“Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932” opened yesterday at the Royal Academy. It is an extraordinary exhibition, one in which the works of art are themselves in revolt against the curatorial narrative which is being imposed on them.

The story line of the exhibition is a simple (and predictable) one: the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia began with optimism and unleashed a wave of artistic experimentation, but it quickly betrayed its supporters; Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which sought to put the Soviet Union on the path to “state capitalism”, was good, but then it oppressed the peasants and bourgeois, and crushed the artists. Then came Stalin and the Gulag. The story ends in tragedy.

The exhibition expresses, to paraphrase Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, what is “sayable” in polite society about what happened in Russia between 1917 and 1989. And not without some abrupt, even violent, interpretative interventions. Take Petrov-Vodkin’s “Fantasy”, in which the iconic red horse of the revolution is leaping above a luminous landscape. For the curator, the man on the horse is looking backwards sadly at the lost past. But quite a different interpretation is possible—of a man staring in wonder (even possibly with bewilderment) at what has been achieved and towards what is still to come.

Petrov-Vodkin’s “Fantasy” (1925)

Similarly, the exhibition catalogue shows Lenin’s decree, published in the thick of the civil war, that those who were guilty of sedition would be imprisoned. But it is translated to say that they would be sent to a “concentration camp”. This is not just anachronistic. It is willfully manipulative given that for most anglophone readers “concentration camp” does not bring to mind Spain or Cuba in the 1890s, Britain in the Boer War or Germany in Namibia, but Auschwitz. It is an expression of a way of telling the story of 20th century history which has a contemporary ideological value: the idea that red=brown, Stalin=Hitler, communism=Nazism, which operates as a prophylactic against any 21st century socialist utopianism.

But the works of art burst the bounds of this ideological canal. They say a number of things which are normally “unsayable”, but which are as historically true as the imprisonments, famines and purges of the Stalin era. They portray the extraordinary vitality and patriotic energy which were mobilized by the revolution. They show how in the space of two decades it transformed Russia from Europe’s backward province into a mighty industrial power, mass producing steel and electricity, bringing literacy to peasants and emancipating women. The revolution produced a society which had the capacity to defeat the Nazis at Stalingrad and Kursk.

One of the most powerful pieces is Alexander Samokhvalov’s “Tram Conductor” (1928) with its image of this powerful new woman, one hand protecting the people’s purse, the other making her mistress of the mighty powers of electricity.

Alexander Samokhvalov’s “Tram Conductor” (1928)

The exhibition reaches in a U through ten rooms, following a partly chronological and partly thematic arc. It covers a range of paintings, short films, posters, ceramics, textiles, architectural installations and mobiles from Russian museums, which—with the exception of Malevich, Eisenstein, Chagall and bits of Tatlin and El Lissitsky—are not widely known in the West.

The first room, ‘Creating the Revolutionary Myth’, is essentially about Lenin’s period of the revolution, starting bang in 1917. I was reminded of when, as a seven-year-old, in the study of our home in Georgetown, Guyana, I first saw Lenin’s face, peeling back the onion skin veil in one of the Foreign Languages Press’s blue-bound Selected Works volumes to see the glossy photo of his stern and prophetic gaze. The most powerful item there for me was the Boris Kustodiev’s “Demonstration... on the Day of the Opening of the Second Comintern Congress in July 1920”, with its portrait of the urban crowd celebrating how their Russia would be the crucible from which world revolution would flow.

I was struck then with an impression which was reinforced as I went through the exhibition—that the curators were constructing this as a watertight Russian story, without international connections. They miss therefore how much both Russian art and Revolution were global historical events, both shaped by and shaping wider European and global influences.

That is true first at the level of art history, where the exhibition makes no attempt to show the profound exchanges between Russian revolutionary art and wider European modern art experimentation, from the ‘painting of modern life’ in nineteenth-century France to the flowering of abstraction at the turn of the century. And it is true in terms of understanding the revolution and its trajectory. We are told of the rise of a repressive state, without being told about its international context, not least how Britain and other powers sent armies to, in Churchill’s words, “strangle the Bolshevik baby in its cradle”. Nor with Stalinism are we told about the impact on it of the rise of fascist and far-right regimes across the western flank of Russia in the interwar period with the quiet encouragement of Britain and the rest of the West.

Even as a portrait of the continuities of Russian history, the exhibition engages in some sleight of hand: we are told, correctly, about some aesthetic continuities between pre- and post-Revolutionary art, in particular the importance of the icon and religious art as a predecessor to both avant-garde and “socialist realist” painting. We are not, however, told about how the Czarist regime’s feared secret police and system of prison camps provided a similar set of precedents for Soviet-era state repression.

Pavel Filonov’s “Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, 1920-21”

The most extraordinary pieces for me, from an artist I had never heard anything of before, were by Pavel Filonov: “Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, 1920-21” and “Heads (Human in the World), 1925-26”. Filonov’s work is animated by his visual philosophy of the ‘analytic’ gaze, in which he sought to bring about a “universal flowering”, which I read as the representation of different scales of reality as they flow into one another, from the individual conscience to the crowd mind, to structures and objects and machines through which we work and think and which we become as we gaze in and through them. It is very trippy stuff, definitely the gaze of a brain which, for whatever reasons, is overbrimming with serotonin and is able to see, at the same time, many overlapping possibilities of patterns and order. They express a cognitive reach, earnest and without fear, towards the universal, towards a deep ancient creative intelligence common to all human beings, which has the power to remake the world towards its flowering idea of beauty. That spirit was central to the Revolution and remains its most powerful legacy.

Cover photo by Svetlana Cheburashkina.

Richard Drayton is the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King’s College London.