In moments of extreme pomposity which, according to those with whom I share a life, have become increasingly frequent over the years, I have been known to stop strangers wearing clothes bearing the legend, “CCCP” or, “Soviet”.
My lines of enquiry are always whether or not the wearers understand the legend emblazoned on their chest and whether or not they consider it acceptable to wear a swastika in public? The parallel is crude, but obvious, for it is only universal ignorance that makes the hammer and sickle, or any other Soviet paraphernalia, misunderstood. Seen, by and large, as symbols of a society that freed the working classes, people are astonished when I explain that these are symbols of racism, social cleansing and mass destruction based on an ideology utterly at odds with human nature.
The juvenilia currently spouted by the Labour Party is a case in point – are they really so badly-informed as to be unaware of the real nature of Communist-inspired revolution? Does not John McDonnell, when flashing a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book in Parliament, understand the real nature of his gesture, the historical background to his gross and offensive, flippancy? Does he know the true nature of the, ‘freeing the oppressed from the yoke of capitalism’? Does he view ‘state requisitioning’ as feeding the masses, or as theft? Has he heard of the terms, ‘Cultural Revolution’ or ‘Red Terror’? Either Mr McDonnell is ignorant or, more likely, insensitive because the numbers annihilated in the name of Communism are quite possibly in excess of those of Nazism.
When I recently quizzed three privately-educated 20-year olds as to what was the Iron Curtain, they looked at me blankly; it is a terrible omission that so many are unaware of the two forces that shaped 20th century politics but history is, as Napoleon wrote, written by the victors and, at incomprehensible cost, Soviet Russia was one of the victors of the Second World War. Sadly, this victory has seen the sheer brutality of Soviet Russia and the imposition of the Communist regime thoughtlessly airbrushed from history.
Whilst lecturing at a local primary school, I noticed a schoolteacher had a bust of Stalin on his desk – as staggering a misjudgement as the grotesque effigies of Lenin and Stalin that parade Red Square as a tourist attraction, fitting in with Putin’s view of Stalin as an ‘efficient manager’. Lenin’s mausoleum remains the square’s centrepiece. To portray Hitler in such a light is, quite rightly, an effrontery, so why Lenin and Stalin?
According to some historians, the Communist and Fascist regimes differed little and that Lenin, as Martin Amis stated, ‘handed Stalin a fully-functioning Police State’. Hate, not altruism, drove the Bolshevik hordes, all egged on by a tinpot intellectual. ‘Loot the looters’, ‘smash’, ‘destroy’, ‘exterminate’, are words that feature with alarming regularity in Lenin’s lexicon as does the memorable phrase, ‘the intelligentsia is not the brains of the Revolution, but its shit’. Lenin was no knight, no liberator of the working man, Lenin was an anarchic, merciless, vengeful, murderous ‘shit’, hellbent on imposing his political experiment upon a war-weary populace.
The Holocaust has been covered by filmmakers and writers telling its story tragically, often eloquently and, quite rightly, we are aware of its horror. The Red Terror, Civil War, famine in the Volga, the Gulag, Collectivisation and the Terror Famine in Ukraine have received no such coverage, being mere footnotes in history, inconvenient truths for the Marxist morons that have resurfaced in Europe and beyond.
Alan Bullock pierced the myth in ‘Hitler & Stalin. Parallel lives’ and Robert Conquest went further but the real circumstances behind the Bolshevik takeover have, by and large, failed to enter the Western conscience and have never, visually at least, come under the microscope. No detailed pictorial record exists to pierce our conscience, to seer into our grey matter that here were no ten days that shook the world, more a Jacobin bloodletting of terrifying proportions and one that could, paradoxically, only survive, be prolonged, by a continuation of violence. Forged in blood, the Revolution continued in blood beginning with domestic violence and terror on a vast scale undertaken with bestial zeal. Such a visual record is therefore necessary, a detail vital for historical exactitude. A witness is needed.
‘The Cursed Years’ bears this witness.
‘The Cursed Years. Revolution in Russia through the eyes of the artist, Ivan Vladimirov’, to give the book its full title is, it is no exaggeration to say, a very important book. The book is the brainchild of Andrei Ruzhnikov, a regular on the Russian Art scene and the owner of a large collection of the works illustrated in this volume, Ruzhnikov has collected over 100 watercolours by Vladimirov, many drawn from nature, that so utterly debunk the myth of a Glorious Revolution. The artist portrays it as a debauched, vulgar, indiscriminate, foul and pestilential occurrence in which bodies are flayed, children starve, priests are humiliated. The observers are guffawing brutes, be it the New Soviet Man, their prostitutes or lackeys. This is the Future, the Reality, this is the gateway to repression, to mass arrests.
The book, the ‘cursed’ in the title could also be translated as, ‘damned’, ‘wicked’ or ‘wretched’, is an important pictorial record of the fate of the downtrodden Russians, not just the aristocracy on whom Bolshevik vengeance was supposedly directed, but which also included a place of special hate for the clergy, recalling Lenin’s phrase that ‘religion in any form is utter vileness’.
Vladimirov was, essentially, an artist-correspondent. He recorded the Russo-Japanese war, the Balkan wars, the First World War, the Abdication of the Tsar, before turning his hand to a more personal record, that of Revolution. Having not read the text, I can only assume that these are his own personal accounts, not commissioned by any publication though the work of ‘John Wladimiroff’ did appear in Western magazines, such as ‘The Graphic’, often showing the most horrific scenes.
His first watercolours and oils were ambivalent to Revolution. Bank requisitions, looting or vandalism was recorded but seemingly without judgement though, it should be noted, the artist uses caricature very effectively. The heroes of the Revolution are frequently young, grotesque figures, an ever-present papiarossa cigarette glued to their lips. Sometimes they are portrayed with humour – a group of barefoot peasant children beat out a tune on a looted piano in some or other barn but by the time of, ‘The arrest of an intellectual’, the artist is on the side of the victim. His treatment of the face of the arrested is sympathetic, the arrestees less so.
From here on in the picture is one of unrelenting blackness. Policemen tied to a bridge being shot, counter-revolutionaries being burned alive or the grotesque, ‘Enemies of the People – to Court!’ in which a priest and a well-groomed man are dragged by ropes behind a cart in which a Bolshevik, grinning hideously, plays the harmonica. The very act of killing, the very moment of death, is covered in ‘Shooting at the Dno Station 1919’ whilst on the opposite page are quotes from a ‘former person’, Zinaida Gippius dealing with the sale of human, ‘Chinese’, meat at the market.
‘We will exterminate our enemies by the ten, by the hundred, let them drown in their own blood!’ is the slogan accompanying two records of revolutionary tribunals. There will be no justice for the priest, the landowner, only summary justice. Revolutionary Justice. Pictures of the requisitions from the villages are equally raw and merciless. This is not the official view, the golden future, the Marxist paradise. This is bestiality.
The Years of Hunger 1918-1922 are extensively covered. Tragically. A Tsarist general returns home from a soup kitchen whilst a speeding, open-topped car carrying a Red Guardsman and his girl passes by. A lady and her daughter search for potato peelings and herring heads in January 1919 in a work ‘from nature’. Citizens tear at the flesh of a dead horse, dogs attack a human carcass, the scene is one of unexpurgated misery. A Swedish Red Cross train is looted by the same Red Army villains so lauded by the Party, one can only imagine the destination of such loot. Priests clear out stables, a Religious Procession is fired upon.
‘The more representatives of the reactionary bourgeoisie and reactionary priesthood that we shoot, the better.’ Vladimir Lenin March 19th 1922.
‘We shall carry out a merciless and terrorist war against peasant or any other bourgeoisie that holds back even a grain of bread’. Lenin, 8th March 1918.
Such rhetoric, now transferred onto paper was the real background to the Russian Revolution and poses the question, as to how Vladimirov got away with it – how was it that he was not sent to the camps or shot for his subversive views? It seems the answer lay partly in his reputation as a Soviet patriot producing paintings, reproduced in many books, glorifying the Revolution.
The other, more cogent, reason was that Vladimirov was very careful with his anti-Bolshevik paintings. They were sent abroad with trusted foreign aid workers and wealthy businessmen and hence there are works in the Hoover Institute. We thus know that some works had, for example, a piece of paper over Vladimirov’s signature that was tinted to match the painting but hide his name. This could later be removed though, in a fascinating twist, the Hoover staff was instructed not to reveal the name of the artist in his lifetime.
The conversion of Vladimirov from artist-correspondent to opponent of the Revolution was swift. ‘The joining of the Guards regiment with the Revolutionary Army’, ‘February Days in the workers districts’, ‘Armed Guards on the Streets of Petrograd’, ‘Down with the Eagles’, record events without sympathies, before the artist turns his hand to a darker side – looting from the Astoria Hotel, wine and bread shops or the country estate of a landlord, the wholesale destruction of the Winter Palace. By 1919 the true nature of Revolution is laid bare, especially its legal system. In Court, Red Guardsmen and Sailors, young boys hardly capable of passing mature judgement, are judges. In one, a pistol is held to the head of the man on trial whilst a typewriter on a neighbouring table, presumably there to record the event, is unattended. The absence of the stenographer is, of course, on purpose, the sentence a foregone conclusion.
The peasants are not spared. The last cow is requisitioned, the last bag of flour seized, deserters are searched for. Peasants fight back in, ‘Peasants get even with a Bolshevik’ and even the fate of the aristocracy is dealt sympathetically, ‘Prince Vasiltchikoff in his present position’, shows the former count tending goats whilst reading, ironically, some Revolutionary tract. Taking into account the artist’s love, and effective use of, the grotesque this, and other works (‘Hard Labour for rich merchands (sic)’, ‘Rich merchants pull out rubbish from yards’,) depicting the demise of the rich, are portrayed with surprising sympathy.
The final series of pictures deal with the NEP, the policy that basically saved Soviet Russia from total starvation, and those that implemented it, for example ‘Everyday Life in Petrograd’ as the oppressed become the oppressors. ‘At the market’, shows a Soviet sailor with a plump lady on his arm, being assailed from all sides by ‘former people’ trying to sell him their pitiful wares. His gaze and gesture are purposely arrogant. In another work, children attack a foreigner, trying to sell him cigarettes – a scene that continued well into the 1980’s. The new society is depicted in the Tsar’s opera box but this is not a new society offering any hope, it is a vulgar, puerile, unkempt and filthy future. It is a world of prostitution and its new brutal clientele, for the was brutal was, as in 1917, as in 1925, 1937 and beyond the means to a career, the means to survival and the means to power.
Nowhere has this been better illustrated than by Ivan Vladimirov in this admirable and important book.