I bought tickets back in November for the “Building the revolution” show at the Royal Academy and was given a 10 am admission time. When I phoned to ask if it would be possible to come later, they told me not to worry — the show was not very popular and it wouldn’t be crowded at any time.
So the good news is, they were wrong.
When I finally did get to see this exhibition, subtitled “Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935”, it was absolutely packed with people. Clearly many are interested in the subject.
On a cold Saturday afternoon in London, there were hundreds of people of all ages walking past an enormous model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International and then wandering through a series of rooms showing everything from an industrial bakery to special housing constructed for the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police.
And delighted as I am that so many people seem to be interested in one of the most revolutionary experiments ever undertaken, I left the exhibition feeling deeply disturbed. Let me explain why.
The idea that revolutionary politics, that changing the world, is somehow a part of the distant past, something that we modern people can look back it the same why we look at earlier civilizations, is somehow… wrong.
This exhibition with its cold, academic descriptions, was filled with people staring at photos of buildings — both as they were in the 1920s and as they are now — and then commenting on what they liked and didn’t, just as one would do with, say, Etruscan statues in the British Museum or medieval paintings of the infant Jesus.
“I like that one,” someone would say. “And that’s very ugly, isn’t it?” asked another.
But the ideas expressed — if one bothered to read the texts — were extraordinary, and deeply relevant to our time. This is not ancient history, and shouldn’t be presented as such.
For example, there was whole section devoted to early Bolshevik experiments with collective housing for workers. These massive structures included vast communal areas, common dining rooms, kitchens, laundries, libraries, kindergartens, wide hallways to allow social interaction, and relatively small sleeping areas. I was reminded of the Israeli kibbutzim, but on an urban scale.
It also struck me how so much of this architecture — like the kibbutz itself — seemed to define its vision of new society in terms of the liberation of women. Women living in such housing would not be expected to cook and clean, or even to be the primary carers of children. All of this was done collectively.
The involvement of revolutionary architects in the design of bakeries and garages and dams was also extraordinary. It expressed the idea that the places ordinary people spent their days — their work-places — should be designed thoughtfully, with some degree of respect for the people who work there.
The exhibition gave no indication of what preceded these buildings — we didn’t see what workers’ housing looked like under the tsarist regime, or what factories looked like before the 1917 revolution.
Without that context, and without any political understanding of the ideas of Marx and Lenin, the exhibition was like any other, showing any random country and period of history.
Nor does the decline of experimental art and architecture in the increasingly Stalinised Soviet Union get an explanation. We see Lenin’s absurdly grandiose tomb, the resting place of his mummified corpse to this day. And we’re shown details of housing built in Moscow for the party elite, the new ruling class. There is no sense that there is some kind of break here, that the revolution has been defeated, replaced by a new kind of class society.
If one knows something of the history of revolutionary Russia, the experience of seeing such works can be quite moving. There was a genuine sense of artistic and cultural liberation in the first years of Bolshevik rule.
But taken out of context, all one sees in this exhibit are objects, which one may judge according to individual tastes.
The great ideas that stood behind them — equality, freedom, social justice — have disappeared from view.