Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths at the British Library

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths runs until 29 August 2017 at the British Library. The exhibition contextualises the events that forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate and led to the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922.

The artefacts on show range from books selected from the British Library’s collection — including a first edition of The Communist Manifesto and a copy of Vera, or, The Nihilists, the Oscar Wilde play set in Russia — to weaponry and items of military uniform loaned from the Imperial War Museum. Across six themed sections, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths explores the causes, events and legacies of events that had significant international implications.

The tsar and his people

At the beginning of the 20th century the Russian Empire stretched 6,600 miles from east to west and 3,000 miles from north to south, encompassing roughly one-sixth of the world’s landmass.

Russia’s population was stratified into estates. Black and white photos juxtapose scenes of hay being transported by peasants in cattle-drawn carts with an opulent gala dinner attended by uniformed officers and women in fine dresses with stacked hair. The empire was a place of marked inequality.

In 1913 the majority of Russia’s 170 million people were rural dwelling peasants who lacked political representation. A pair of simply woven birch-bark lapti shoes typifies the footwear worn by peasants in the multi-ethnic Russian Empire.

Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation was marked by the Khodynka Tragedy, a stampede in which 1,389 people died while trying to collect one of the souvenir cups being given away as souvenirs to mark the occasion. A rumour had started to circulate that stocks were running low. One of the enamel cups is displayed next to crystal glassware.

Ahead of the revolutions of 1917 Russia lurched through a number of crises. A march to petition political reform in January 1905 led to the Bloody Sunday shootings. Film footage of Revolution in Russia depicts the Odessa rising of that year, which saw Japan inflict military defeat on Russia. An audio translation of the diary of Tatiana Naidenova, the daughter of a Moscow textile factory owner, conveys the extent of social unrest in the city.

The last days of the monarchy

A swell of patriotism at the outbreak of World War One initially soothed political tensions in Russia. Tsarina Alexandra was born in Germany, and, in the wake of labour shortages, public opinion turned against her. Karl Bulla’s photos show Grigorii Rasputin, the man with whom she was rumoured to be having an affair.

Tsar Nicholas II became Russia’s Commander-in-Chief. Maps and photos depict the role of the railway authorities in his downfall. His train was diverted to Pskov leading to a series of events that resulted in him signing the Act of Abdication on 2 March 2017.

A print of Order Number One of the Petrograd Soviet, dating from 14 March 1917, states that soldiers no longer need to salute or use formal terms of address, and need to be treated respectfully by superiors. Discipline subsequently collapsed in an army that had put uniforms on 15 million men since war was declared. Of those 1.8 million were killed in action, four million wounded and three million taken prisoner.

Hammer and sickle cap badge.
Hammer and sickle cap badge.

Civil War

War would rage for another six years in Russia, claiming 10 million lives. A further five million died as a consequence of famine. The ebb and flow of territorial gains and losses during the complex Russian Civil War are depicted digitally on a map. Peasants would change sides and foreign powers became involved. Areas of the empire declared independence.

Posters show how Soviet propaganda was, in the main, more visually appealing than that produced by the anti-Bolshevik White movement.

A hand-written note by Leon Trotsky, calling for a government discussion on the formation of the Red Army, is displayed near a poster with anti-Semitic tones depicting him as a red devil.

The Bolsheviks in power

After the Bolsheviks failed to win control of the All-Russian Constituent Assembly via democratic means, late in 1917, they disbanded it. Lenin instructed Felix Dzerzhinsky, a Polish aristocrat, to form the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Speculation, which became known as the Cheka. During the Red Terror the Cheka grew to 40,000 strong.

Threat or inspiration?

The final two sections of Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths look at the way the events in Russia were interpreted. Inspiration, fear and revulsion led to artistic and literary responses elsewhere in the world.

In 1921 the British Library received a donation of Bolshevik literature. Sir Basil Thompson, the Britain’s Director of Intelligence recommended that readers be denied access to the books.

Dmitri Moor's poster of a Red Army soldier in front of a Russian factory.
Dmitri Moor’s propaganda poster of a Red Army soldier in front of a Russian factory has been adapted to advertise the British Library’s exhibition.

Writing the revolution

A cabinet holds several of the books inspired by the Russian Revolution, including Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak. Though he was announced the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pasternak, pressurised by Soviet authorities, declined the award.

For history enthusiasts Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is an enthralling way of spending a couple of hours.

Further information

Entry to the Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths exhibition is priced at £13.50 for adults paying full price. See the British Library website for further information plus details of opening times.

The British Library is easily accessible from London’s Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross railway stations.

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  • Lucy Eames

    June 12, 2017 at 06:27 Reply

    I visited this exhibition and enjoyed spending a couple of hours there. I love the tote bags with the exhibition logo.

  • George

    December 24, 2019 at 19:37 Reply

    Ever since 1917, the Russian Revolution has, perhaps, remained the paradigm of revolutions. But the quest to make man ‘authentically human’ has not disappeared. Nice piece of history!

    • Stuart Forster

      December 29, 2019 at 16:22 Reply

      Thanks for reading Go Eat Do.

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