Russian Revolution

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths

British Library April 28-August 29 2017

This is a good exhibition which is worth visiting if you’re at all interested in the Russian Revolution (that should mean everybody). It consists almost entirely of documents and posters from the period (appropriate for a Library exhibition), and so offers a collection of source materials to accompany the narrative. The exhibition is organised into six sections, covering the Tsar and the Monarchy, the Revolution and the Civil War, and their aftermath and influence. A panel at the beginning of each section offers a brief narrative and chronology, and the exhibits fill out the detail of the topic.

It’s strong on giving a sense of immediacy to the events, and clear about the conflicts and tensions at work between opposing groups. Posters in particular show the attitudes and aspirations of the various factions; photographs and other documents give more individual or personal insights. Maps – particularly one large graphic display – reveal both the size and heterogeneity of Russia and the way that areas of control kept on shifting. The exhibition therefore succeeds in giving both an overview of the first decades of the 20th century, and a lot of detail about the experiences of those involved on all sides.

Manifestly, the more you know about Russia to begin with, the more you’ll get out of the exhibition. My knowledge is sketchy at best (ahem), so for me it offered a clear and informative introduction. The other matter which will signally affect your experience is your knowledge of Russian (or in my case, lack of it). Although the captions inform you of the contents of the documents, this isn’t the same as gaining the direct impact from what is presented. This is especially true of the posters. Stirring phrases are only stirring if the poster can speak directly to you. This is not the exhibition’s fault, of course, but anyone who knows Russian will have a more immediate involvement with the materials.

It’s on until the end of August, so plenty of time to get there; and in this centenary year, it’s important to do so.