Two cultural bookends have got me thinking. One is the book I am reading – the terrifying and agonising Second Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich. The other was two hours spent yesterday at the Royal Academy wandering, wondering and studying the paintings and photographs in their current blockbuster Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932. The latter finishes on Easter Monday so get to see it if you have not already. Two hours was enough, but I didn’t watch all the films, and am familiar with the work of Kazimir Malevich, so didn’t spend overlong in the fantastic gallery devoted to his work, important as it is.

The two bookend the existence of the Soviet Union – its birth and its death. Both therefore have as a constant theme a sense of Russia, and both provoke questions, mostly unanswerable, about how people cope with the intensity of change and of suffering brought about by the demonic affliction upon Russia of the Bolshevik political vision.

Second Hand Time is, like the vast majority of Alexievich’s writing, a collection of Soviet voices allowed to speak for themselves in the comfort of their own kitchen in and around 2005-2010, reflecting on their lives, on the form of capitalism that has been foisted on Russia since Yeltsin, on the experience of Soviet life, of the camps and orphanages, of the security and communal solidarity, of youth movements and war experiences, of teenage suicide and teenage rejection of what made the Soviet Union a great country. Overshadowing everything is the ability of a longsuffering people, mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s, to make sense of the injustice that Bolshevism brought to their lives whilst being aghast at what has replaced it. One particularly poignant conversation is between two friends and Alexievich, one woman a staunch and devoted communist, one glad to see the end of it all, and yet doing their best to allow their friendship to transcend and survive this huge difference. Because all that you hear is the intensity of personal testimony, with virtually no narrative (one exception is made to describe the circumstances of the death of a man who was one of the surviving defenders of the Brest fortress in 1941), it is overwhelming. The story of a girl taken to a labour camp in Kazakhstan with her mother, and the subsequent separation, false promises, orphanages and return to “normal” life in Moscow, is beyond any review. Most heartbreaking, I suppose, because most mundane, was the willingness of neighbours of both Jews in the 1940s and ordinary Russian citizens in the post-war period to enter the homes of victims and take all their stuff – “you won’t be needing this any more; you won’t be coming back for this”. It just leaves you dislocated, wondering at how it was possible to allow such hatred and lack of compassion to survive on the earth. I read the book for which she got the Nobel Prize for Literature, Voices of Chernobyl, 18 months ago, but this is somehow more broad-ranging and describes the deep psychological dislocation and woundedness of people who have simply suffered by being. It is not an advertisement for capitalism any more than it offers support for Bolshevism. Instead it respectfully and tenderly provides space for broken people to talk about – and in rare cases only, come to terms with – their brokenness. Much of the book is just a desert of pain.

The dislocation felt by Russian citizens under Bolshevik rule was partly due to the revolution having happened in the midst of a long war that lasted from August 1914 to the end of the Russian Civil War in 1922, during which time there was virtually no family security. The Royal Academy exhibition, to its great credit, has managed to bridge this divide, principally by including one gallery entitled “Eternal Russia” and secondly by giving a whole gallery over to the work of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (his Petrograd Madonna is pictured here). Both of these two galleries were the ones that drew my attention the most. The Eternal Russia gallery was a collection of paintings (Aristarkh Lentulov’s Tverskoy Boulevard – at the top of this post – and Gates with Tower: New Jerusalem; Mikhail Nestorov’s painting Philosophers; and Marc Chagall’s Promenade – also pictured above – dominating the gallery) that celebrated the life and last days of a great nation whose physical characteristics and impact on worldview would survive, and which artists in the 1920s clearly considered worth painting and perhaps preserving. Two lovely landscapes (Vasily Baksheev’s Blue Spring and Igor Grabar’s By the Lake) celebrate the flat countryside and its “eternal” silver birches. From their perspective, Russia was this, and should be painted as this, with little conception of what the future might be. Nestorov’s Philosophers is one of the most powerful paintings in the whole show. It shows the philosophers Sergei Bulgakov and Pavel Florensky in conversation in the grounds of a monastery – both destined to suffer exile or death from the communists, and yet both men whose thought had the power to sustain Russia. This sense of a full, pre-Soviet life and artistic culture is sometimes forgotten, not in the sense of art history (Malevich, for instance, made the transition smoothly enough, having a strong motivation for change in the avant-garde), but in the lives that people had, and the meaning that they (at the time) and we (with the benefit of hindsight) were able to give them.

Alexievich makes the point that many of her interviewees struggled to make sense of the time that they were living in, but that it was vital that they did. Some of her interviewees could not understand why it was necessary that so many were incarcerated and tortured by the state, yet they still, for their own psychological balance, had to create a story, a narrative, in which to live. In the case of the holocaust in Russia, it was virtually impossible. Placing these paintings in their time, and knowing that the artists had no knowledge of what was to come, is sobering. It is no surprise that many artists found it possible to rejoice in and celebrate what seemed to them to be real and of value – the paintings of Isaak Brodsky, especially his famous Lenin at Smolny, must be seen in this light. One of the Guardian reviews of this exhibition completely misses the point, condemning the entire post-revolutionary oeuvre as propaganda and criticising the RA for the neutrality of its stance during the exhibition notes. I can’t agree. What I came away with, and was grateful for, was the sense that we did not know what was going to happen next. Yes there was a brutality to the revolution and the civil war, but the purges, the German invasion, the holocaust and Stalin’s reaction to that were all far in the future for these artists. As a result, I got a strong sense of artists trying to make sense of the new world that they lived in, constantly changing, and coming to a facile ending with Stalin’s insistence on socialist realism.

Where the painting (as painting) was most interesting, in some ways, was in the gallery devoted to the work of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Early in the exhibition was his lovely portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova, but the room devoted to him gave us a sense of a man working to describe and interpret in terms of the everyday – beautiful still life paintings (including a fantastic treatment of water in Still Life with Glass and in Cherry Blossom in a Glass). The most moving still life was entitled Still Life with a Herring and is just a painting of a piece of breads, some potatoes (have potatoes ever been painted with such care?) and a herring on a blue piece of paper. It summed up so much of the hardship of the times that these simple staples should have been celebrated.

There was much more. A whole room full of portraits of the important cultural figures of the period (Mayakovsky, Meyerhold, Gorky, Blok) with some Kandinsky abstracts and a reconstruction of an early communal living apartment (very Bauhaus) was a major source of interest and beautifully curated, as was a reproduction of Malevich’s original exhibition at the Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic.

This is a really important collection, and it was a privilege to stand in front of these paintings knowing more of the lives of those who had laboured to create them. Go see.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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