Hundred Years of Russian Revolution


A three-day conference at Färgfabriken, Södertörn University and Moderna Museet in Stockholm on October 19-21, 2017.

International conference:1917-2017: 100 Years of Russian Revolution in Art and Aesthetics
Conference outcomes:

The whole conference is presented in a video here>>

The artistic performances are reported at the webpage of Baltic Worlds. Read a presentation of Ekaterina Kalinina on the dance performance Breakin’ Revolution (and see the images).>>

Selected essays has been published as a special section in the printed isse 2017:3 of Baltic Worlds. Open Access at this web site.>>


The three day international interdisciplinary conference that marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution was organized by the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES) and School of Culture and Education, Södertorn University, with financial support by Swedish Research Council. The conference took place on October 19-21, 2017 in Stockholm and was a result of the collaboration between three institutions of Färgfabriken, Södertörn University and Moderna Museet.

The aim of the conference was to rethink the relationships between art at the time of Russian Revolution and those political events that influenced its destiny; to reflect on the origins of socialist realism that proved its sustainability and legitimacy throughout the Soviet era; and to conceptualize the subsequent recycling of that art and aesthetics today. Scholars gathered to discuss how the Russian Revolution was reflected in art and aesthetics through the past 100 years, highlighting those discourses, trends and artistic developments in visual art, architecture, cinema and media that were born by, despite and in contrary to the Bolshevik Revolution both in Russia and worldwide.

The conference opened with a public lecture by Per Enerud, writer and journalist, currently working at the Swedish Embassy in Moscow. Enerud narrated the story of the Russian Revolution as seen through the eyes of Swedish diplomats on duty in 1917. Having a vast network of consulates in Russian Empire at that time, Swedish diplomats were able to report about events that took place across the whole country from Petrograd to Krasnoyarsk. Sometimes their telegrams to Stockholm contained no information about atrocities and turmoil, which in fact revealed the rigorous censorship of any diplomatic post leaving Russia during that period. By creating this historical and archival link between Russia and Sweden, Per Enerud emphasized the symbolic choice of the conference location – Stockholm, the city that still keeps the memory of the Russian Revolution alive.

During the three days presenters and visitors alike scrutinized various forms of artistic expression that emerged around 1917, revealing ambiguous reactions of the public, intellectuals and artists to the political events in Russia during the revolutionary period. Andrei Rossomakhin demonstrated how political cartoonists showcased the public’s critical treatment of the Bolshevik leader and discredited Lenin’s propaganda, allowing him to reconstruct “the mindset of the Russian Revolution’s witnesses and contemporaries”.

The presentation inspired a discussion about discrepancies in the interpretations of artistic forms between those by the revolution’s contemporaries and ours, as scholars living in the 21st century. Presenters wondered whether we might read too much into the art forms produced during that period, basing our knowledge on the arsenal of critical theory that was not known at that time, and leading to over-theorizing the object of study. As a case in point, Dmitry Kozlov placed his analyses of El Lissitsky’s famous poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge at the core of his presentation, in which he demonstrated “that symbolic construction of the poster is assembled out of the merging of the military and artistic tendencies of the 1920s”.

One of the highlights of the discussion was the unique access to rare photos and documents from personal and state archives previously inaccessible to western researchers. Mikhail Evsevyev and Tatiana Sokhor demonstrated the diversity of art forms and interpretations of Revolutionary ideals in monumental propaganda and the Soviet state’s first stamps respectively.

Questions of time and temporality took a substantial place in the presentations and discussions. Launched in the presentation by Lars Lundgren and Christine Evans about the role of the satellite broadcast in celebration of the 50h Anniversary of the October Revolution in the Soviet Union, the question of temporality was later picked up by Robert Bird. Through analyses of the documentary project A Day of the World by Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Kol’tsov Bird revealed the dialectical nature of the aesthetics of socialist realism and the tensions it framed “between documentary and fiction, between publicity and intimacy, and between revolutionary time and the aberrant temporalities of individual experience”. Temporality and spatiality with their issues of continuity and rupture were also raised by Oksana Sarkisova in her analyses of Soviet films that depicted peoples at the far ends of the Soviet Union and produced “lasting visual formulae for the abstract categories of ethnicity, nationality and tribe applied by state policies”.

The theme of celebration of the Revolution’s centenary continued in the presentation by Olga Olkheft about the French-Soviet exhibition of 1979 “Moscow-Paris: 1900 – 1930” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The talk created another link between Sweden and Russia, as the exhibition was organised by Swedish curator Pontus Hulten, the founder of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

The relationship between religious beliefs, art, the Orthodox church and the Revolution were scrutinized in the presentations by Per-Arne Bodin and Anna Ivannikova. The latter argued that despite the “iconoclastic” campaigns launched by the Bolsheviks, the icon was not destroyed completely, surviving in the applied arts as well as among conservation professionals and enjoying a continued existence in émigré communities abroad.

The question of transnational socialist culture not constrained by geographical and political borders was raised in the keynote lecture by Katerina Clark. She argued that “the impulse to disregard or transcend borders can be seen in avant-garde proclamations and work from both the years preceding and those following the Bolshevik Revolution”; however, it was not always “related to a leftist political commitment”. This idea of the transnational experience and nature of revolutionary ideas was echoed in the presentations analyzing the legacy of revolutionary ideas and the legitimacy of the artistic methods developed during that period. For example, Vadim Bass argued that the methodology and aesthetical grounds of the VKhUTEMAS-VKhUTEIN educational system preserved its legitimacy in the following decades of socialist realism and has hardly lost its significance even today, as “the modernist formal discourse remains the mainstream way of discussing architecture by both architects and the general public”.

The legacy of early Soviet dystopian novels and their impact on dystopian literature worldwide was discussed by Ilkin Mehrabov, who guided visitors to the conference through contemporary literature, highlighting the nodal points where Soviet dystopian literature and its ideas had influence. Tora Lane’s introduction to Platonov’s revolutionary writing reveals how the writer, remaining in the midst of the horrors of the revolution that he himself described, sought to show the truth about what it meant to be aligned with modernity. The dialectical nature of early post-revolutionary literary aesthetics was also a subject of the presentation by Prof. Lars Kleberg who analyses the debates between two Russian critics, Osip Brik and Ivan Aksenov, on the art of avant-garde and the so-called “utilitarian art” of the proletariat.

The legacy of the artistic forms introduced during the period was also voiced in Elena Yushkova’s presentation about ballet dancer Isadora Duncan, and how the world-famous artist was used for propaganda purposes at all stages of the formation of the new culture. Meanwhile Maria Engström focused “on the ‘recomposition’ of socialist realist visuality in the creative works of Timur Novikov’s New Academy, the major post-Soviet community of conservative avant-garde artists”. Jan Levchenko retraced “theoretic and poetic paths” that Viktor Shklovsky “pioneered due to his fighting experience” in World War I through the reconstruction of his book, which quoted the Sternian’s Sentimental Journey “as a mechanism paralleled principally with the automobile”.

Documentary film and fiction cinema had a substantial place from the time of Revolution in Russia, which explained the presence of a special section on film at the conference. Oksana Bulgakowa analyzed cinematic reconstructions of the Bolshevik Revolution and its key symbolic events, such as the storming of the Winter Palace, in Soviet cinematography between 1927 and 1967, stressing that each film director produced his own version of history. Dietmar Hochmuth narrated how the Soviet film of the 1920s that “became a medium that helped to achieve a new total view on the development of society and history” was perceived in Western and Eastern Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The visual analyses given by the means of documentary film was applied by Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair in the presentation of her interdisciplinary project that focused on the “contemporary forms of performative commemoration of the traumas of the 20th and 21st centuries” and continuous revolutions in Eastern Europe through the example of the city of Lviv.

Christina Kiaer drew a concluding line in her keynote talk by illustrating how the artistic legacy of the Russian Revolutionary period could be marked in the 21st century by presenting the ongoing exhibition Revolution Every Day at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, which she curated together with Robert Bird and Zach Cahill. While questioning the conventional perception of revolutionary posters as merely the instruments of propaganda, Kiaer suggested distinguishing “between the aspirations that animate its production, and the operations of power that instrumentalize it”, highlighting the major idea behind the conference: to rethink how we perceive the art and design forms of the revolutionary period and to offer an unconventional and yet critical interpretation.

By Irina Seits and Ekaterina Kalinina

NOTE: The organizing committee – Ekaterina Kalinina, Irina Seits, Mark Bassin, Sven-Olov Wallenstein – would like to express their gratitude to the conference moderators and session chairs Irina Sandormirskaja and Johan Öberg.

Conference outcomes

The whole conference is presented in a video here>>

The artistic performances are reported at the webpage of Baltic Worlds. Read a presentation of Ekaterina Kalinina on the dance performance Breakin’ Revolution.>>

Selected essays has been published as a special section in the printed isse 2017:3 of Baltic Worlds. Open Access at this web site.>>


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