The Old Champions of a New Art: Russia, Revolution, and Art, a Hundred Years Later.

Exactly a century ago, in 1917, myriad forces in Russia conspired to topple the Czar, overthrowing an autocratic system of government which had been in place for over 400 years. The Russian Revolution, as it was later hailed, was one of the most subversive and important events of modernity. Two revolutions ushered in this new era: the February and October revolutions. The first toppled the Czar, Nicholas II, and put in place a Provisional Government, which sought to implement liberal reform and a parliamentary system. The second, led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, sought to install a  communist state, a completely unprecedented system of government, a Union of Soviet Republics. A century later, the socialist experiment envisioned by Lenin has all but been relegated to the ashes of history. The ideas and impetus that gave rise to it, however, are still powerful enough to strike fear into those who guard the current status quo.

Complete and utter subversion defined 1917. Forces that were previously deemed impenetrable were were brought crumbling down, the construction of a radically new world seeming within reach. The arts were no exception; the revolutionary energy flowered through artistic expression, the Russian avant-garde movement evincing a new conception of the world. A hundred years later, however, Russia finds itself in a completely different place; an authoritarian ruler works to overthrow a global liberal order while repressing any breath of subversion at home. Vladimir Putin, however, seems to have a large advantage over his predecessors: a lack of ideology. While the early Soviet Union attempted to rally all aspects of its cultural life around the goal of installing a new world order, Putin is free from this; he seeks only power, and thus needs to tailor the arts only insofar as it is necessary to achieve this goal. It is thus more from the Stalinist years – and not the revolutionary Russia of 1917 – that the current Russian leader draws inspiration, evinced by his refusal to throw any celebrations to mark the one hundred-year anniversary. Putin is concerned only with realpolitik, not the realization of a utopian, ideological, vision; in a world in which pragmatism and efficiency seem to always be rewarded, this trait is a strong asset. As Putin begins to more firmly extend his grip over critical artistic expression, it is worthwhile to look back to Russia’s most eventful years and see the vital role the arts once played before they were repressed by the Soviet regime.

At about 1,306 feet – far surpassing the Eiffel Tower in height – Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International would have been the largest manmade structure in the world – had it been built. Composed of three rotatable glass units supported by a colossal spiral steel frame, the Monument would have housed a conference hall, a legislative chamber, and a propaganda center for the Third Communist International. Although it was never built – due primarily to its cost – Tatlin’s revolutionary design evinces the ambition and energy with which early Soviet artists were infused after the Revolution. They sought to break all established rules, to create towering structures of imposing force, bringing the revolution to art, all in the praise of (and in line with) the vision of the newly established workers’ state.

While the early Soviet Union attempted to rally all aspects of its cultural life around the goal of installing a new world order, Putin is free from this; he seeks only power, and thus needs to tailor the arts only insofar as it is necessary to achieve this goal.

Tatlin would become a major proponent of a ‘constructivist’ art, an artistic and architectural philosophy which sought to forcefully reject the past in favor of a world that looked only to the future. This would be one of several artistic schools and philosophies which would surge as a strain of the revolution. Other artists, such as Kazimir Malevich, and his UNOVIS group – standing for “Champions of the New Art” – sought, like Tatlin, to explore new theories and push the boundaries of the arts; Malevich would be most famous for founding the Suprematist school, a movement which focused on geometric figures painted in a restricted range of colors. In the early post-revolutionary years, these artists – especially Malevich’s UNOVIS – would seek to introduce these ideals to the Russian public by working with and for the Soviet government, furnishing Russian cities with Suprematist art and propaganda. The Communist ideals pervaded in all aspects of their work; all artists of the UNOVIS group shared equal credit by signing their art with a singular black square, alluding to one of Malevich’s earliest Suprematist pieces. Malevich sought to go further, however, and pushed his students to delve into architecture, in order to produce larger and more permanent works. One of Malevich’s protégés, El Lissitzky – who produced one of the most famous works of the Suprematist school, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (pictured in image above) – would become head of the architectural faculty; they drafted plans for free-floating buildings, massive glass and steel structures, and housing complexes. However, much like Tatlin’s Monument, much of it was never realized; UNOVIS would be short-lived, disbanding in 1922, after ideological differences amongst its core members. The ephemeral lifespan of the group, however, would be largely representative of the brevity of the experimental, avant-garde, art movement in early post-revolutionary Russia.

Lenin, who had a largely conservative taste in art, had begun to feel that avant-gardism was getting out of hand and alienating the proletariat; he would not live long enough, however, to enact any concrete policies restricting it. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin would quickly rise to the head of the Soviet Union, and by the beginning of the 1930’s would begin to clamp down heavily on abstract art, as Lenin had envisioned. In an attempt to micromanage all of Russian culture, Stalin and the Communist Party would embrace – and force – Socialist Realism as the official form of Soviet art. The art form glorified communist values and envisioned the perfect Soviet proletariat worker through extremely realistic imagery. From here on out, writers, filmmakers, and artists would be heavily censored by the state along party lines, as Russia descended to dystopic depths under the Stalinist regime.

If the Soviet Union were still intact today, one would undoubtedly expect there to be massive celebrations and parades of militaristic strength to mark the one hundred years of the Revolution. Yet —although some critics label Putin’s Russia as a return to the USSR — the current government has no celebrations planned; on the other hand, it has had difficulties dealing with the narrative of the 1917 Revolution. To celebrate that year is to breathe life back into ideas of upheaval, subversion, and resistance, to politicize and conscientize all citizens. To celebrate 1917 is to invite the arts, and all other aspects of cultural life, back into politics, and thus to bring back figures such as Malevich, Tatlin, and El Lissitzky. In other words, danger for the status quo. As Putin treads a thin line between dictatorship and democracy, breeding revolution is the last thing he needs. If he could, Putin would skip 1917 and instead celebrate the Stalin muscle-flexing of the 30’s, but of course, international and historical consensus impede him from doing so.

The arts under Putin have, of course, not been submitted to censorship as heavy as that under Stalin and the reign of Socialist Realism. On the contrary, the arts seem to be thriving in today’s Russia. This does not mean that there is no censorship, however. Instead of having a set of strictly implemented rules, censorship takes a much subtler form; scandals, clashes of alliances and influences, and the dangling of access to government funds and facilities create a stressful, paranoic environment which leads to auto-censorship. This format perfectly suits Putin’s agenda; it allows him to use the thriving art world as a token for international prestige and an evincement of a supposed free society, while making artists scared of being too critical or confrontational of the government.

Here, Putin’s great advantage over his Soviet antecessors, namely a lack of ideology, is evidenced. While Stalin and the Soviet regime sought to strictly enforce a worldview by micromanaging every single aspect of Russian life, Putin’s only interest is remaining in power. He won’t hesitate to renounce, change, or fake his positions, if it means gaining more control and influence; not only is this extremely dangerous but it works. This might be the key to Putin’s continued success in remaining at the helm of Russia, in slowly deconstructing the global liberal order, and in never allowing another 1917.

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