I was lucky enough to join Chris in London for ‘Fifty Years of Russian Culture’ – it truly was a privilege. In three days we managed a concert at the Festival Hall, a ballet at the Royal Opera House, a visit to one of the year’s most acclaimed exhibitions, a viewing of one of the greatest films ever made, a Georgian feast and amazing talks by two of the world’s leading experts on Russian art and culture. Three days in which we learned so much about this history of this vast country with its complex heritage of beauty and terror.
We stayed, yet again, at the stylish Melia White House hotel in Albany Street; helpful and friendly staff, spacious rooms and consistently delicious food – and that indefinable Spanish sense of style.
We began with a talk by Dr Louise Hardiman who gave us an introduction to Revolutionary art which focused on the themes of the exhibition at the Royal Academy. Louise’s talk was fascinating; an expert in the field, her knowledge and enthusiasm are infectious. And what a compelling tale it is, the fate of Russian artists during the turbulence of the Revolutionary years. How, for so many, the initial heady freedom to experiment wildly with colour, to create a new art for a new world, turned to nightmare as a new oppression took hold, increasingly demanding that art was to be used to express Soviet ideology.
She described the stark choices that artists faced after the October revolution; how the lack of a commercial market for their work meant that they either had to work with the new order or go into exile – with no middle ground. We learned how the centuries-old devotion to icons in Russia was transmuted into this new world and highly-trained icon painters turned their skills to producing works that celebrated the revolution. Lenin took the place of Christ as the object of devotion. After his death, ‘Lenin Lives!’ became a popular slogan. The powerful and rarely-seen painting, Beside Lenin’s Coffin by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, (1924) was hidden away because it was unacceptable to portray the leader’s dead body. (To this day it rarely comes out of storage).
We were very fortunate to have such a knowledgeable and inspiring speaker. The exhibition itself was amazing, but also huge, complex and arranged thematically rather than chronologically; several people told me that they had got much more out of it because of Louise’s introduction.
The concert at the Festival Hall that evening was thrilling. Hearing Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony live was an unforgettable experience. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the dynamic guidance of Marin Alsop, gave an emotional rendering of this dramatic – and enormous – piece which proved yet again that there is no substitute for live music that you can feel through the soles of your feet. (It’s a strange fact that this symphony was heard in London before it was heard in Leningrad – a microfilm of the score was smuggled out of Russia and it was broadcast on the BBC in the June of 1942.) As I was leaving the hall, a group of the musicians were making their way down the steps, bursting with excitement and singing chunks of Shostakovich; it was good to know that the performance had had an impact on them too!
The next day we went to the Russian exhibition itself, which more than lived up to its reputation. Some of the images one took away were incredibly moving – and haunting. The tragedy of the Revolution was laid bare through the journey taken by its artists, from the initial hope and idealism to an oppression that was worse than what had come before. The final room had a video running showing the arrest photos and eventual fates of hundreds of people whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was incredibly powerful, not just because of the appalling story that unfolded but because it showed the extent of self-destruction in a state apparently determined to wipe out its brightest and best thinkers.
Afterwards, we had a proper Russian feast at Erebuni in Clerkenwell – course after course of delicious Russian and Armenian specialities, washed down with delicious Georgian wine – who knew? (Well, I didn’t.)
Our trip to the Royal Opera House was an occasion to treasure. Exotic costumes, stunning dancing and – of course – Tchaikovsky’s ravishing music. Definitely a Russian connection this time. One of the highlights of the evening, for me, was being introduced by Mr Frank Jonas to his Great Uncle Fred – or at least the statue of him which stands in pride of place in the foyer. (He was one of the founders of the Royal Opera, apparently.)
For many of us, Orlando Figes’ lecture was the headline event of the tour. Possibly the world’s leading expert on Russia past and present, his fascinating lecture built on what we’d already learned and pulled it all together. He pointed out the difficult dilemma faced by the current Russian government, torn between celebrating the glorious Russian Revolution and quietly letting the anniversary pass quietly. The BBC is also torn, he says, about how to mark the anniversary – a dilemma he says is reflected in the minimal amount of time assigned to this incredibly important historical landmark by our own national broadcaster. He put the Revolution into its historical context but also explained background details of what we’d seen at the exhibition. For example, he explained how the slightly bizarre portrayal of a rural idyll of plenty and contentment were never intended to be taken as images from real life but were a glimpse of the near future, attainable through current hard labour. The hour flew past – we didn’t want him to stop!
We finished with a showing of Battleship Potemkin which had a really powerful effect. The revolutionary (!) editing techniques which turned Eisenstein’s blatant work of propaganda from 1925 into one of the most influential films ever made have lost none of their power. The persuasive power of his storytelling fascinated Goebbels who was interested in making a similar film about the Nazis, but the idea was dropped after Eisenstein reacted with fury.
It was intriguing to watch people’s reactions; to see them moving from looking at a piece of film history with a sort of intellectual detachment to being utterly seduced by the film-maker’s manipulative genius. I think most people were aware of the climax of the famous scene as the Cossacks attack and a pram tumbles down the Odessa Steps, but less familiar was the awful moment when a boot crushes down on a dead child’s hand – there was an audible and universal intake of breath. Not bad for a film made nearly a century ago. Potemkin still holds the record for the film banned for a longer time than any other film in UK history.
This was a terrific, revelatory tour – my mind was reeling when it ended. I’m not even sure which part of the experience was most powerful. Hearing the Shostakovich live for the first time? Encountering a whole raft of wonderful Russian artists – experimenting in great bursts of colour – that I’d never heard of before? Listening to two very different, but complementary, experts talk on a subject they care about passionately? All I can see is that it amounted to a stunning three days. Oh, and there was even a Chagall for this Chagall freak. What more could you ask?