Marking the centenary of 1917, the British Library’s Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths traces the revolution through the paper ephemera left behind. With its almost textbook layout, the exhibition untangles the revolution from its earliest roots in 1896 to the aftermath and final victory of the Red Army in 1924 and lays it out in a series of cause and effect.
Despite the fascinating content, the sheer weight of the text was tiring. Because of the nature of the British Library’s collection, most of the objects on display were books, posters, pamphlets … in other words text. Considering your reading level drops a few grades when you are standing, I would have found Russian Revolution entirely overwhelming if it hadn’t been for a book I had read a few months before.
Blood Red, Snow White, by Marcus Sedgwick completely influenced the way I navigated the exhibition. This book follows the personal experiences of Arthur Ransome during the revolution: the British children’s book author, collector of Russian fairy tales, and reluctant spy. My memories of this story carried me through the exhibition because Russian Revolution and Blood Red, Snow White laid out the same basic information in very complimentary but different ways. Together, they helped me link the larger themes of the revolution to the minutiae on display.
While the exhibition creates a neat timeline, Sedgwick sets out Russian history as if it were a fairy tale. Peter the Great, Tsars, uprisings and conflicts, Rasputin, and war are all told in the pared down style of a bedtime story. And running throughout these tales is the image of a bear, the old symbol of Mother Russia, awakening in this time of upheaval and stalking through the forest on its way to St. Petersburg.
“The bear, which by now was as large as the cathedral on Catherine’s canal, rose on its hind legs like a dancing bear in a street market. For a moment the sun was blotted out by its size, and then it fell. As it fell, it came apart. It disintegrated. It fell like brown snow, but each flake was a person. The bear had been one hundred thousand people, and now the people came to earth, tumbling into the snowy streets of the city and picking themselves up, laughing at it all. Far from being hurt, they realised that they felt strong. But, like the bear, they felt hungry. They ran through the streets, swarming like bees, joining others who had emerged when the sun had. It was chaos.”
– Marcus Sedgwick, Blood Red, Snow White
Stories and Objects
From this point onward, Sedgwick drops out of the dreamy fairy tale and into the messy, lived adventures of Arthur Ransome. This part includes more practical, historical detail, but unlike the exhibition, Sedgwick focuses on the forces that affected a single individual. Because of this, the objects I found most compelling in the exhibition were the ones that resonated with the narrative in my head of Ransome’s life story.
I was drawn to the Yalta Female Delegate broadsheet because it contrasted so much to Arthur Ransome – a well-connected journalist and spy with ties to both Trotsky’s office and the British consulate. Instead, here was this poster, a poster glued to a wall because events were happening too quickly for newspapers to be printed. In a world as connected as we are, it is hard to imagine how frightening it must have been to not know what was going on.
One object actively challenged the version of Ransome the book helped me form. I knew intellectually that he acted as a spy, but I had this image of old boys’ club espionage – he was just someone who knew the right people and passed along information. Here though was map Ransome had drawn for the spy Bruce Lockhart, identifying food supply chains in preparation for a possible British invasion of Russia. It was striking because of the contrast to the childish maps at the start of his Swallows and Amazons children’s series. The exhibition made me see Ransome more seriously, stripped bare of the fairy tale theme that made Blood Red, Snow White so charming.
I think that Sedgwick’s book would be an important companion to Russian Revolution, especially for people like me who don’t necessarily memorize dates but learn history by telling ourselves a story with historical figures as characters. The story of Ransome’s life allowed me to situate myself within the larger historical events of the exhibition, while the physical objects made the history feel more real and immediate.
No one medium or perspective can provide the entire view of history, for it is a large and foreign country in its own right:
Beyond the sunrise, half way to the moon, and so very far away it would make your feet weep to think about it, lies a land vast in size and deep in sadness. From where we sit, on the far edge of history, we can see across Time itself, and yet this land is so big we struggle to see all of it at once.”
– Marcus Sedgwick, Blood Red, Snow White
Leaving the exhibition, I walked passed my favorite Waterstones on Gower Street and found a window display featuring the revolution. Below are some ways you can also explore the Russian revolution in further detail.