Prep Your Mind for Revolution

Based on my previous posts, the question came up on how to better prep oneself for the revolutionary mindset if one doesn’t have it. What are people over thirty supposed to do, given that “He who is not a républicain at twenty compels one to doubt the generosity of his heart; but he who, after thirty, persists, compels one to doubt the soundness of his mind.” Republican here, of course, means someone extremely progressive, because the quote comes from 19th century France.

Again, the past can be your mentor.

Imagine the revolution has succeeded. The USA is now the USSA, aka the United Socialists States of America. The UK is the UC, United Communists. The Republic of France is still the Republic of France – it is pretty much a socialist state anyway, except that now the French demand restitution from Italy for the centuries of Gallic oppression and have renamed Caesar salad.

  • Half of your friends are crucified by the other half of your friends. The executors sing Lennon’s “Imagine all the people, sharing all the world” while they nail the martyrs to their metaphorical crosses. You are not a butcher and maybe even horrified about the act, but you have to sing along because otherwise, you’ll find yourself on one of the crosses – and you accept it as necessary for the greater good. At least this is what you tell yourself.
  • All the prior art is the reactionary opposite of what the new world desires. You have to start hating it.
  • The concept of beauty flies out of the history window. When the world is bogged down in evil, the primary artistic task is to fight the darkness, not think of beauty.
  • The attention span for the new generation is 8 seconds. Testing your art against this hurdle is easy. Buy a bowl with a goldfish. If the fish doesn’t fixate on your artwork, it’s not good.
  • Keep singing.

Do I describe a mind so conflicted it is impossible to fathom? Ivan Vladimirov, a Russian artist, could be your guide to it.

In 1917, when the Bolshevik Revolution upended the country, he turned 47 and was an established artist in battle and war-related genre. He had done four tours with the army, documenting conflicts and wars in the Caucasus, Europe and the Far East.

During the first two years after the Revolution, he was earning his food ration as a police sketch artist, all the while recording the many horrors and occasional joys of communism. Later on, he went on to become a recognised Socialist Realism artist, was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, and even survived Stalin’s purges.

Ivan Vladimirov had stayed away from avant-garde movements that mushroomed after the revolution. A faithful adept of realism, he never made it into art history books. Still, he offers a unique chance to get the feel of the times through his documentary art. We would walk now through the formative years of the first successful socialist revolution, keeping in mind that if only Vladimirov had come up with a new visual language, he might have reached Chagall’s calibre.

Most of these drawings survived because they were taken to the US in the 1920s. In Stalin’s Russia, they would be equal to at least 25 years inside a GULAG camp without the right to communicate. My great-great parents got much more for much less back then.

You may notice that some of the situations have an uncomfortable similarity to what is happening today in developed countries across the globe. If you have ever been interested in the French Revolution of 1793, you’d find similarities too. Not a single revolution promised a reign of terror, but all of them had one.

Zimni
Ivan Vladimirov. The Taking of the Winter Palace in 1917.

The official Soviet propaganda presented “the takers”, the avant-garde of the revolutionary masses, determined and noble soldiers. The truth is the Bolsheviks couldn’t stop vandalism and looting that lasted for five days after the Winter Palace fell.

original-1
Ivan Vladimirov. The Looting of a Wine Store, 1917

Besides the usual assortment of valuables that one might expect to find in a palace, revolutionary soldiers were inspired by the rumour about the vast royal wine cellars. Having a horde of drunken soldiers around – in case of their victory – was not an option the all-female battalion that guarded the Palace wanted to entertain. A few guards went down with a machine gun and unloaded thousands of rounds into the cellar, destroying all the bottles. Wine started flowing down the rain sewage system and into the Neva River, which delayed the final assault on the Palace for a few hours because revolutionaries scattered to drink wine straight from the ditches. The ruse didn’t prevent the fall of the Palace or the subsequent looting, but the female guards survived disarming and surrender with only three of them gang-raped and only one thrown out of the window. You don’t expect a non-violent revolution, do you?

To curb looting, on the next day after the Interim Government fell, the Bolsheviks issued a decree that guaranteed each Red Guard two bottles of wine daily.

original copy

Ivan Vladimirov. Down with the [Imperial] Eagle
Of course, old symbols had to come down and be replaced with red flags.

The takers of the Winter Palace were vandalising portraits with their bayonets, but burning them was also an option. Symbols of oppression of the working classes had to go.

Burning of Tsar portrait
Ivan Vladimirov, The Burning of a Tsar portrait, 1917

The Bolsheviks were no fools, though. They didn’t burn everything. Together with the revolutionary masses, they first looted valuables.

Looting of a country estate
Ivan Vladimirov. Peasant are looting the landlord’s country estate, 1918
Looters with their loot
Looters carry their loot.
Expropriation of the village church
Ivan Valdimirov. Red Guards confiscate valuables from a village church. 1922. As you can see, local “babushkas” do not seem very happy about it.
Expropriation of the rich
Ivan Vladimirov. Expropriation of the Rich. 1917

And, of course, no successful revolution is possible if dissenters can walk around freely and sow their dissent!

First, they had to be arrested and isolated. But how to identify dissidents if you don’t have their Tweeter or Facebook history at hand? Aha. Arrest all who used to be employed by the powers that fell – military officers, engineers, company directors, police detectives, university professors – the whole lot.

Конвоирование бывших
Ivan Vladimirov, Armed Escort of the “has-beens.”
Tsar generals arrested
Ivan Vladimirov. The Arrest of Generals. The touching detail here is that the former soldier can’t help but offer a hand to the old general.

Some of the “has-beens” – especially the “opium for the people” workers or university professors – were put to “constructive” and “useful” labour, supervised, of course, by the Red Guards.

Ex govt officials on compulsory public works

Clergy on compalsory labour

To scare these “has-beens” into submission, half of them had to be executed. And some had to be killed just for the sheer fun of it, and sometimes “some” meant the other half.

execution of tsarist officers

execution in the basement

And finally, in-between escorting, guarding, and executing the “has-beens”, the Man of Labour could relax.

Revolutionary sailors are playing a game of cards 1922

На посту

With the bourgeois kicked from their estates, mansions, flats and theatre boxes, all of their possessions was up for grabs!

Переезд выселенной семьи
Ivan Vladimirov. Has-beens are moving things they were allowed to take from a flat from which they were evicted.

Victors in the teathre

Destitute men and women who had had no hope of climbing up the social ladder under the old regime, had now become the elite.

Reading Pravda Newspaper

They got the power to take anything and anyone they wanted.

No one can protect her
Ivan Vladimirov. No one can protect her. 1921

Taking, looting, robbing by people with rifles had become the new normal.

Robbing red cross aid
Ivan Vladimirov, Robbing the train with humanitarian help from the Swedish Red Cross.

Famine and destitution for the former “ruling” classes and their servants had become the new normal as well.

Search for something edible in the garbage pit
Ivan Vladimirov. Has-beens are rummaging through garbage for something to eat. 1919
Famine in Petrograd
Ivan Vladimirov. Famine in Petrograd. – You can see the triumphant Bolsheviks marching along the other side of the river.

A new generation was raising its young head – without any respect for the past or present.

Proletariat kids playing in the park
Proletariat kids stoning garden sculptures

So, we just had a leisurely stroll through the Russian Socialist Revolution.

Don’t despair, artists can do well under the direst circumstances.

This is Ivan Vladimirov, at the end of his life – an extremely well-to-do representative of the creative class.

Vladimirov.jpg

If you want to survive a revolution as an artist and expect future generations to respect your work, you may want to consider expressing yourself along some of the following lines:

  • your belief that the new world would eliminate hunger/racism/oil spills/injustice/the boy who bullied you at school
  • your disbelief in the above
  • your suppressed horror/exaltation at what you see happening around you right now (Bacon’s Pope Innocent is an excellent example of suppression going full boom but remember you are supposed to hate it because it is “old” art)
  • your tongue-in-cheek opinion of the new perfectly moral people (the executors)
  • your vision of their future (when generation Z hits 80, for instance)

…and don’t forget to think up a new visual language!

I don’t know if I could help, but if I did, drop me a line in the comments )

26 comments

  1. Was there ever a time that needed a revolution more than these current days? Twenty-six of the richest people own as much as the 50% having the least. Still, we keep on using Amazon and Google till fingers get blisters.
    The Volga Boatmen, by Ilia Efimovich Repin (1844-1930), and work by other artist-protesters paved the way to revolution. Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfsWoNpHg2s.
    Your response to Marie: knowing little from USSR, I had the impression that the losses of lives of Russian soldiers not wel equipped (‘by the Czar’) was a major factor. And good propaganda by Lenin funded by the Germans was also a point.

    1. The high disparity in income we see today is not a good thing, and a change that will lead to a redistribution of capital gains is necessary. Still, does it have to be a revolution? it is true that it is the fastest way to redistribute income, but will it create a system that is more just and offers a better “safety net” in the long term? In the past, a more socially and economically just systems emerged only sometimes (like in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Empire, the Restoration, etc.) and only after a massive loss of life. If there is one difference between our times and those of the Jacobins, it is the speed of information exchange and connectivity. My hope is that ultimately, in this new “speedy” world, we would find a way to effect change without resort to violence.

      As for Repin, thank you for the link!)
      I wrote about this particular painting here: https://artrussia.org/2013/11/06/the-bane-of-russian-intellectuals-part-ii/ – and people who know the subject say it is better than anything they’ve read on the subject ))

      When he was young he believed in the Russian man of labour. When the Russian man of labour took the power, Repin realised he was profoundly mistaken. I quote him on this in the post, “What a fool I was – and not a lone fool – you may count Leo Tolstoy and many others in this group of fools when we celebrated and praised this damned revolution…. What a pain it is to remember how we all praised the Man of Labour, and now this man has shown himself for what he really is: SCUM!”

      And, we must realise that it is not the Man of Labour Repin was talking about, but the leaders of the revolution who were anything but.

      1. in part, i start to see the reason for ‘heated discussion’. A revolution by definition need not to be with violence and arms. “The discovery of penicillin by Mr & Mrs Fleming was considered a medical revolution” I learned in 1971 in the course of Infectious Diseases.

  2. I discovered this post last night, skimmed over it, and decided to keep the browser tab open and treat myself to reading it in depth after work today.

    “keeping in mind that if only Vladimirov had come up with a new visual language, he might have reached Chagall’s calibre.” The sarcasm here is delicious. Made me laugh. So did, “renamed Caesar salad.”

    A little typo for you to fix, “supervised, of course, but the Red Guards.” Should be “by the Red Guards” I’m assuming.

    Outstanding work. I love seeing those old paintings by Vladimirov and the context you provided. You are also right about attentions span and art, which is already the norm, and visual images must be absorbed in all their complexity in the split second it takes for them to appear and disappear in the swipe of the Instagram screen.

    The parallels today are glaring, and the only thing that still remains at all surprising is that it isn’t obvious to people, and that so many people can fall for stories that fly in the face of statistics and reality. People are able to stomach atrocious hypocrisy and double standards without suffering the slightest cognitive dissonance (ex., the curator of the San Fransisco Museum of Art having to resign for his ‘toxic white supremacist beliefs” which were evident in his reluctance to not buy any work at all by white male artists for the foreseeable future, while wholeheartedly buying the work of POC.)

    I first encountered this radical ideology in art school a quarter century ago, and it’s the same exact arguments and even most the same examples today. I marvel that this has taken hold outside of the exceptionally fringe mindset of radicallized liberal arts. It took me decades to completely deprogram myself both in regards to the politics as well as the radical art theory, both overtaken by postmodern/politically correct/identity politics, with a healthy dollop of Marxism… Now, the revolutionary crap load is back in force, and I have to deal with it again. The artworld is sunk, has spent more time on its knee than standing up, practices censorship and destroys art, and is otherwise a hostile environment for art and artists of the more painterly bent.

    1. Thank you again, Eric, for the comment –

      Yes, I wondered how the brilliant career of a curator who was, in fact, pushing for the museum collection to become more diverse when other museums didn’t even care about the issue – long before the current revolution, could be cancelled because of a single phrase, a phrase that was simply a statement of fact.

      The same was often happening to intellectuals in Soviet Russia in the 1920s – they would get cancelled. But in the 1930s, they would simply be murdered for things they might have insensibly said back in the 1920s – so no one was complaining about the cancel culture because they were all dead.

  3. Wonderful artwork and interesting commentary but more than a bit one sided. Did the elite care when the lower classes were starving or assist them in any time of need. Granted the horrors of revolution are inexcusable, but so many of the social, economic, and cultural deprivations that lead to a revolution. Revolution does not happen in a vacuum.

    1. Dear Marie, don’t get me started)) social, economic, and cultural deprivations before the revolution have been enourmously exaggerated by the Bolsheviks. Real wages fell just 9 per cent, crime was down 26 per cent, record harvests in 1915-1917plus state subsidies to farmers made peasants wealthier by 1917 than they were in 1914. Productivity grew by a third – from 1913 to 1917. And the October coup plunged the country into a deadly nightmare for decades. Granted it might have helped workers in other countries get a better safety net from capitalists but even that is debatable. And when we speak about the elite… The whole educated class was annihilated almost completely,and replaced by slave labour. It was not a vacuum of course, but not as dramatic as marxists have painted it after they won)

      1. Again, revolution does not happen in a vacuum. Unfortunately, the aims of a revolution and the inherent characteristics of humankind, especially in a group setting, don’t always mesh after the fall. We can see that today in Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi’s inaction in response to the genocide of the Rohingya. No one ever said revolunaries have to be saints; many incite blind fervor and action. One can hardly call Trump a revolutionary, but his rhetoric is certainly meant to incite and divide. I would be tempted to pick up a pitchfork if there was a revolution except that too many of the blind followers own automatic weapons. Just my thought for the day.

        1. Pol Pot’s genocide didn’t happen in a vacuum, either, and he learned his pro-revolutionary agenda in a French university. Just because a revolution doesn’t happen in a vacuum — nothing does — does not mean it’s justified or not an absolute abomination, the horrors of which make that which it was ostensibly rebelling against seem like a paradise. Who was better off after the “year zero” in Cambodia? Art perished. Artists were brutally tortured and murdered. So, the point is, violent revolution is — if the last century is any guide — a blood bath executed by brutes. What would you do with your pitchfork? Whose flesh would you pierce with its prongs? Who deserves to die because of their race or social standing in your revolution that doesn’t take place in a vacuum. If you were playing close attention to the news, you might find that you aren’t on the side of today’s revolution. You are yourself the target.

          1. It’s hard to respond since I’m not sure which side you think I’m on and who would target me. And the answers would be interesting and telling. Am I the target of the fast right neo fascists or far left anarchists. Our of the centrists millennials who want to cancel everyone. I don’t recall ever saying that revolutions are the answer, just that they do not spring out of thin air. And in Pol PotS case, while don’t know what caused his coming to power, it was his brutality and inhumanity that influenced his actions. I believe that humankind has an evil gene. As for my pitchfork, that was in reference to the craziness in the US with the armed militias and right wing obsession with guns. I wasn’t planning in punching anyone with it, except maybe a Fox News personality. And no that doesn’t mean I’m against the first amendment. Oh, and never assume just because someone may view things from a different perspective that they are uniformed. Then again, as Emma Goldman supposedly said: Don’t invite me to your revolution if I can’t dance.

              1. What is your point, that if Jesus or Buddha are revolutionaries than revolution is necessarily a positive thing, or just not necessarily a bad one.

                Can you list some of the people Buddha personally murdered for his revolution? At least show where he advocated using violence and murder to achieve political power.

                Not all “revolutions” are the same merely because the same word is used, just as not all “traditions” are the same.

                Some people (scan above) are incapable of entertaining the thought that the left can go too far into authoritarianism, even if Mao and Pol Pot were on the left. Lunacy exists on the extremes that can’t countenance another view — the proliferation of censorship is a sure sign authoritarianism is on the rise, from whichever side of the spectrum — in which case one needs to be on-guard against both right and left varieties of extremism, which starts to become glaringly apparent when their rhetoric includes blatant hypocrisy and double standards.

                Seen any of that lately?

                1. there are revolutions and revolutions. the ones that propagate my motocycle, might kill, but only if the driver is drunk. what is the reason for your aggressive responses? hate eats the soul.

                  1. Guys, I guess the subject is heated and it heats the discussion )
                    You are all great artists or art lovers and you are ALL against violence. Unfortunately, there are many people who are not, and fortunately, they definitely don’t read this blog.

                    I like the metaphor about the drunk driver – my problem is that the chances ending up with a driver who’s way over the limit are too high for me to accept revolution as a way to social change.

            1. “they do not spring out of thin air” – it is a valid and fair point. I wrote in the comment above that my hope is that in today’s “fast” world when the speed of information exchange and connectivity is unprecedented a solution can be found that won’t involve violence, massive loss of life, and a loss of freedom that is a necessary ingredient for the arts and progress.

              And yes, there are many characters that make me – a very peaceful man – want to take a pitchfork, but I know that it doesn’t solve the underlying problem, that’s why I don’t pick it up )

              At school and uni, I was indoctrinated with the Marxist theory (we didn’t have any other theories at the time). In this theory, they always talk of revolutionary forces – but in reality, it all comes down to revolutionary leaders who define the policies. And if history can be any reference, there’s only one way to get at the top of a revolutionary force: by being the most brutal and the most ruthless. This is how Mao, Pol Pot and others got to power.

              I don’t live in the US, but I don’t think I would be afraid of armed militias of the far-right or the far-left (the latter has also surfaced up recently) even though I would cross the street if I see their gathering. I would be dead scared of people who get chosen as their leaders. And here, you are right, some of Fox personalities could be the scariest guys around.

              I don’t think that anyone who truly loves art – and hence believes that human civilisation is capable of evolution – would support violence even if it is intended to speed up this progress. I am sure all my readers are true lovers of art )

              1. Have I been watching too much dystopian sci-fi on Netflix, or is there not a revolution going on right now? Were city blocks in downtown Washington not taken over for weeks? Were police precincts not burned down? Were there not massive protests (peaceful or otherwise), rioting, looting, and arson? Were streets not renamed? Were slogans and murals not put up everywhere? Did public sculptures not come down? Were demands not made to de-fund and abolish the police? Was there not violence? Did leaders not get down on their knee to show allegiance to the revolution? Did none of that not happen, and not during a pandemic? I guess it must have been a Netflix special, and that’s why people are talking abstractly about possible peaceful revolutions to redistribute the wealth of the 0.1 percenters (or is this really 2010 and we are gearing up for Occupy Wall Street?).

                I’m getting a sense that people might feel that the underlying thinking of the various revolutions wasn’t at fault, but only the implementation. I would strongly suggest the thinking is often also seriously flawed, and not based on reality, which is part of the reason the process of overthrowing the government and instilling a new order is rife with violence.

                Is meaningful, peaceful, and substantive change possible? I’d like to think so, but in order for that to happen the goal has to be truly a greater system that will insure justice, peace, prosperity, and the flourishing of creativity. If that’s not even really on the agenda, there’s not a plan that is truly just, and the real motive is just taking power, then bloody revolution, , hatred, murder, and all manner of atrocity are guaranteed.

                1. Eric, I agree with you on all the points you make and share the same belief that a peaceful change must be possible in today’s world. Except that I don’t really see a revolution – at least within the Marxist framework of it, because for it to be successful, revolutionaries need to take critical elements of infrastructure under their control. The first question is, what are those critical elements in today’s realities, and second, have they been taken? I have to admit I got so weary of social theories after years and years of studying Marxism-Leninism back in the USSR that I am not aware now of any contemporary development in this line of socio-economic thought. Perhaps, there’s someone out there who is publishing books on what you call “a greater system that will ensure justice, peace, prosperity, and the flourishing of creativity”. I’d love to read a new non-Communist manifesto)

                  1. I didn’t say anything about a successful revolution, just one that is underway and attempting to take power and destroy its enemies, which is increasingly becoming anyone who isn’t among its own ranks. If you dare criticize it, or a relative of yours does, you may lose your job and/or be cancelled. We discussed the curator who lost his job, and apologized, for not being 100% with the agenda. A presidential candidate has shown his obsequious allegiance to the cause of the revolution.

                    What would constitute critical elements of infrastructure? Would policy changes, for example, to defund or abolish the police not be an example of changing the infrastructure? How about allowing protests during a pandemic while other people are simultaneously not allowed to gather in public? Does that happen without tacit support from the infrastructure? If people are afraid to express their true opinions – and they definitely are – is that a sign that some intolerant form of power had already taken hold, if not official than effectively?

                    Peaceful change is already happening constantly, though it may not be fast enough. Steven Pinker has a book called, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” detailing all the improvements in healthcare, prosperity, literacy, and are going on constantly, but which get little attention. Note that over 600 people have signed a letter to strip him of his role as a “distinguished academic fellow” and “media expert” in the linguistics community for tweets in which he brought up facts.

                    I don’t believe they have a model for a more just or peaceful society, certainly not for everyone. Nevertheless, they are gaining power and influence, and one has to be very careful what one says, because there is zero tolerance for dissent, and anyone who disagrees must be vanquished.

  4. Well, we in the ‘lower lands’ had the ‘storm’ destroying paintings and scuptures in churches in 1566.
    Most informative writing and imaging. Was Vladimirov acquainted with Goya’s The Disasters of War?

    Still, good Christophorus (…) Columbus took a dive. You know his soldiers cut of the hands og indigenous people that did not produce enough in the mines (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christopher_Columbus%27_Soldiers_Chop_the_Hands_off_of_Arawak_Indians_who_Failed_to_Meet_the_Mining_Quota.jpg)
    regards, Drager

  5. It breaks my heart to see the destruction of the art work in the first painting. I can’t bear the burning of books either. China went through much of this in its Cultural revolution. It seems that when the extremes between the “haves and the have-nots” reaches a certain point you can expect unrest. France with its “Gilet Jaun” “Black Lives Matter” etc. the multitude is seizing power to rectify injustices. If you ever see the movie “Viva Zapata” it addresses this quite aptly. The idealization of political views may seem quite noble but no political view is perfect and some are less perfect than others. One can only hope to experience those in-between times when the discrepancies aren’t so extreme and peace persists.
    Leslie

      1. Hello to all and brilliant piece Kirill and congratulations on getting such diverse and thought provoking comments. As usual you write brilliantly about an artist I did not know. It is so exciting to see the reaction and to see how your words have ignited such a strong debate. Of course, from the little that I know (and mostly from what I have read and my older Russian friends have told me) unless you have lived –meaning had to survive and I use the word survive strongly– in a system such as the Soviet one (or others like it) it is impossible to really understand what it took to stay alive, physically and creatively. Gilets Jaunes, Black Lives Matter all have reasons to be but they are to be considered ‘social unrest’. Most of the comments seem to come from persons who live in the US (or Europe, such as myself) and I swear, we HAVE NO IDEA what a social revolution is. The American Revolution and the Civil War are not in the league of what you are writing about. Anyway, hats off to you my friend for presenting such an interesting artist, cloaked in a fascinating and revenant and timely comment. See, art does provoke dialogue… One last thing for swo8: I remember about Viva Zapata, great film and thanks for mentioning it! I will look at it again! Best to all! Keep writing comments to Kirill’s blog!

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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