy errors proliferate. We are told that “Overnight in October 1917 the Bolsheviks became the ruling party but with 350,000 followers they were a significant minority in a country of 140 million.”

Note the elision of members into followers. Throughout 1917 millions followed the Bolsheviks in the sense that as Bolsheviks were elected to the Petrograd-based Soviet of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers from numberless factories and regiments the balance of power shifted from the Provisional government of Kerensky. Dual power dissolved and power shifted decisively to the Soviet and it was this body that took power – not the Bolshevik Party itself. Most peasant deputies represented the other parties who made up the first Soviet government and it was only after a tumultuous period of schism, split and fusion that the Bolshevik party emerged as the single ruling party.

We are told that the Russian Orthodox Church was banned. In fact, in January 1918 the revolutionary government decreed the freedom of ‘religious and anti religious propaganda” and ordered the separation of church and state. The church hierarchy sided with the Whites and suffered the same fate as other counter revolutionaries. Its perfidy led inevitably to a split in the church.

Setting aside the significance, to the material conditions of life in the early years of Soviet power, of the counter-revolutionary military intervention by 14 states (including Britain) and the civil war imposed on the new regime by the dispossessed rich even inveterate critics of Russia’s revolutionary path are compelled to admit that mass literacy, industrial reconstruction and, after many setbacks, rising agricultural yields can be attributed to the nation’s collective effort.

The language deployed to describe the dramatic decades in which feudal landlords were dispossessed, poor peasants mobilised against the exploitative class of kulaks and agriculture was drawn into collective ownership is strikingly evocative of the counter revolutionary propaganda of the time.

“Villagers were uprooted from their homes and their ancient way of life was wiped out” — as if the desperate poverty, primitive farming techniques, usury, religious obscurantism, domestic violence, child abuse and profound ignorance of tsarist times made for a rural utopia.

We are told: “Many Russian artists, philosophers and writers were nostalgic for the beauty and charm of the old Russia, rapidly disappearing under the boots of the proletarian masses.”

In contrast to this narrative of timeless tradition traduced we are given to understand the startling suggestion that propaganda was a vital tool in spreading Bolshevik ideology.

Buried in this contradictory commentary are two distinct trends. On one hand serious scholarship seeks to position each style in a coherent narrative that leads up to the landmark 1932 exhibition Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic. This approach is significantly more evident in the well illustrated book which accompanies the exhibition.

But somewhat at odds with the dominant narrative of repression and censorship which percolates through the commentary we learn that the avant garde was deeply involved in the party’s propaganda offensives and the state’s literacy programmes while artists working in a variety of more figurative styles remained well patronised by the new state.

The unhappy presentation of this 15 year interregnum as a procession of repressive measures, innovations “constrained by an increasingly repressive state”, with many workers “effectively slaves” is somewhat subverted by an interesting exhibition of the work of an artist, hitherto little known outside of Russia, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin whose style is described as “metaphysical rather than political, a reflection of the human spirit and the cycle of life.”

Like Malevich he was given his own room in the “Fifteen Years” exhibition and in 1932 became the president of the Leningrad Regional Union of Soviet Artists.

In these accounts the creative initiative of the masses is absent. People are conceived of as passive receiptants of messages from on high. There is no hint that the Bolshevik success derived from their policy to end the war, dispossess the landlords and feed the towns and cities. Bread, Land and Peace! Or that Soviet power was secured in a civil war in which an armed and mobilised people overcame foreign intervention and the still-powerful forces of Tsarism, Orthodox religion, landlordism and the dispossessed bourgeoisie.

There is but muted suggestion that the new art’s currency derived both from the new tasks which faced the working class in a socialist economy, the effects of the hugely successful literacy and industrial training programmes or the ground-breaking advances in pedagogy and child psychology which characterised the regime’s cultural policies.

Similarly, the ubiquity of images which reflected the liberation of women, their entry into social life and they’re commanding role in production pass unremarked while the depiction of mass athletic activity and healthy physicality is dismissed as the iconography of Stalinism. It is as if the transition from a ramshackle Tsarist regime to a modern state able to defeat fascism had no connection with what happened in the cultural superstructure.

This is an exhibition of Russian art. Cultural process in the other republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist republics — formed in 1922 – are absent. A highly selective timeline fails to illuminate much. The fourteen foreign armies of intervention mysteriously vanish. The assassination attempt on Lenin goes unremarked while Trotsky – whose own faction only joined the Bolsheviks in 1917 is erroneously described as a founder member of the party.

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