A revolution portrayed

Sarah McDonald reviews David King's Red star over Russia Tate Publishing, 2009, pp352, £25

David King’s book is subtitled A visual history of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the death of Stalin, and it is exactly that - a truly impressive visual account of the period.

This book was published to coincide with the exhibition of Russian constructivists Alexander Rodchenko and Luibov Popova at the Tate Modern - reviewed in this paper by Dani Thomas (Weekly Worker March 19).

While some of the art work from that excellent exhibition features in King’s folio-sized book, it covers a much longer period and includes not only a panoramic view of artistic styles, movements and media, but the politics behind them.

The author is an artist, photographer and Trotskyist with a newspaper background (he was art editor of The Sunday Times colour magazine between 1965 and 1975). He has spend nearly 40 years collecting photographs, journals, leaflets, prints, posters, paintings and pamphlets some of which are arranged and annotated in this book. He has recorded the hope, power and dynamism of the revolution, the turmoil of the civil war, the rise of Stalin and his 1930s reign of terror, the Nazi invasion and Stalin’s death in 1953.

King sets the background for this collection through a series of anecdotes - a mixture of funny, sad and sinister, but told in a way which thoroughly engaging. He describes his family connection with Russia through his great grandfather, who worked on the tsar’s railways.

He tells of his hatred of capitalism developing in childhood, dreaming of how life would be in the 21st century: “If anyone had told me there would still be inequality, racism, kings, queens and religious maniacs stalking the planet I would have considered them crazy” (p14). His childhood fascination with all things Russian grew with him into adulthood.

In 1970 David King visited the Soviet Union for the first time to research two visual features on the life and times of Lenin for the Sunday Times magazine. In the process of doing so he became acutely aware of the total absence of any images of Trotsky, which proved to be the catalyst for King’s attempt to document his life in pictures. This was no mean feat, given the purging of Soviet imagery. Of course, Trotsky is not alone in this respect - there are many examples in this collection where faces have been crudely hacked out of photographs.

David King received many of the images from Trotsky’s former comrades (on the proviso, at the time, that their names were not to be mentioned). There are also posters and artefacts with Trotsky’s image, which have impressively survived to the present day, given that possessing such a thing could have landed you in the gulag.

However, the search for images of Trotsky was just the beginning. During the 1970s King began to expand his efforts to include many aspects of Soviet history. Red Star over Russia contains fascinating photographs and illustrations of the Russian Revolution as it happened. Included are images of the people’s militia patrolling the streets after the February Revolution, the return of Lenin from exile and a Red Guard detachment 48 hours prior to the beginning of the October Revolution. Also contained are iconic images of the storming of the Winter Palace and one of the most famous photographs of these tumultuous events (though taken in July, not October). Victor Bulla’s photo, taken from his studio on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Sadovaya in Petrograd, shows provisional government troops opening fire on demonstrators, killing 56 people.

What is perhaps most striking about the imagery emanating from the revolution is the portrayal of both the mass and the individual. The red soldiers and sailors outside the Smolny Institute are captured on film armed and ready, but the picture is not staged and the focus of the image is on the group, not individuals.

It is interesting to follow the development of the portrayal of the individual in Russian visual culture. From the capturing of moments, people and events to the glorification of the revolutionary leaders (some of them, at least) and of the worker, the peasant, the soldier, etc through the 1920s. From Nappelbaum’s famous portrait of Lenin in 1918 to ‘Lenin cult’ imagery following his death in 1924, the very nature of which Lenin himself would have disapproved of greatly. This cult of the individual, orchestrated by Stalin, as David King points out, “laid the foundation for the Stalin cult that was to supersede it” (p159).

Visual culture in any society holds great importance and has great influence. When we look at the period immediately following the revolution, including the civil war, then we can understand how images could communicate to a population of which three quarters were illiterate and speaking many different languages.

And so here we see the development of agitprop. Much of this is familiar - it is representational, often drawing on traditional imagery and styles and always with a very clear message. The political usefulness of something quickly and easily produced, reproduced and dispersed is obvious. Though some may contest this assertion, it is my view that there is also artistic merit in the very creation of images which can instantly and boldly convey a point.

There are many great examples in David King’s book of truly revolutionary, visionary artists, designers and cinematographers, including Lissitzky, Eisenstein and Vertov, who were intellectually engaged by the dynamism of the time. They were artists inspired by electrification and increasing industrialisation of their society, and who devoted their art to the practice of politics though a combination of bold compositions, photomontage and text.

Eisenstein captured this mood, commenting that the new artists were “approaching everything from scratch in a new way that is characteristically our way, looking at everything in the light of new philosophical principles”. Many of the visuals of this period begin to become tied up with the first five-year plan and reflect feelings of enthusiasm for industry and production. At the time (1928-29) this is a genuine, rather than a state-enforced, enthusiasm.

This “new way” of approaching everything is somewhat juxtaposed to the other significant movement developing in the late 1920s and through the 1930s, socialist realism. Socialist realism, of course, did not look for new approaches or modern techniques: it tends to resemble 19th century realist painting mixed with revolutionary romanticism. Of course, Red star over Russia provides some striking and often beautiful examples of such work. Regardless of the sometimes overwhelming aspects of these types of images, it is important to always keep in mind how far removed they were from the hardships of daily life.

Also included in this collection are 10 pages of secret police mugshots of the Moscow show trials defendants - notably, Zinoviev and Kamenev. Almost all of these images are published for the first time. Along with the faces, King provides a short description of the roles, allegiance and fate of the victims.

The section dealing with the Nazi invasion contains truly harrowing images. These photographs include scenes of immense suffering and absolute destruction, of those fleeing battle zones, of a mass hanging of peasants by retreating Nazis, of the wounded, the dead and the grieving. Interspersed among the photographs are examples of defiant posters against fascism and in support of the Red Army.

Towards the end of the book, King provides some post-war examples of patriotic imagery, as the iron curtain descends. We see the shock and sorrow on the faces of workers and military personnel as they hear of the death of their ‘great leader’ and a photograph of Stalin himself, lying in state at the House of Trade Unions in Moscow, where the show trials of his enemies had been played out in the 1930s.

Aside from the sheer scale of this collection, what is truly impressive is the depth of knowledge David King possesses about the various artists, designers and photographers, as well as the events and people portrayed by them.

The annotations which accompany the imagery portray a real grasp of the subject as well as an underlying sense of warmth and humanity.