Russian Revolution(s) at the British Library

Posted on: April 28, 2017 by

Part of a propaganda image used by the communists in Russia, c. 1917, and now the central advertising image for the British Library’s new exhibition, ‘Russian Revolution’.

An excellent show has begun today at the British Library in London called ‘Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths‘. It offers a view into some of the most important – and iconic – texts and visual images of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that marked not only Russia, but also the world. Instead of focusing solely on the years in and around the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the exhibition takes a much wider view, beginning in the 1850s and continuing well into the 1950s. It also includes everything from Vladimir Lenin’s readers’ pass request from the British Museum reading room (the forerunner of the British Library) dated April 1902 to an enormous workers’ party flag from Shipley, England from mid-century.

What the exhibition shows is that the “revolution” didn’t just begin in 1917. The tensions that eventually erupted had been brewing for decades. Also, the revolution didn’t simply complete a full and final transition into a new way of life for the 125 million people of Russia. In fact, the revolution, as a concept, was in many ways developed by the Communist Party after the fact, well into the 1920s.  And its effects would be ongoing for quite some time.

Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Night Café’ from Yale University Art Gallery, the subject of the Konowaloff dispute.

Think of the recent legal dispute in the US between Pierre Konowaloff and Yale University’s art gallery regarding Van Gogh’s Night Cafe, a painting that had been confiscated by the Soviets from the plaintiff’s Russian forebear in 1918 and, much later, received as a gift by Yale University in 1961. This went to the Connecticut courts and in 2015 the Second Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that the takings by the Russian government in that period could not be challenged in US courts because they were considered ‘acts of state’ and so were unimpeachable. But the issue is nowhere near settled.

Think also of the Chabad dispute that has pitted a hasidic Jewish community in New York against the current Russian government for confiscation of a famous religious library by the Soviets in 1921, leading to an intense cultural-diplomatic stalemate between the US government and Russia (no, not that one; this one). It seems like ever since the early case of Princess Paley Olga trying to get back her expropriated art collection before the English courts in 1929 (Paley Olga v. Weisz [1929] 1 K.B. 718), there have been generations of Russian émigrés trying to recover property nationalised by the state.

So the Russian revolution is still in many ways ongoing. That is, its effects are still being felt in places as far flung as Connecticut, New York and London. And so the British Library, in its current exhibition, takes the right approach. We should not see the events of 1917 as existing safely in the past; they continue to be relived many years afterwards and still leave an indelible imprint on matters today.

For a more in-depth view of many of the legal cases involving art and manuscript collections confiscated by the Soviets, see the recent article by Irina Tarsis, ‘Twentieth Century Shadows over the Twenty-First Century Art Field: Title Disputes Arising from the Soviet Nationalisation and Sales of Cultural Property‘,  published in Art Antiquity and Law in October 2016.