Given the year that’s in it, the New York Museum of Modern Art is running an exhibition with the neutral title of Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932. One art critic in The Guardian has a big problem with this. “It is a lazy, immoral lie to keep pretending there was anything glorious about the brutal experiment [of the Russian Revolution],” writes Jonathan Jones, who has glorified the art of the Spanish Inquisition.
But his own article is riddled with lazy and immoral lies – the kind of lies you can expect to hear a lot more of over this centenary year. Here are my responses to just six.
- Russia after the Russian Revolution was demonstrably not a one-party state. The Bolsheviks had a majority in the Soviets and, along with their coalition partners, won a majority in the short-lived and unlamented Constituent Assembly as well. The first government was a coalition. Under the Civil War, neither side allowed political parties on the other side to operate openly on their territory – as in every civil war.
- Rural society, far from being “destroyed,” grew richer because the Revolution gave tens of millions of peasants vast tracts of new land at the expense of the nobles.
- Jones takes famines separated by ten years, claims they were the same thing, then for good measure equates the poor peasants’ committees to Nazism. Let’s attempt to reverse his dishonest mangling of events. The famines of the early years of Soviet rule were an atrocity committed (through blockade, invasion and intervention) by regimes whose art Jones would have no problem celebrating: the “democratic” UK, USA, France, etc. The famines of the early 1930s were a result of Stalin’s forced collectivization of farms – an idea that Lenin and the Bolsheviks consistently opposed over decades.
- Jones first claims that the Poor Peasant’s Committees somehow brought about famine (which they didn’t), then equates them with Stalin’s policies of mass starvation and deportation. Then he claims that they anticipated the Nuremberg Laws and the Holocaust. As well as being stupid and disgusting, this is a ridiculous show of juvenile historical leap-frogging.
- Jones repeatedly equates the Russian Revolution with Nazism. This is the worst of all. The Nazis had the explicit aim of killing tens of millions of people based on their ethnicity. Even in the very bloody history of Stalinism, we find no parallels to the Nazis’ apocalyptic vision of brutal colonization. To give just one example (aside from the Holocaust itself), the Nazis deliberately starved four million to death between the Siege of Leningrad and their “camps” for Russian prisoners-of-war.
- But to compare Lenin and the Bolsheviks to Nazism, which Jones does, again and again and without a trace of subtlety, is outrageous. Sadly, the wartime emergency measures taken by the Bolsheviks do not constitute “one of the most murderous chapters in human history.” Mass killings of civilians that many times exceed this have taken place repeatedly up to the present day. The Indonesian terror of the 1960s and the USA’s actions in Vietnam are the first that come to mind, but we could, unfortunately, compose a much longer list.
Complaining bitterly about El Lissitzky’s masterpiece “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”, Jones asks, “Did Billy Bragg and Paul Weller worry about [the fact that it very obviously refers to the Russian Civil War] when they borrowed its cool title for a 1980s effort to make pop music political? Nah, they didn’t give it a thought.”
This patronizing aside flies wide of the mark. The founders of “Red Wedge” were consciously referencing the Russian Civil War – a struggle between the Reds, an army of workers and peasants fighting for democratic socialism, and the Whites, a force that fought for industrialists and ex-nobles, lacking popular support but armed and set on its feet by massive helpings of foreign aid. If the Whites had won, a true war on the peasants would have ensued as the nobles sought to grab back their land, along with massacres in the cities as “order” was restored, and lynchings of Jews that would actually have anticipated the holocaust. Weller and Bragg could see which side they were on. Evidently they gave it a lot more thought than Jonathan Jones, who suggests that the workers and peasants of Russia placed themselves on the same moral level as Hitler when they fought to defend their revolution.