Russia 1917: Russian history through the lenses of art
Paintings that show the big things: the world, history, great men.
Welcome to the new edition of Matryoshka’s Diary. Today we will explore Russian history through the lenses of art. Do you like Russian history as much as we do? Then, get yourself comfortable as we are about to take you on a historical adventure.
I met Jiawei Shen over a year ago in his studio in Sydney. He is an award-winning artist and big on history paintings that depict the leaders of the 20th century Russia. As a very skillful and talented artist, he is interested in making paintings that show the big things: the world, history, great men.
Historical figures of the era
Russia 1917 is a new work in his motorcar series: The Century on Wheels. As is the case with other works of the series, the car symbolizes both the era and political power. The car portrayed comes directly from a photograph taken during the February Revolution.
At the steering wheel, and in control, is Vladimir Lenin in disguise. In the summer of 1917, he had shaved off his famous beard and donned a wig to escape arrest by the provisional government. The artist copied this famous photograph from his identity papers.
Sitting next to Lenin is Maria Spiridonova, the honorary chair of the left faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, which until the summer of 1918 had been allied with Lenin. Typical of Popularists of the past century, she was a teacher by profession and had an aristocratic family background. She was sentenced to death by the Czarist government because of her involvement in assassinations, and later was in and out of Bolshevik prisons, before Stalin finally executed her.
The person standing at the front shouting is, of course, Leon Trotsky. Not long before this, he was the mediator between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. After the February Revolution, he returned after Lenin to Russia and discovered they shared the same aim, thus the best partnership in the socialist revolution came into being. They accomplished the coup of the October Revolution, but the monster created by the revolution eventually swallowed up the unfortunate Trotsky.
Maxim Gorky is in the back seat, behind Lenin. As a long-standing member of the Social Democratic Labor Party, Gorky used the fees from his writings to support the Bolsheviks. His common-law wife for a time, actress Maria Andreyeva, had inherited a fortune from the philanthropist Arseny Morozov when he committed suicide, and she spent most of it financing the Bolshevik cause. Therefore, throughout the whole of 1917 and the early part of 1918, only Gorky’s newspaper was able to voice strong criticism of the destruction of freedom and violence committed by the Bolsheviks. Gorky and Rosa Luxemburg belonged to the kind of Marxists who clung onto humanist values.
The person standing at the back making a speech to an anonymous audience is the prime minister of the provisional government, Alexander Kerensky, a lawyer who believed in socialism. He was a star of the February Revolution. He insisted on continuing the war against Germany, and at the beginning of the summer of 1917 he was already in opposition to Lenin. When the Bolshevik soldiers attacked the Winter Palace, he escaped from St. Petersburg, and afterwards lived in the U.S. until a very old age.
The other old man in the back seat is Georgi Plekhanov, the godfather of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, and early mentor of Lenin. He parted company with Lenin in 1903, to become the leader of the Mensheviks. He died in 1918. Eighty years later, a document entitled “Last Will of Plekhanov” came to light. It accused Lenin of being a one-eyed dictator, and predicted that Russia under the rule of Lenin would face disaster and collapse after a few decades. Some people believe the document to be a fake, nonetheless the Central Translation Bureau in Beijing quickly had it translated into Chinese.
A soldier who has returned from the front line has also squeezed onto the car, and he looks happy. He is playing a piano accordion, and is certainly playing the most popular folk tune of the time, Kalinka.The side of the car shows Petrograd’s advertising posters of the time. The layer beneath shows a pre-revolution picture of the empress and the princesses, as volunteer nurses. The layer on top are campaign posters of parties in the constitutional assembly election alongside the painting Reaper on Red Background by the talented avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich, as well as a corner of one of his war cartoon posters.The wheels of the car are red, because of Solzhenitsyn’s great work Red Wheel.The eagle facing in the opposite direction, of course, is Rosa Luxemburg who could fly lower than chickens. The artist painted the name onto the clothing of each of the main characters: in Russian if the person was Russian and in German if the person was German (in fact, Rosa was Polish).
The background of the painting is an amalgam of three famous paintings of the time. The bright spheres are from Konstatin Yuon’s oil painting A New Planet; Death, portrayed as a giant skeleton, comes from Boris Kustodiev’s cartoon Revolution and Death; and the Russian village and the floating man and woman are from Marc Chagall’s oil painting Above the Town. These contradictory images hint at the strong contradictions between the utopian ideals of the revolution and cruel reality. Revolution is glorious, colorful, but deadly.
A final point of interest for the art historian is that while Chagall and Malevich were two of the most talented Russian artists of the time, they did not get on. Appointed head of the art school in his hometown of Vitebsk, Chagall had employed Malevich as a member of the teaching staff, but Malevich afterwards got rid of Chagall. This happened a few years after the October Revolution. Anatoly Lunacharsky, a Bolshevik, was education commissar at the time, and he acted as the protector of this group of egotistical artists. After his death in 1930, there was no one to speak for them. Had Lunacharsky lived for a few more years, he would have become yet another of Stalin’s victims
The Russian Revolution of 1917
It’s not just among the most important moments in Russian history, but in the history of the world as a whole: the Russian Revolution of 1917 that crushed Nicholas’s Russian Empire led to the creation of the USSR. The world would have been a very different place had that revolution not happened: no global Communist movement and no Russian scarecrow looming over the Western world. Adolf Hitler wouldn’t even have had the opportunity to play on those global fears… the list of potential consequences is long.
Interested in learning more about Russian culture and history while studying Russian? At the Enjoy Russian School we offer face-to-face and online courses that we get you fully immersed which means you will have an opportunity to experience Russian language and history while learning Russian. To find out more about our courses, click here.