IT IS a paradox that an exhibition on the Russian Revolution, which was inspired by an atheist ideology, should be full of religious imagery. The British Library’s remarkable exhibition about this historic event includes many vivid posters from the period, which portray the battle between the Bolsheviks and their opponents as a struggle between light and darkness, between heaven and hell.
A recording of a Red Army officer’s letter, written in 1919, likens communism to “the light”: “There is only one way to go towards the light and the light is communism.” In contrast, an anti-Bolshevik poster, “Retribution” (1919-20), portrays the Archangel Michael and the White Army driving Lenin and the Bolsheviks into hell, where a red devil boils one of them alive in a cauldron “for blasphemy and outrages against the Church”.
Another poster from 1919 portrays a white horseman with Russian Orthodox churches in the background, fighting a red dragon. Lenin’s close associate Leon Trotsky, in a 1920 poster, takes the form of a fat red monster on the walls of the Kremlin, with blood dripping from his hands, while below him in hell men are being executed beside a vast pile of skulls. A 1923 anti-religious poster portrays the face of a peasant as he sneezes out his religious beliefs — Mary and the Christ-Child, St Nicholas the Wonder Worker, and an image of Christ are sent flying — while a healthy worker, who has shed such remnants of the past, stands behind him smiling benignly.
© British Library Board“A Worker Sweeping Criminals out of the Soviet Land”: from Russian placards, 1917The juxtaposition of light and darkness is used again in poster towards the end of the Civil War: with buildings symbolising work, art, and science in the background, a Red Army soldier points to an enormous book containing in large letters the text “From Darkness to Light. From Battle to Books. From Misery to Happiness.”
Warning signs of future persecution of the Church are conveyed in a poster dated 1921, during the famine that was caused by the collapse of the economy and agriculture: an enormous spider sucks the life out of the countryside, while streams of food are seen pouring down on to the spider from a monastery, an Orthodox church, a synagogue, a mosque, and a Catholic church. The caption reads: “The gold of the churches must be used to save the starving from death.” In fact, the Russian Orthodox Church willingly sold its valuables to help the starving, but refused to include the sacred vessels used for communion. Lenin used this as a pretext to attack the Church viciously in 1922.
As well as posters, the British Library’s exhibition includes film clips, photographs, artefacts, books, pamphlets, and documents, as it tells the story of events both before and after the Russian Revolution. A documentary celebrating 300 years of the Romanov dynasty brings back haunting images of the tsarist past, while the text in Odessa News of Grand Duke Nikolai’s speech on being appointed commander-in-chief of the Russian army in 1914 by Nicholas II expresses religious sentiments that would soon be expunged from the new reality of Lenin’s USSR: “Having made the sign of the cross, I pray fervently to God that He might vouchsafe to me his all-powerful aid. I firmly believe that, for the good of the Motherland, the omnipotent and all-merciful One will hear my prayer.”
A copy of the Electoral Law published in August 1917, which laid down the democratic principles for the election of the Constituent Assembly, is a painful reminder of what might have been: had this representative institution, to which the Bolsheviks had won less than a quarter of the votes, not been forcibly disbanded by Lenin’s supporters, perhaps Russia’s future would have been different.
© British library boardUnpopular consort: Tsarina Alexandra at the ball, February 1903Towards the end of the exhibition, a Polish poster produced during the 1919 war between Poland and Russia makes this appeal: “Whoever believes in God — defend the icon of the Mother of God under the Polish-Lithuanian banner.” The Red Army was halted in 1920 at the Battle of Warsaw, and a peace treaty was signed in 1921. This poster is a reminder that Poland was then seen as the first line of defence for Christian civilisation against atheistic communism.
Although the Communist Party condemned religion, after Lenin’s death it created its own cult: Lenin’s embalmed body was placed in the Red Square mausoleum to which worshippers flocked to gawp, while slogans claiming Lenin’s immortality became omnipresent. One is displayed on a panel at this exhibition: “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live.” I can remember an even bolder claim in a slogan on a Moscow hoarding in the 1970s: “Lenin is more alive than all the living”!
Xenia Dennen is the chairman of Keston Institute, Oxford.
“Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy Myths” is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1, until 29 August. Ticket bookings: phone 01937 546546.