Ilya Orlov: A Revolutionary Museum after Ideology

A Revolutionary Museum after Ideology
Ilya Orlov
CuMMA Discourse Series #25
May 20, 2015

Descents into the past and appeals to history have been symptomatic of recent Russian politics, which is literally obsessed with re-enactments. It has recreated the “Soviet imperial,” the “pre-Revolutionary imperial,” the “Orthodox,” and the “patriarchal” visual and rhetorical discourses. As has been recently pointed out, President Putin has become a genuine performance artist himself. He has piloted a hang glider, flying alongside rare birds; retrieved an ancient Greek amphora from depths of the Black Sea; and shown off his physically fit body. Moreover, he has transformed reality by means of mass media.[1] This political constructivism resembles an artwork. Costumed characters that should have been relegated to historical museums—Cossacks, Orthodox priests, members of the Black Hundreds, cartoonish Stalinists—have suddenly taken to streets of Russian cities in the twenty-first century.

IMG_7605“Stalin means victory,” Petersburg, June 8, 2015. Photo by The Russian Reader

At the same time, the authorities have been making efforts to erase the historical memory of revolution, which no longer conforms to the official conservative state ideology. Unfortunately, the political opposition has also denounced its historical connection with the tradition of the revolution, once victorious in Russia, and has been losing the battle for both the past and the future. While historical exhibitions dedicated to tsarist dynasties have been drawing crowds, Soviet revolutionary museums—former ideological altars that once legitimized the “violence of the oppressed”—have become non-places, potential lots for redevelopment or real estate properties for sale.

shalash_36The recent transition in post-Soviet society from the political apathy of past years to aggressive intolerance and a nationalist mobilization raises anew the question of the role of artists in society and their engagement in politics.[2] But if the answer to Russian society’s political apathy in the 2000s was radical actionism, such as the art group Voina’s performances, the answer to the current ultra-conservative turn in Russian politics and its uncritical “re-enactments” of the past may be an art that engages with the historical memory of revolution and analytically revises its legacy.

But would the simple presentation of an alternative historical narrative be a sufficient response? What strategies for reflecting history should art have in its arsenal? How can art speak not merely about the political past but also speak about the past politically? While preparing the project A Revolutionary Museum after Ideology, which I produced in collaboration with artist Natasha Kraevskaya in 2014, we faced these questions, too. In this short article, I would like to enlarge on whether we managed to answer these questions and how we elaborated them during the artistic research for the project.

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We did the project A Revolutionary Museum after Ideology in a museum complex located in the Petersburg suburb of Sestroretsk and Razliv. The Manifesta 10 Public Program, as curated by Joanna Warsza, commissioned the work.

Orlov&Kraevskaya_Razliv_Shalash museum_1Two site-specific exhibitions, supplemented by a series of lecture tours and discussions, were held at the Razliv museum complex, which consists of two small Soviet revolutionary memorial museums at two sites, the Shed Museum and the Hut Museum. Both locations were originally ordinary suburban places, and both were turned into memorial museums during Soviet times. They dealt with the episode in the 1917 revolution known as Lenin’s last underground period and the site known as “Lenin’s final hiding place.” Vladimir Lenin and his comrade-in-arms Grigory Zinoviev hid there during the summer of 1917 to avoid arrest and prosecution by the Provisional Government.

credit - Razliv museum 2The Shed Museum (in Russian, Sarai) is a real former shed where Lenin and Zinoviev hid for several days in July 1917. The shed is covered with a glass casing, and today there is still a Soviet-era permanent exhibition that recreates the interior of this shed as it looked in 1917.

The Hut Museum (in Russian, Shalash) is a quite large pavilion built in the mid 1960s at the rural site where Lenin and Zinoviev also lived in July 1917 in a hut fashioned from branches and hay.

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Razliv means “flood” in English. The village of Razliv is part of the suburb of Sestroretsk, and is located on the shores of Razliv Lake. In fact, the lake is artificial. It was an unintended byproduct of Peter the Great’s modernization of Russia. In the 1720s, a large munitions factory was built on the shore of the Sestra River. A levee was also built to supply the plant with mechanical energy, which was generated by a water mill. The river flooded and formed the artificial lake now known as Razliv. So we might say the landscape was shaped by modernization.

MAP1From the late nineteenth century, Sestroretsk, as an industrial center, was also a hotbed of the workers’ movement. It is important to keep in mind that the munitions plant workers were not former peasants, as had often been the case during the pre-Revolutionary period in Russia, but were already second-generation proletarians. Therefore, many Sestroretsk workers had been involved in the first Russian Revolution of 1905; many were anarchists and social democrats. It should come as no surprise that the Bolsheviks found support among such people. At the same time, there was a fashionable bourgeois resort and a popular dacha village located near this industrial settlement. Many members of the Russian intelligentsia—writers, poets, actors, and artists—used to live or summer there.

The February Revolution was the first of two revolutions in Russia in 1917, although some historians consider them parts of a single revolutionary process. After spontaneous bread riots, mass strikes and demonstrations in Petrograd, then the capital of the Russian Empire, soldiers from the city’s garrison sided with the protesters. The revolution forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. The Provisional Government came to power. Its members, mostly liberals and conservatives, were drawn from the State Duma, the former monarchy’s parliament. At the same time, local socialists formed an alternative authority, the Petrograd Soviet, which ruled alongside the Provisional Government. There were thus two centers of power, both plagued by problems of legitimacy. It was a very unstable situation, which Lenin defined later as a diarchy (dvoevlastie).

Both the Provisional Government and the socialists from the Petrograd Soviet supported the imperialist war effort. Lenin, who arrived in Petrograd from Zürich in April 1917, immediately began to undermine the situation, issuing his so-called April Theses. He insisted on an anti-war agenda and the slogan “All Power to the Soviets.” In fact, during this period, as the war between the imperialist powers raged on, Lenin was the only political figure that took a strong anti-war stance. Initially, neither Lenin nor his ideas enjoyed widespread support, not even among his fellow Bolsheviks.

By the way, this point was very important for us in terms of last summer’s political context—the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war—and it is still on the agenda today.

The next big event, the so-called July Days, was a failed attempt at a new revolution by anarchists with the involvement of Bolsheviks in early July 1917. It was the first time in 1917 when the military forces of the Provisional Government attacked a demonstration (albeit one that was not entirely peaceable). Consequently, the government pursued Lenin as a German agent and ordered the arrests of other leftist oppositionists, especially Bolsheviks. Lenin and Zinoviev were forced to go underground.

Since the Bolsheviks had well-developed networks among the workers of Sestroretsk and Razliv, Lenin and Zinoviev soon found a place to hide. The person who aided them was a worker at the Sestroretsk armaments plant, Bolshevik Nikolai Emelianov. Lenin and Zinoviev lived in his shed in Razliv for a few days. When it was too dangerous to stay there any longer, Emelianov ferried them to the other side of the lake, and built a hut in a field for them. Lenin and Zinoviev lived there, disguised as Finnish peasants, for three weeks.

Nikolai Emelianov

Nikolai Emelianov. Image courtesy of the World Socialist Web Site

According to the so-called Leniniana—the informal corpus of popular Soviet biographies and myths about Lenin, during his time in hiding—Lenin remained in contact with the Party in Petrograd through networks of liaisons, read newspapers, which were delivered hot from the presses by comrades, and wrote articles.

Moreover, as Soviet legend has it, it was in Razliv where Lenin elaborated his theory of revolution, his doctrine of armed rebellion, and finished one of his most subversive and prominent works, The State and Revolution.

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Lenin hid in Razliv for three weeks, until the end of July 1917. Emelianov then fabricated papers for him, a false passport under the name of worker Konstantin Ivanov. Lenin illegally traveled to Finland, where he continued with his theoretical and coordinating work in preparation for a rebellion in Petrograd. When the rebellion was crowned with success in October 1917, Lenin moved to the Smolny and headed the new Bolshevik government.[3]

After Lenin’s death in 1924, there ensued what American Slavists later defined as the Lenin cult or even the “deification of Lenin.”[4] Memorial sites, museums, and monuments were constructed throughout the Soviet Union in huge numbers.

The Museum in Razliv was among the first. It opened in 1925. Emelianov’s shed was turned into a sightseeing attraction, with its humble cabin interior on permanent display. In 1928, a monument designed by architect Alexander Gegello in the form of the hut, albeit with a touch of constructivism, was built in the field on the other side of the lake, at the site where, as the legend goes, Lenin lived in his branch and hay shelter.

During the Stalinist period, despite the erection of a monumental granite mausoleum for the late Bolshevik leader on Red Square, Stalin overshadowed Lenin’s figure.

The renaissance of the Lenin cult in the 1960s was the partly unintentional aftermath of de-Stalinization. Along the way, the authorities were forced to rename streets that had previously been named in honor of Stalin. And indeed they were renamed—in memory of Lenin, of course. Monuments of Stalin were also replaced—by monuments of Lenin, of course.

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Revolution, in 1967, there was almost nothing left to name after Lenin. Thus, by the mid 1960s, the Lenin cult had gone a little over the top. But there was more to come. In 1970, during the centenary celebration of Lenin’s birth, there was a new wave of renaming and mass commemorations. It was the year that Emelianov’s shed was covered with a glass casing. By this period, the Lenin cult was reduced to the point of absurdity. There were plenty of funny stories about this naming and renaming of all and sundry—factories, mills, workers’ clubs, streets, ships, etc.—in memory of Lenin in the late 1960s, but the facts speak for themselves: it was then that the Leningrad (!) subway was even named after Lenin (!) and awarded the Order of Lenin (!) [5]

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Meanwhile, during this period, memorial sites of the revolutionary movement, and Lenin memorial sites and museums were transformed into ideological altars of sorts. The same was true of the Lenin museums in Razliv. Both sites were visited by hundreds of thousands people annually. The museums were known worldwide and were visited by numerous international delegations. Young people were sworn into the Young Pioneer youth movement there. This was the main ideological ritual for Soviet youth, a mode of political initiation, and a commemoration of Lenin and the Revolution as well. Schoolchildren and university students were also taken to such places on class trips. Guidebooks and postcards featuring the museums were printed in huge quantities.

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In 1964, a new exhibition pavilion was built near the Hut Monument to hold and display the museum’s collection. It is an elegant minimalist building, made of concrete and glass, designed by architect V.D. Kirkhoglani. In the 1960s, most of the museums dedicated to Lenin and his hideouts were decked out in keeping with the latest trends in exhibition design, featuring genuinely modern exhibits created by leading museum curators. The same was true of the Museum in Razliv, whose exhibition and design were excellent. Unfortunately, this permanent exhibition was dismantled and lost in 2006.

After perestroika, the Museum in Razliv shared the same fate as other Lenin and revolution museums. The buildings fell into disrepair, and the permanent exhibitions were on the verge of closing. As for the museums that have survived, their main strategy in the 2000s and beyond has been to try and organize new permanent exhibitions, which have been self-described as “de-ideologized” and have tended to implement the doctrine of the so-called restoration of historical justice.

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The Museum in Razliv is a good example of such de-ideologization. In fact, after the Soviet-era exhibition was dismantled in 2006, with support from a local businessman, the owner of a nearby restaurant, the museum’s curators organized a new permanent exhibition that combined, on the one hand, an attempt to function as a local ethnographic museum, and, on the other, a slightly veiled narrative of the “fatal role” played by the (imagined) conspiracy of Bolsheviks and Germans in the October Revolution of 1917.

Thus, a popular post-Soviet cultural doctrine and the discourse of the “restoration of historical justice” proved to be a euphemism for the counter-revolutionary conservative ideology that, under the Putin regime, has replaced Soviet dogmatism and the deification of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. Such were the conditions in which we worked while doing our project for Manifesta in Razliv.

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The starting point and main inspiration for our artistic research were photos and postcards we had found in the museum’s archive. Primarily, these were photographs of the museum and its visitors from the 1960s and 1970s. On the one hand, we can see in these photos a quite international, advanced, genuinely progressive exhibition design, resembling a European museum exhibition during the same period.

On the other hand, there is the interesting reaction on part of visitors. We discovered that these archival photographs of the museum’s exhibitions from the late 1960s were surprisingly similar to photos taken at European biennales. Soviet tourists examined an old tin teapot and bundle of wood in the Hut Museum or an ordinary tree stump in Lenin’s “outdoor office,” the so-called Green Study, much as European audiences of the 1970s stared in fascination at objects they were equally unaccustomed to seeing in museums.

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Here are some examples: pictures of Harald Szeeman’s curatorial project When Attitudes Become Form, in 1969 at Kunsthalle Bern, contrasted with photos from the Museum in Razliv from the same year.

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Ausstellung - Kunst Experimentelle Kunst in der Kunsthalle in Bern

Another discovery, as well as an important source for further research, was photographs and postcards of so-called Lenin’s places, his secret hideouts or places he was known to have frequented. We were especially interested in postcards printed in the 1960s in large editions. If it were not for the captions on the verso of these postcards, identifying them as Lenin’s places, they could have been taken for ordinary rural views or banal suburban landscapes, pictures of fields, forests or lakeshores. It is remarkable that there is almost nothing picturesque, no intentional “beauty” in these pictures. They seem deliberately discreet and artless.

1 (2) postcard postcard (3)The captions on the verso of these pictures and postcards turn an ordinary forest into Lenin’s forest, an ordinary field into Lenin’s field, a plain hut into a sacred place of memory. In this way, the banality of these views and the artlessness of these photographs lend them the quality of truly conceptual images. Soviet underground art of the 1970s, such as Sots Art or Moscow conceptualism, could probably spoof this manner of depiction vis-à-vis their ironical, mildly iconoclastic subversion of Soviet ideology. But the ideology has been already dethroned, revealed, discredited, and dishonored. So we have applied other methods and have found something out in the process: namely, a parallel with conceptualism itself. The postcards of Lenin’s places bear a strong resemblance to the documentary photographs of performances by the art group Collective Actions,[6] whose underground secret happenings in the Moscow countryside during the 1970s turned run-of-the-mill rural landscapes into special, ritualistic spaces by means of similar mental and discursive operations, which could be defined as conceptual nominalism.

mestodei-vpole VD-8

Thus, during our research in the museum’s archive, we discovered unexpected parallels between the function of ideology in Soviet museum commemorations and contemporary art practices, which gave us a clue about how we should proceed with our own project.

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Given that the contemporary art exhibition is not such an up-to-date concept itself, it always needs elements or approaches that undermine or at least question it from within. A possible method of undermining involves blurring the boundaries of the art exhibition genre, for example, by means of mixing two different exhibition practices: a temporary thematic display in a historical museum and an exhibition of contemporary art.

This was just what we did. For the project, we worked out our own rules. We decided to make an exhibition bereft of any manifestly “authorial” artworks, without resorting to artistic self-expression. Rather, we would re-conceptualize photographs and objects from the museum’s collections, recreate items that had been lost, and restore the Soviet minimalist exhibition design of the 1970s. This naturally implied our employing a strategy of subtle shifts that would supplement the exhibition by rearranging elements and thus provoke viewers to reflect on and question the current status and significance of the revolutionary museum.

Our slide installation at the Shed Museum was based on postcards from the late 1960s, which depict the mass rituals of political commemoration that took place at Razliv during the Soviet period.

Orlov&Kraevskaya_Razliv_Sarai museum_2 Orlov&Kraevskaya_Razliv_Sarai museum_3 Orlov&Kraevskaya_Razliv_Sarai museum_4

One of Lenin’s favorite songs, “The Workers’ Marseillaise,” provided the soundtrack. But we assembled this recording in a particular way. We removed the consonants from the choir’s vocal performance. By In doing this, we removed an element that supported the form of the song’s words, leaving only the sublime, inspiring, and solemn pathos of the vowels. We did this in order to s achieve the effect of the disappearance of the song’s original sense and also to show the loss of revolutionary ideas in such ideological museum practices, both in Soviet times and nowadays. For us, it was a self-referential metaphor for the function of ideology.

“The Workers’ Marsellaise,” as performed by the Chamber Choir of the N.K. Krupskaya Leningrad State Institute of Culture

At the Hut Museum, we recreated the most famous part of the museum’s classic 1964 Soviet exhibition, dismantled in 2006 but widely known from numerous photos: the minimalist glass cube showcase containing objects from Lenin’s secret hideout in Razliv. We did not simply recreate this showcase; we reproduced three identical versions of the same thing.

Orlov&Kraevskaya_Razliv_Shalash museum_7

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This was not a mere restoration and thus similar to a re-enactment, but rather a conceptual restoration or deconstruction, since this reproduction was supplemented by the strategy of the shift. The shift in question here was repetition, the restoration of an object in three exactly identical versions. In the slides, you can see that we actually reproduced not only the glass showcases of 1964 but also re-enacted in a different way the very situation of visiting the exhibition in the mid 1960s. We thus made it possible to compare Soviet tourists with Manifesta 10 visitors.

2014 and 1969_ 2014 and 1969

The next part of the exhibition dealt with ideological practices of erasing historical memory. On the wall was a photocopy from the museum’s archive of a cutting from an unidentified newspaper, published in the late 1920s, which was censored, presumably in latter years. An unknown museum employee had cut out the name, presumably, of Grigory Zinoviev, with whom Lenin had hid in Razliv in 1917. He had cut out it from the caption underneath the photo, as it was prohibited to mention Zinoviev or his time with Lenin following Zinoviev’s execution in 1936 during the Stalinist purges.[7]

ZinovievThe caption reads, “The forest in which the hut was located where comrades [sic] Lenin [blank] lived.”

Orlov&Kraevskaya_Razliv_Shalash museum_15

The following section—Soviet postcards and photographs of Lenin’s hideouts on the opposite wall—led visitors to consider the current process by which historical memory is eroded. Devoid of their captions, which are on the reverse side of the postcards, Lenin’s hideouts become ordinary rural landscapes and banal interiors, potential parcels of land or properties for sale.

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A series of lecture tours from the Hermitage Museum to the Lenin museums in Razliv were an intrinsic part of the project. During Manifesta 10, we organized several such tours and discussions.

The first tour opened with a lecture by historian Ilya Budraitskis, “De-Ideologization: Revolutionary Museums and Their Place in the Present.” We also organized a lecture by Alexander Semyonov, a local professor of history, and the co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal Ab Imperio, who provided a very interesting comparison of the crises of 1917 and 2014 in their complex historical combination of imperial background and revolution.

A further tour to Razliv was entitled “Mimesis and Revolution.” The point there was the interesting parallels between the conspiratorial practices of professional revolutionaries and certain artistic strategies. There are ample legends, well known from the extensive Soviet biographies of Lenin, about his fantastic impersonations during the period when he was hiding from the Provisional Government, stories involving wigs, greasepaint, and actors from the Finnish workers’ theater who taught and helped him to impersonate peasants and workers. In connection with this, I discussed not only plasticity as a quality of revolution but also the mimetic nature of revolution itself, the mechanism of repetition at work in revolutions throughout history.

Lenin's wig_internet

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In conclusion, I return to a point I mentioned at the beginning: the question of possible methods of artistic reflection on historical memory and the history of revolution in particular.

It appears that in the project I have described we were guided not only by intuition. I think the methods we have applied, as well as the methods of artistic research on history and memory in general, are not so distant from the methods of the social sciences and historiography. Thus, the tradition of social sciences would be very important to artists who engage with material such as we have. One of its main origins was the French intellectual scene of the 1930s, when historical studies had been given new impetus by the sociology of Émile Durkheim. I am referring primarily to the Annales School, a highly influential tradition and intellectual platform that formulated and proposed modern methods of historical research. Its co-founders historians Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, when discussing how to work with historical sources, taught their disciples to peruse “the human facts which [sociologists] condemn as the most superficial and capricious of all,”[8] which also means perusing the seemingly trivial and insignificant, perusing the margins. This resonated in a certain way with the methods of psychoanalysis, which was evolving increasingly in the same period and influenced the social sciences as well. Thus, as regards our own project, a well-known text of Soviet ideology and mass culture was given a new reading and conceptualization. It was especially tempting for us, since both intellectual traditions, the sociology of Durkheim and Freudianism, had been almost completely rejected and ignored by Soviet academia.

Febvre and Bloch insisted as well on being critical towards facts, on questioning the equation of facts with truth. Febvre argued that the historian creates facts on his own, by discovering them, and he constructs his own narrative with them. He also emphasized the point that researchers should first develop their own theories, the conceptual frames for their further research.[9]

Another important theoretical background for an artistic reflection on history is certainly the concept of so-called history and memory, or memory studies. In the 1980s, historical studies experienced a crisis and revised their conceptions of scholarly rigor. Therefore, an interest in what had previously not engaged historians—memory and memories—emerged. The Collective Memory (1950), a posthumous book by sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who had been a disciple of Émile Durkheim, was the key influence. It was republished in the early 1980s, giving a boost to the new methodological turn in historical studies. French historian Pierre Nora elaborated Halbwachs’s ideas and reshaped his approach to history and memory in his own concepts of commemoration and “places of memory.” Historians and researchers now examine not only historical events but also memories of historical events. Memory and commemoration have become key notions.

It is true we could not have avoided these theoretical approaches in our project, either. When dealing with a Lenin museum and Lenin’s underground period of 1917, we paid attention to things that were somewhat peripheral and, at the same time, trivial: postcards featuring exhibition views and commemorations in the museum during the 1960s, and amateur snapshots of the museum made during Soviet times. It was certainly deliberate on our part that, when speaking of Lenin and 1917, we approached, first of all, the history of commemoration, in the way current historians would have done. In all fairness, it is extremely difficult today to reflect such a figure as Lenin in art, since his image has been turned into a mass culture icon and has been subversively used many times in pop art, as well as in its Soviet underground versions, the Sots Arts and Moscow conceptualism of the 1970s and 1980s, and especially in perestroika-era kitsch art. That is why we chose the opposite method and strategies. We used the optics of contemporary conceptualism or, as it were, post-conceptualism, as well as strategies of engaging the audience by means of a series of lecture tours to the museum, talks, and discussions.

Finally, this artistic reflection on history makes a difference only if it is done politically. Lenin’s renewed significance was proven in the spring of 2014. Ukrainians had begun demolishing Soviet monuments to Lenin (for a lack of monuments to Stalin to destroy, as someone aptly remarked), and they are still engaged in this process of wholesale demolition today. But in fact, Lenin was the only major political figure in 1917, in the midst of a full-scale war among the imperial powers, who insisted on a radical, uncompromising anti-war agenda. Lenin’s stance was the immediate cause of his prosecution by the Provisional Government, and the reason he took refuge in Razliv.

We intended our project to shed light on a historical period when this anti-war stance was in the underground, on the periphery of public politics, as it is today. It was important for us not simply to represent an alternative historical narrative but also to approach history in a way opposed to current official cultural policy, to critically revise rather than re-enact, to deconstruct rather than recreate.

Endnotes

[1] Artist and activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova made this point in a Facebook post, dated August 8, 2014.  Artist Arseny Zhilyaev voiced a similar idea, which he reworked into a concept for an exhibition.

[2] The situation has been exacerbated by new crackdowns on political freedoms and freedom of speech, and by the shrinking of space for public discussion. As artist and activist Victoria Lomasko said in a recent interview, “My work Cannibal State, in support of political prisoners, today could be regarded as insulting state symbols. [The work entitled] Liberate Russia from Putin clearly rocks the boat; it’s a call for rebellion, for revolution, and this is ‘extremism.’ […] It is impossible to know about the new laws and not think about the consequences if you make a work about something that really concerns you. [If] I were to draw something [in a satirical way, about fascists], I could be accused of spreading fascist ideas. And if I put it on the Web, everyone who reposts the picture automatically becomes my accomplice.”

[3] See, for example, V.I. Startsev, Ot Razliva do Smolnogo [From Razliv to Smolny], Moscow, 1977; V.T. Loginov, Neizvestnyi Lenin [The unknown Lenin], Moscow, 2010.

[4] See, for example, Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia, Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

[5] I.e., the V.I. Lenin Order of Lenin Leningrad Metro. See Tumarkin, op. cit. See also a recent article by anthropologist Alexei Yurchak in which he considers the practice of preserving of Lenin’s body (and the Lenin cult) as an instance of “neotraditional sovereignty” within the Soviet political system. Alexei Yurchak, “Bodies of Lenin: The Hidden Science of Communist Sovereignty,” Representations 129 (Winter 2015): 116–57.

[6] See the website KOLLEKTIVNYE DEYSTVIYA (COLLECTIVE ACTIONS). THE DESCRIPTIONS, PHOTO, VIDEO AND AUDIO OF ALL THE ACTIONS.

[7] Not only Zinoviev but also worker Bolshevik Nikolai Emelianov, who had concealed Lenin and Zinoviev in his shed, was prosecuted in the 1930s as counter-revolutionary. Emelianov was jailed for ten years and then exiled to Kazakhstan. He was released and allowed to come back home to Razliv only in 1954, after Stalin’s death.

[8] Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, Manchester, 2004, p. 17.

[9] Lucien Febvre, A New Kind of History: From the Writings of Febvre, ed. Peter Burke, trans. K. Folca, London, 1973

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Editor’s Note. I would like to express my gratitude to Ilya Orlov for allowing me to reproduce his essay here. He also kindly provided me with all the images for this publication except as otherwise noted.

The essay was edited by The Russian Reader.

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Ilya Orlov: On the Field of Mars

Ilya Orlov
The Field of Mars: Revolution, Mourning, and Memory

We are on the Field of Mars in Petersburg, at the Monument to the Fighters of the Revolution. That is the official name. The question immediately arises: to the fighters of which revolution? This is not specified in the official name. The epitaphs, penned by the first Soviet minister of education Anatoly Lunacharsky in 1919, are more lyrical than informative, referring to previous revolutions and historical figures, including the Jacobins and the Paris Communards. Only this humble gravestone refers to the primordial event: here lie the victims of the February Revolution of 1917.

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I doubt whether anyone pays attention to this gravestone. If you ask passersby what this place is, they are likely to reply that it is some memorial to the victims of some revolution. This is not surprising. Historically, the October Revolution eclipsed the February Revolution. This eclipse happened in Soviet times, and it was reflected in Soviet historiography. And there have been so many other historical events subsequently that now society has almost no memory of this revolution and its victims. In the 1990s, students from the nearby Institute of Culture grilled sausages over the eternal flame at the center of the monument. I have heard such stories firsthand. Perhaps this was a spontaneous denial of Soviet monumentalism and Soviet ideology. But the paradox is that this monument, which was more a revolutionary than a Soviet monument, was created by the revolution. Not to glorify state ideology, but on the contrary, to memorialize those who fought against the state’s tyranny. In this sense, the Field of Mars is a “place of memory, overgrown with grass,” despite this imposing granite monument.

field of mars-aerial view

But the shape of the memorial dates to March 1917. Here we see four L-shaped stelae: they were built a year later, in 1918. The L-shape is not accidental. Under the stelae are four L-shaped mass graves containing 184 victims of street fighting between protesters and police in February 1917. The rest of the burial ground—the quadrangular space formed by the stelae—was established soon afterwards, but during a completely different period, after the October Revolution of 1917. Here lie a number of combatants in the Civil War, mostly Bolsheviks, and most of their names are known. Our task today is to recall the original tenor of this memorial site, the tenor of February and March 1917.

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The February Revolution was the first of two revolutions in Russia in 1917 (although some historians consider them parts of a single revolutionary process). After spontaneous bread riots, mass strikes and demonstrations in Petrograd (then the capital of the Russian Empire), soldiers from the city’s garrison sided with the protesters. The revolution resulted in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. The Provisional Government came to power, its members, mostly liberals and conservatives, drawn from the State Duma (the former monarchy’s parliament). At the same time, local socialists formed an alternative authority, the Petrograd Soviet, which ruled alongside the Provisional Government. There were thus two centers of power, both with problems of legitimacy. It was a very unstable situation, which Lenin defined as a diarchy (dvoevlastie).

The new authorities decreed political freedom, ended capital punishment, released political prisoners, and abolished ethnic and religious discrimination. The result was total euphoria. But such important issues as Russia’s involvement in the First World War, social and economic problems, and labor issues remained on the agenda. Also, the question of the country’s future political constitution was unclear. The new authorities were not ready to answer these questions and deferred their consideration until the future Constituent Assembly met. In 1917, the idea of the Constituent Assembly, a “future master” that would be able to solve all problems, was a sort of fetish. It was, in fact, convened in 1918, but was soon dissolved by the Bolsheviks.

So the beginning of March 1917 was a time of economic crisis and instability, a hard situation at the front, universal euphoria over revolutionary liberation, total uncertainty about the future, and potential social fissure. This is the context in which the Petrograd Soviet raised the question of organizing a gigantic nationwide political manifestation—a solemn funeral for the victims of the revolution.

Numbers

The February Revolution was not bloodless. How many people were killed or wounded? The exact number of dead and wounded has never been precisely determined. According to early Soviet historiography, the total number of casualties did not exceed one and a half thousand. Of these, no more than two hundred people were killed. In later historiography, the numbers increased. But this information is also unreliable, because not all the victims were recorded.

There is also uncertainty over the number of people buried in the mass graves on the Field of Mars. Sometimes, the figures vary even within the same newspaper article. But the maximum number found in the historical sources is 184.

The nationwide funeral of the victims of the revolution or, as it was called, the “great funeral,” was planned by the Petrograd Soviet soon after the victory of the revolution. According to their plan, it was to be a grandiose funeral demonstration, meant to unite all the forces of the revolution, a “parade and review of all the revolutionary forces.” Preparations for the ceremony took more than three weeks. The plans were finally implemented on March 23, 1917.

Contemporaries described the events of that day as completely unprecedented. From morning till late night, endless columns of demonstrators relentlessly marched from different quarters of the city to the Field of Mars, carrying red coffins containing the bodies of the victims of the revolution. One after the other, the funeral processions arrived at the Field of Mars. It was a kind of political demonstration where various political, social, ethnic, professional groups and identities were broadly represented. There were columns of workers from different factories, military units, columns from educational institutions, columns made up of workers from various professions and trades, columns from leftist parties (for example, the Social Democrats and the Socialist Revolutionaries), columns representing different ethnic groups, and columns from ethnic leftist parties, for example, the Jewish Bund and the Armenian Dashnaktsutyun party. There were also columns from grassroots organizations, civic committees, and other groups of citizens, including, even, a column of blind people. In a certain sense, it was a symbolic repetition of the revolution itself.

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According to official figures, 800,000 people attended the funeral manifestation. According to unofficial tallies, up to two million people attended. Given that the city’s population was around 2.5 million at the time, we can assume the majority of the capital’s inhabitants were involved in the ceremony as participants or spectators.

There is still no historiography specially devoted to this event. The event, however, is well documented: all the newspapers published reports about it, and many photographs were taken. It is curious that photographs of the ceremony are still used as primarily visual matter for books and articles about the February Revolution, even if the funeral is not actually mentioned in them. This is quite understandable: the photographs depict a huge mass of demonstrators, as if this were the revolution itself.

The newspaper reports about the funeral are highly emotional. Sometimes, they even slip from prose into poetry. The rhetoric of “brotherhood” or “revolutionary brotherhood” is quite common in these reports: the victims of the revolution are often referred to as “our dead brothers.” At the same time, these articles have a euphoric tone: they often talk about the coming revival of the country, or about a great celebration of freedom.

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Worker’s Newspaper, March 23, 1917: “May the fighters who died for freedom never be forgotten”

Historians have repeatedly noted the anthropological connection between mourning, celebration, and revolution. Specifically, French historian Mona Ozouf talks about this in her book Festivals and the French Revolution. There are other numerous historical examples of this phenomenon, including the Ukrainian Maidan of 2014. Mourning and funeral processions provoke sublime feelings and mobilize people.

It is quite important to note one thing about this funeral. It was fundamentally a civil ceremony. There were no icons, no crosses, and no priests. Numerous requests from clergy to participate in the ceremony were rejected by the Soviet. For the first time in Russian history, a funeral of this scale was conducted without the Church’s participation. This civil ceremony was not just secular, however. It followed the cultural tradition of the revolutionary underground, the tradition of so-called red funerals. This tradition started after Bloody Sunday, the massacre of unarmed demonstrators that sparked the Revolution of 1905. Then, workers had begun to bury their comrades in red coffins, without the ministrations of priests. And more importantly, they turned funerals into political rallies. In defiance of the autocracy and the despotism of capitalism, they seemed to identify the sacred—death—as one of their allies. At the Field of Mars in 1917, this tradition attained official national status for the first time.

The ceremony of this huge demonstration was elaborately planned over several weeks. From the very beginning, it was clear the number of participants would be enormous. (As I have mentioned, it was as many as two million people in the end.) The organizers were afraid there could be a crush or stampede in the crowd. Therefore, they drew up instructions, layouts, route charts, and written rules that explained how the columns of the demonstrators should be self-organized, where and when they should start, how they should move, and which way they should go during the ceremony. These instructions were published before the funeral in newspapers.

The instructions were based on the idea of self-organization by district. Assembly points were located at the hospitals in the city’s six districts where the bodies of the victims of the revolution lay. There was a parallel between this scheme and the structure of the Soviet itself: both were democratic structures based on the representation of districts and small groups. The departure time of the district processions was scheduled in such a way that they arrived at the Field of Mars one after another, and only from the direction of Sadovaya Street.

The main idea of the ceremony’s planners was that the funeral procession would not stop in the square even for a minute. When a column reached the burial site, the demonstrators handed the coffins to workers who directly carried out the burials. The very next moment, the column would continue to move toward the exit, which was located on the opposite side of the field, near Trinity Bridge. This was done to prevent the crowd from being crushed.

Each time a coffin was lowered into a grave, a gun was fired at the Peter and Paul Fortress, on the opposite bank of the Neva River. To coordinate the movement of the columns, telephone wires were laid between the observation points.

The procession moved without stopping through the Field of Mars, and this also excluded the possibility of holding a rally. Therein lay the uniqueness of this mass commemoration: there were no public speeches during the entire ceremony, only funeral music, revolutionary songs, and lots of red flags.

Now I would like to draw your attention again to the structure of the burial ground—the four L-shaped mass graves at the corners of this large square. The funeral procession passed through the space between the graves. Alongside and above the graves, temporary wooden platforms (stages) were erected for the ceremony’s organizers and the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet. There were special hatches on the platforms for lowering the coffins into the ground.

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I should emphasize that it was impossible to make a speech or address an audience there, because the procession passed through the square without stopping. So the politicians just stood silently over the graves.

This combination of burial ground and site of political power is also remarkable. In this structure, the political approaches the sacral. The sublime feeling caused by the funeral seemed to reinforce the politics. The sacral became a support for political power. This convergence of politics and mourning was continued in Soviet times, of course, in the structure of the Lenin Mausoleum, with its tribune above the tomb.

What made this large-scale ceremony possible? And why did the Petrograd Soviet devote so much attention, time, and effort to organizing this manifestation in March 1917, when they had a variety of other pressing problems on their agenda?

It was clear what society needed: the victory of the revolution had been unexpected, and such dizzying change is always traumatic. The time was as it were “broken,” and the transition to the new life requires a ritual pattern. The funeral of the victims of the revolution may have played the role of such a therapeutic ritual. It was a kind of funeral of the ancien régime, a funeral of monarchy and despotism. It was thus no wonder it actually turned into joyous celebration of freedom, as witnesses of the event described it. They often dubbed it a “funeral celebration.”

The Soviet’s task was to mobilize society. The idea of organizing a symbolic repetition of the revolution was probably an attempt to overcome chaos and make the situation more transparent. In fact, the speakers in the Soviet clearly declared their intention to arrange a “parade of revolutionary forces,” which obviously meant making these forces visible, represented in the form of a manifestation on the square.

But the more important reason, as might be expected, was the problem of the basis for the new political authorities. Both the Provisional Government and the first roster of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet suffered from a lack of legitimacy: both were self-proclaimed revolutionary centers of power. Professional politicians had formed both. The Provisional Government had been formed by co-opting liberal and conservative members of the former State Duma. The Petrograd Soviet was made up of leftist Duma deputies and former underground leftist activists, although the Petrograd Soviet was in a somewhat better position, because its deputies had been elected. But its legitimacy had not been realized, either, because the Executive Committee had actually decided to relinquish its power, transferring most of it to the Provisional Government.

Thus, given a lack of solid ground in the present, the new authorities were forced to postpone solving the problem of legitimacy until the future, shifting it onto the shoulders of the Constituent Assembly (which was like putting it off until doomsday) or seeking support in symbolic actions and, in Leon Trotsky’s words, the “strong emotions and memories of the masses.” In fact, they tried to have it both ways. Of course, the traditional mode of sacralizing power (that is, the “divine right” of the monarch) had become impossible, so the most appropriate source of the sacral that remained was mourning—veneration of the fallen freedom fighters, the rhetoric of “sacrifice,” and so on.

Why was the Field of Mars chosen as the burial site? The funeral was preceded by a long discussion, lasting around three weeks, that took place at meetings of the Petrograd Soviet, as well as among the general public. The initial decision was to bury the victims of the revolution on Palace Square, directly in front of the Winter Palace, and for this purpose to pull down the Alexander Column. Palace Square and the Winter Palace were the very heart of the former empire, symbols of the monarchy. Palace Square was also where Bloody Sunday had taken place in 1905. To erect a memorial to the victims of the revolution in this place would have been a strong symbolic gesture, indicating the end of the ancien régime. Initially, the Petrograd Soviet voted the decision unanimously. In a revolutionary society, it was a decision that met with wholehearted support.

The next twist in the plot is almost like out of a detective novel.

Suddenly, members of the bourgeois artistic elite entered the picture. The key figures were art critic and artist Alexander Benois and the architects and artists of the World of Art group with which he was associated. This was a very influential conservative artistic movement that advocated neoclassicism and poeticized “old” Petersburg. Their objective was to maintain their influence in the realm of culture under the new government. They also wanted to establish and lead a new “Ministry of Fine Arts.” And since the architectural ensemble of Palace Square was for them the epitome of high art, they made an effort to change the Petrograd Soviet’s decision.

Through complicated intrigues, connections in the bourgeois Provisional Government, and cynical use of revolutionary rhetoric, they were able to convince the Petrograd Soviet to change their minds. Their ruse was cynical and sophisticated. They urgently drew up and submitted to the Soviet an architectural plan under which a palace to house the future Constituent Assembly would be built on the Field of Mars; hence, supposedly, the memorial to the victims of the revolution should be sited near this new building as well. They also promised the palace would be decorated with statues, “including, perhaps, statues of the current leaders of the revolution.” As a result, the Petrograd Soviet agreed to change the burial site from Palace Square to the Field of Mars.

Architect Lev Rudnev built the monument in 1918–1919. The author of the poetic epitaphs on the monument, as I have mentioned, was Anatoly Lunacharsky.

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NOT VICTIMS, BUT HEROES
lie beneath this tomb
NOT GRIEF, BUT ENVY
your fate engenders
in the hearts of
all grateful
descendants
in the terrible red days
you lived gloriously
and died beautifully

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THE RANKS OF THE MIGHTY
departed from life
in the name of life’s flourishing
THE HEROES OF UPRISINGS
of different ages
the crowds of Jacobins
THE FIGHTERS OF ‘48
the crowds of Communards
are now joined
by the sons of Petersburg

In the early Soviet period, the Field of Mars served as a pantheon where Bolsheviks killed during the Civil War were buried. This was before the new pantheon near the Kremlin Wall in Moscow was built.

After Stalin’s death, during the Khrushchev Thaw, official Soviet ideology attempted, in a certain sense, to return to its revolutionary origins. On the fortieth anniversary of the revolution, in 1957, an eternal flame was lit in the center of the memorial.

The fire was brought from the open-hearth furnaces of the Kirov Plant, one of the major machine-building factories in Leningrad. It was the first eternal flame in the country, and it was lit in memory of the victims of all revolutions. It was from this fire that the eternal flames at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, and ten years later, in 1967, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin Wall, were lit.

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For the rest of the Soviet period, the memorial was one of the most important official places of memory in the country. But it was revered as a monument to “the fighters of all revolutions,” that is, there was no emphasis on the February Revolution, to which it had originally been dedicated. The memory of February was displaced by the memory of October.

In post-Soviet times, the memorial has remained unchanged, but with each passing year it is more and more obviously at odds with the official anti-communist ideology. This has especially been the case in the past few years, given the growing dominance of rightist ideology, the condemnation of all revolutions, and the denial of the revolutionary legacy’s value.

Two years ago, in 2012, an urban development project that called for eliminating the memorial was presented at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum. The project proposed moving the graves to another location and creating a recreational area on the Field of Mars. Once again, members of the conservative intelligentsia were involved. Local historian and journalist Lev Lurie and Alexander Borovsky, head of the Russian Museum’s contemporary art department, publicly expressed support for demolishing the memorial. The argument was as follows: the revolutionaries were villains and murderers, the revolution had long been forgotten, and Petersburgers did not have enough recreational areas. A number of historians and public figures came out in defense of the memorial. I also published an article in defense of the place. In any case, for reasons unknown, the project was canned.

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Perhaps the following odd episode played a part in this outcome. That same year, 2012, the city police suddenly organized a solemn commemoration at the memorial. The official statement for this strange commemoration claimed the people buried in these mass graves were not, in fact, revolutionaries, but plainclothes gendarmes who had been killed by protesters during the street fighting in February 1917, and that these defenders of the old regime were the real victims of the revolution.

The context of these recent events has been the crackdown on political freedoms in Russia. For example, Petersburg city hall has repeatedly refused to let the opposition hold rallies in the city center. As a result of this longstanding dispute between the opposition and the municipal administration, the authorities proposed establishing a so-called Hyde Park in the city center, choosing the Field of Mars as the site.

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Petersburg artist Elena Osipova at anti-war rally on the Field of Mars, March 8, 2014

For several years now, protest rallies have been held here. As a rule, they are not well attended: the society is intimidated and politically apathetic. The protesters include everyone from liberals and leftists to animal rights advocates. And yet the historical memory of this place has almost been lost: its revolutionary history is almost never has evoked at these rallies. Perhaps it is too far in the past, hidden under numerous layers of history. Or perhaps this is a problem of today’s political movements, which have lost their connection with this great revolutionary tradition that once triumphed in Russia.

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It is difficult to evaluate, either positively or negatively, the practice of revolutionary commemoration, especially when it is bound up with funerals and the rhetoric of “strong emotions,” as well as the post-revolutionary infatuation with monumentalism. On the one hand, the intention of the authorities to find support for their political power in the sacral (in mourning, in sublime feelings, in the archaic) points to the fact that the government had a problem securing its legitimacy. Paradoxically, it would seem that the most advanced political system—the revolutionary soviets of 1917—could rely on archaic feelings just like the monarchy, which used to refer to its “divine right” to rule. The infatuation with monumentalism also seems like something akin to fetishism, especially when we realize that, after many years, even a heavy granite monument is unable to retain its original meaning. In a sense, this is the counter-revolutionary aspect of revolutionary culture.

On the other hand, the monumental solemnity of this forgotten mass commemoration of March 1917 seems today like valuable know-how, even a lesson for us. The commemoration that took place here in 1917 was an alternative to the commemorations of the ousted regime, both in its form and its content. It remains just as relevant today in its separation of church and state, its reverence not for heroes but for common people, and its commemoration of those who did not support but opposed the state.

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Ilya Orlov (born 1973) is a Petersburg-based artist and historian. He graduated from the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences (Smolny College) of Saint Petersburg State University, where he majored in history, philosophy, political science, and art. He wrote his honor’s thesis on revolutionary mourning rituals in 1917, and his M.A. dissertation on the aesthetics of nature in contemporary curatorial studies. Orlov’s recent artistic work has focused on cultural, social, and political issues in post-Soviet reality and the politics of commemoration.

The article above is based on the text of a guided tour Ilya Orlov led to the Field of Mars in October 2014. My thanks to him for permission to publish it here and his generous assistance in locating some of the accompanying illustrations. The text was edited by the Russian Reader. Funeral photographs courtesy of humus and statehistory.ru. Photo of Elena Osipova by Sergey Chernov. Modern-day photos of the Field of Mars (except for aerial view) by the Russian Reader