Article Written: 1917 to 2017

By Kristin Romberg, U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This article was originally published in the October 2017 edition of NewsNet

When the editors of NewsNet asked me months ago to contribute something on the current state of scholarship about art produced in the context of the Russian Revolution, I planned to write about the repositioning of the field in the past ten years; how the receding relevance of the Cold War paradigms that once made our work “topical” in Title VIII terms has been as much an opportunity as a challenge; how a decreasing appetite for Manichean hero/ villain structures has allowed new figures, histories, and questions to become visible and opened up a new set of discursive frames. As I sat down to write, however, the ghosts all returned in the form of the question that haunts this centennial year: how do we think about the Russian Revolution in our current political predicament?

Among scholars whose work touches on the revolution, I am probably not alone in experiencing this year’s commemoration with oscillating feelings of elation and unease. After devoting a large portion of my adult life to digging in archives and carefully crafting a narrative about how the revolution mattered (in my case, to aesthetic modernism), it has been a giddy delight to see the issues that motivate my work actually matter both to a broader audience and in relation to world events. At the same time, that brighter spotlight and larger pool of participants have been accompanied by the discomfort of misrecognition and the awkward illumination of some of the quirks of academe. The disciplinary boundaries and psychological compartmentalizations that gird scholarly endeavors (in my opinion, necessarily) appear less like an infinite horizon and more like the “silos” that administrators keep telling us that they are.

In this sense, the past year has felt like an “event” in the Badiouian sense of an unsettling encounter with the “Real,” that thing that requires us to change our thinking. Part of that “Real” is the real of the field described above. Yet, even more Real is the way that the year’s commemorative festivities have unfolded in tandem with political events that feel uncannily similar to the unraveling of governmental institutions that we know well through our historical work. Words that have long stuck out as exotic markers in our sub-field—“revolution,” “civil war,” “inequality,” “anarchism,” “socialism,” “resistance,” and so on—have come to seem strangely normalized and contemporary of late, yet in ways that do not map onto the usual academic forms for articulating topicality or “policy relevance.” In this context, the slate of symposia, exhibitions, film series, etc., to which we have committed our time and energy seems inadequate to the task at hand. Ironically, it is precisely at the moment when our work has become most relevant that we are forced to question its value. What is our role as scholars of the art, literature, history, cinema, etc., of revolution in this current situation? Are there new forms that our work needs to take? Most of us are already stretched thin by another Real, the pressures involved in holding open any space whatsoever in this world for the work that we most care about. Given limitations on time and resources, the question of how real we should get, and with which reality, is existential.

In my field, art history, the figures who populate our narratives are legendary in their political commitment. This is a large part of what has motivated interest in their work. We know them as heroically attempting to transform reality beyond the frame of a canvas with terrific zeal and self-sacrifice. When they recall their conversion to the revolution, their statements are decidedly resolute: “To accept or not accept? For me…this question never arose. It was my revolution,” wrote the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko remembered that he “became utterly engrossed in it with all [his] will.” Such unequivocal statements served as inspiration in the 1990s for those who still wanted to believe that another world was possible after the triumph of a capitalist-realist rationality that insisted that this world was without alternative or end. They were an index of possibility, proving that another way of being and feeling could happen, because it had. Of course, this kind of usable past is the product of heavy editing. To use constructivist terms, it is shaped in accordance with a purpose. It functions on a utopian model, drawing on a mythic construction in order to imagine an alternative to the present. Something like this structure is built into the etymology of revolution too. As Hannah Arendt notes, the word entered political terminology in the seventeenth century from astronomy, where a complete “revolution” of a celestial body referred to its return along a circular path to the place where it began. In her analysis, modern revolutions have nearly always been carried out in the name of restoring an old order, of bringing things back to where they began.

Perhaps we need these epic tales and mythic pasts. They certainly have their political value. It is notable that similar structures are currently invoked in some activist contexts, in which indigenous ways of knowing and being become models on which to envision alternative futures. For me, in 2017 that kind of story of the Russian Revolution has not felt “usable” as such, however, in part because it has become increasingly difficult to believe that there were ever any old days that were unqualifiedly good. Perhaps there is something usable, however, in other sorts of historical narratives, ones that allow us to attend to the day-to-day of those who lived through that revolutionary year of 1917. The artist Nadezhda Udal’tsova’s published writings provide great material in this regard. She described her experience retrospectively in a memoir in terms as unwavering as those quoted earlier: “October broke out and suddenly threw us into constructing another form of life. We gave ourselves in those years to the elimination of the old and the construction of new forms.” Reading through her diary of 1917, however, one sees the morass of sleepless nights, conflicted feelings, and difficult decisions condensed in phrases like “suddenly thrown” and “gave ourselves.” The entries reflect an artist with an already precarious hold on a precarious profession thrust into a crisis in which there was no longer space for the contemplation and craft that had defined the vocation.

Not long after the February Revolution, she writes, “What a difficult and nightmarish life… You wait several years for rest, to work quietly, but no.” Later the same day, with exasperation: “We [leftist artists] are so few and we don’t stick together.” On April 22: “It is necessary to work with all one’s might. The journal article isn’t written, and the works aren’t done”; next paragraph: “the international proletariat somehow doesn’t unite…O god, when will this war end.” Three days later: “My soul aches,” but “nine works are ready” and “the articles are written.” In the days surrounding October: “Russia is anarchy…and there’s no end.” “Our house came under fire…My nerves no longer work.” “When can we begin creative work and live a little?” “No one is right. There is blame and spilt blood on both sides.” “I just want to live and work.” “I’ve gotten into some very free work. The works come one after another.” Finally, at the year’s end, December 30: “If this exhibition happens, what will it matter to me?”

What is affecting in this writing is what is familiar: the vacillations, the doubt that turns to determination and then to exasperation; how she laments her inability to concentrate on her work in one moment and the fact that the proletariat failed to unite in the next. It represents not evidence of revolution’s possibility, but rather an index of revolutionary reality. Utopian aspirations for intersubjective harmony register only as unrealized (the world proletariat does not unite; leftist artists cannot seem to stick together). Paradise is never regained, but only lost and lost again. If I find something usable in this chronicle of everyday struggle and defeat, it is that it makes me feel slightly better about persisting in slogging through my own. In this sense, it is “relatable.” Yet, there is more in it, I think, than that questionable virtue. Udal’tsova’s story is also full of her attempts to organize solidarities of artists to have some power over the way that their working conditions were constructed within a succession of governmental regimes. Scholars of the early Soviet period have nearly forgotten the organizing work done by artists in 1917 under the Provisional Government. What is there to remember? They all failed relatively quickly, if only because they became irrelevant as one political field evolved into another. The concerns of spring 1917 all seemed naïve by December, at least in relative terms.

Still, that is what organizing movements is like. We have written a history of the revolution as a victory, however quickly betrayed, when it was just as accurately a string of ephemeral solidarities and counter-hegemonies that never lost their prefix and then dissolved into something else. What would happen, or how might it matter now, if we wrote another kind of usable history, one that attends as carefully to those failures and losses?

Kristin Romberg is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is also affiliated with the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, Slavic Languages and Literatures, REEEC, and the European Union Center. Romberg contributed to the Art Institute of Chicago exhibit entitled Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test, and curated an exhibition at Krannert Art Museum entitled Propositions on Revolution, which explores revolution as a broad conceptual category

Full citations of the resources used in this piece can be found on the ASEEES website