It didn’t start in 1917

The organizers of Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 – the London show mentioned in this post – seem to believe that Russian arts burst into dazzling blossom in 1917 as the revolutionary spring ushered in a kingdom of liberty:

…we will mark the historic centenary by focusing on the 15-year period between 1917 and 1932 when possibilities initially seemed limitless and Russian art flourished across every medium.

Russian art was already flourishing across every medium in 1913, before the great wars and revolutions. Since the London exhibition seems to focus on Malevich, it’s worth remembering that the first version of The Black Square appeared in public in 1913, as part of the stage set for Victory over the Sun, an avant-garde opera by Mikhail Matyushin (music) and Alexey Kruchenykh (libretto).

As I’ve said in one of the Someone 1917 posts, the events of 1917 broke out in the midst of a golden age for Russian visual and performative arts. Actually, the Moscow exhibit makes it more or less clear that relatively few creators perceived the revolution as a chance to finally start some artistic project impossible under the old regime. It also helps to bear in mind how many artists left or declined to return to Russia in 1917-1932.

On the other hand, enough of them stayed behind for the cultural milieu to linger on for a while and to raise a new generation of competent artists to serve the needs of the Soviet state. The unasked question is how Russian arts would have fared in 1917-1932 under a less murderous and divisive regime. 


  1. Radical clichés obviously die hard. BBC Radio 3 also had a season dedicated to the past hundred years of Russian music. It was fine except for the title, “Breaking Free”. Breaking free from what and what new possibilities were opened? The chance to compose cantatas for the anniversary of the October Revolution or orchestrate odes to Lenin? The musical revolution of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” had already happened in 1913. Sticking to residents of Russia, Scriabin (who died the year before the Bolshevik takeover) never struck me as a particularly in need of musical liberation; if anything, some would argue his megalomaniac later pretensions could have done with a bit of restraint.

    Even in the realm of the cinema – supposedly the Soviet art form par excellence – the great Russian pioneer was Yevgeni Bauer, who died (of pneumonia) a few months before October 1917.

    As you say, the Silver Age of Russian poetry was already well under way and many of its members, starting with Gumilyov, would have led longer and very possibly more productive lives but for the Bolshevik takeover.

    The idea that political and artistic revolutions go hand in hand doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarchais, Laclos et al. were already active – and many were even dead – before 1789. French Revolutionary music may be underrated but it is now really only known through its effects elsewhere on Beethoven, a musical revolutionary in distinctly unrevolutionary Vienna. The Jacobins also managed to kill the only half-decent poet France had at the time, André Chenier.

    You could argue that the July Revolution of 1830 which brought the dull, bourgeois Louis-Philippe to power produced more of an artistic revolution in France than 1789. French Romantic poetry finally took off as did the careers of Berlioz and Balzac. Of course, this too is a distortion of the chronology, e.g. Delacroix had already scored his first major successes in the early 1820s.

    The less said of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (a bigger misnomer than the Holy Roman Empire) and his wife’s appalling operas the better.

    (NB: I’m pressed for time at the moment but found this post easy to rattle off. I’d like to get back to “Poland and Islam” at some point but it will involve digging out books).

      • No, I haven’t. I’ll certainly investigate. I’ve only recently come across Bauer and seen a few clips. I’m planning to get a BFI DVD of some of his films, promisingly titled “Mad Love”.

        • Even if you hate animation, Starevich’s stop-motion films using dead insects are worth seeing. He went on to great fame in France with his La Fontaine stop-motion films in the 1920s and the 1930s but his Moscow movies are probably more subtle and sophisticated, as well as inordinately labor-intensive.

          Thinking of the kind of art that wouldn’t have been produced without the Bolshevik revolution, the Symphony of Factory Sirens wouldn’t have been performed, I imagine, and Nikolai Evreinov’s “re-enactment” of the Winter Palace storming wouldn’t have happened.

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