Russian Revolution: design in a world turned upside down

By Patrick Burgoyne

In the British Library gift shop you can buy, for just £10, a print of what seems at first quite a jovial little scene. A stylised workman, clad in blue and black overalls, is brushing away three tiny figures who tumble under his broom. The comical forms of the figures as they roll away and the simple, flat colours employed by the artist are reminiscent of a children’s book. The picture’s title? ‘A Worker Sweeping Criminals Out of the Soviet Land’.

‘A worker Sweeping Criminals out of the Soviet Land’ from Russian Placards 1917-22 (c) British Library Board

At second glance, that broom looks rather more like a scythe: the jolly little figures, just so much human trash, ruthlessly swept away by the vigorous new power in the land. These well-dressed ‘criminals’ were probably bourgeois counter-revolutionaries – or just anyone who got in the way. And now we are being encouraged to buy this image and put it on our walls as – presumably – decoration.

This is the inherent tension in a show like the British Library’s Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths – and the clutch of similar exhibitions of Soviet era art and design recently. Charming though it may be, this image represents a period of brutality and chaos, when the act of ‘sweeping away criminals’ resulted in the deaths of millions. And here it is offered up for sale as a print or a postcard.

Plate painted with the figure of Commissar Uritsky. Courtesy Dorich House Museum Kingston University Library. Photo: Ellie Laycock

Formally and emotionally it is hard to resist much of the design of revolutionary Russia, particularly as it became articulated through the ever-popular Constructivist movement. Formally, the works of the likes of Rodchenko and Stepanova still thrill with their daring and power. Emotionally, those early images of a new nation that still represented hope of a better future touch the romantic in all of us, the idealist.

But as the British Library show reveals, these are images with consequences: they are designed not just to inspire but also to vilify and urge a population in crisis toward violence and paranoia.

Letter from Vladimir Lenin requesting the use of the Reading Room at the British Museum now Library (c) British-Library

Russian Revolution draws on a great deal of fascinating personal material to offer up a new perspective on the familiar story of Imperial Russia’s transformation into the Soviet Union. There are letters and journals, film clips and relics of the struggle – including a Red Army cap and banner. But I suspect that it is the posters and other printed materials (including a beautiful Russian first edition of Doctor Zhivago) that will be of primary interest to CR readers.

Front cover of 1st Russian edition of Dr. Zhivago. Private Collection
Red Army recruitment poster (c) British Library

Many of the propaganda images on show offer more straightforward representations of the issues at stake than our flat graphic roadsweeper. A Red Army poster with a pointing soldier asking the viewer if they have volunteered yet is reminiscent of James Montgomery Flagg‘s famous Uncle Sam recruiting poster. ‘Retreating, the Whites are Burning the Crops’ paints a vivid and very literal scene of atrocities supposedly carried out by the counter-revolutionary forces.

While much of the Bolshevik propaganda in the show will be familiar, the curators have also provided a rare opportunity to see some of the work produced by the other side in the Civil War. There is a multilingual White Army recruiting poster targeted at Central Asian peoples, for example, and the bitterly satirical ‘A Happy Worker in Soviet Russia’ featuring a starving man sitting atop a pile of bank notes.

‘Retreating, the Whites are burning the crops’, Soviet propaganda poster, c.1918–20 (c) British Library Board
‘A Happy Worker in Soviet Russia’, White propaganda poster, circa 1918-20 (c) British Library Board
Novyi Satirikon (New Satiricon), April 1917, cover. Caricature of Grigorii Rasputin (c) British Library Board

Some of the more rewarding exhibits are the less visually exciting ones: illustrating the new regime’s attempts to establish links with workers in other countries, a simply printed notice in English asks British Workers to ignore the horror stories they are being told about the new Bolshevik regime (fake news?) and support their class comrades in the USSR. With artefacts such as this, Russian Revolution offers far more than just visual stimulus. Though the PACCAR gallery can be a little cramped, the show’s designers have used the space to create a strong sense of narrative that allows a variety of voices – from participants, observers and protagonists ­– to come to the fore. In addition to the show, a programme of talks and events will add context and depth – there will be sessions on the impact of the revolution on literature, cinema and, from Alice Rawsthorn, a talk on ‘the initial impact and enduring influence of the Russian Revolution on design, architecture and fashion’.

Curators Katya Rogatchevskaia and Susan Reed during installation of Russian Revolution – Hope, Tragedy, Myths. Photo by Samantha Lane
White Army recruitment poster, circa 1919 (c) British Library

An event of such lasting significance would benefit from a bigger show in a bigger space but, thanks to its British Library context, Russian Revolution tells a familiar story in a rewarding, layered manner. If you have ever been seduced by the surface charms of Constructivism or any of the art and design emanating from the Russian revolutionary period, here’s an opportunity to look deeper into how the work emerged and the purpose it served.

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is at the British Library’s PACCAR Gallery, London NW! 2DB until August 29

Read our piece on the enduring appeal of Constructivism for designers here

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