Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia

A picture paints a thousand words…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

To commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this summer the British Library held an exhibition discussing the causes and impact of the revolution and illustrating it with contemporary documents, propaganda, photographs and art. This book was issued to go alongside the exhibition, and works very well as a substitute for those of us who weren’t able to attend. It’s beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated, but it’s far more than just a coffee table book. The balance between text and illustrations is excellent, making it a substantial history as well as a visual feast.

The book starts with a very well laid out, lengthy timeline, running from about 1860 to the present day, though it bulges over the revolutionary period itself. It includes not only events in Russia, but also an indication of what was happening contemporaneously elsewhere in the world, in politics, science, etc.; and this gives a very clear picture of how comparatively backwards pre-revolutionary Russia was both culturally and politically. It also includes major events in the world of art and literature, and some fascinating statistics showing the rampant inflation that helped push the people into revolution. This is a great beginning – almost enough to be a pocket history of the revolution on its own, and it’s very well illustrated, with brief but clear and informative information about each image.

Curators Katya Rogatchevskaia and Susan Reed during installation of
Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths.
Photo by Samantha Lane

Each of the following chapters takes the form of an essay on one aspect of the subject, each written by a different author, expert in the field s/he is discussing. Together they follow the progression of events so that there’s a flow to the ‘story-telling’. Naturally, each author has his or her own style and some worked better for me than others. A couple of the chapters read as if perhaps too much is being crammed into the available space, giving a rather dizzying impression of names and events. Others take a more broad brush approach which, while it means they perhaps don’t contain so much detailed information, worked better for me as a casual reader. Overall, though, the standard is excellent – thoroughly researched and informative and only very rarely falling over the line towards being a little too academically presented for my taste.

White propaganda poster – a happy worker in Soviet Russia

The first chapter deals with the history of tsarism and the rise of the various parties and groupings that would participate in the revolution. Like the other chapters, it’s a necessarily brief account but it’s enough to give a clear and, as far as I can judge, accurate picture. The second chapter describes the events of February to October 1917 – the actual revolutionary period. Then there’s a chapter which takes us through the civil war that followed the revolution. Because I’ve been reading so much detailed history of the period this year, these chapters didn’t add much for me in terms of new information, but they provide a concise summary of events and the illustrations give an extra layer of interest. There are propaganda posters, newspaper headlines and extracts from articles, cartoons, paintings and extracts from important documents – and all placed where they’re relevant so that they enhance the text superbly. There are also little side panels containing extracts from contemporaneous writings of people involved in the events as either participants or observers.

Soviet propaganda poster – Retreating, the Whites are burning the crops

Personally I found the final chapters particularly interesting, since they covered the post- revolutionary period and subjects that I haven’t read so much about. The fourth chapter describes the beginnings of the Soviet state and its impact on society, culture and the arts. The rise in the use of propaganda is wonderfully illustrated, bringing it to life much more than words alone could possibly do. We are shown the attempts to destroy orthodox religion and the concurrent creation of the cult of Lenin, including the use of the same kind of religious symbolism the churches had used. And this chapter also covers the artistic response to the revolution, including the poetry of Alexander Blok and the futurist art of Mayakovsky.

White propaganda poster – Peace and freedom in Soviet Russia

Chapter five takes the story on through the early decades of the twentieth century, showing the spread of the Soviet Empire until it had recovered most of the old Tsarist empire. It also discusses the regime’s attempts to spread revolution throughout Europe via the Comintern, using propaganda and attempting to gain influence over the new socialist parties springing up in many countries between the wars. And finally, there’s an epilogue where the editor herself discusses the literary impact on and response to the revolution, from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky via Gorky, Bunin, Sholokhov, Pasternak, et al, through to the more modern dissidents like Solzhenitsyn.


Since I started this challenge to read my way through the Russian Revolution, several people have asked in relation to one book or another whether it would be a good place to start. In truth, this is the one that I would recommend as a starting point. It’s nowhere near as detailed as the major tomes like A People’s Tragedy or History of the Russian Revolution, but it gives a clear, concise overview of the main people and events, and widens the discussion out to look at the worlds of literature and art – designed to appeal to the bookish amongst us. And the wonderful illustrations make it an easier read, perhaps, giving opportunities to pause and visual prompts that help in absorbing the information. The illustrations also mean that this would be an interesting supplement for people who already know the history. An excellent book – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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34 thoughts on “Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia

  1. I wish I could’ve gone to that exhibit, FictionFan. But the book does sound very informative. It’s so hard, I think, to get the balance of information/graphics right, but it sounds as though this one did. And those illustrations are beautiful; I can see how they’d help tell the story.

    • I’d have loved to go to the exhibition too but the book made up for it. I was really expecting it to be a much lighter book – just the illustrations and a bit of explanation, really. But in fact, it’s much more than a companion piece to the exhibition – it stands as a ‘proper’ history in its own right.

    • It’s a big book though – probably about A4 size I’d say – and the print is fairly small so it’s amazing how much text is packed in. It also means a lot of the posters are full page, so you can really see the detail.When I requested it, I was expecting it to be a much lighter, less substantial read though, mainly because of the low page count.

  2. Wow I love this idea of having a full book to accompany an exhibit, you can travel anywhere in a book, even a particular art exhibit! Some of those propoganda posters are a bit haunting for sure….

    • I loved the idea too – it’s not always possible to get to these exhibitions for loads of different reasons, but this book really works as a great alternative, and the posters come across really strongly. And truthfully I’d rather sit in comfort and read the text in my own time rather than stand with loads of other people trying to absorb it all at one time…

  3. FF, you’ve got my admiration for wading through this one! I see all those long Russian names — none of which I dare to pronounce — and my eyes glaze over! I realize, of course, that dealing with unfamiliar things can be considered a challenge, but when it’s so beautiful outside and a weekend is upon us, I just don’t want that kind of challenge. Silly me!!

    • Ha! The pronunciation bothers me less than trying to spell some of them! Ah, I’m more of an indoors-with-a-book kinda gal, which is probably just as well given that most of our weekends are rainy… 😉

    • Sorry, I’ve forgotten – what country are you from, Evelina? That’s a fascinating thought. Apart from Trotsky’s own excellent but biased account, all the history of the revolution I’ve read has been from the British perspective so far, though I do have a couple of books by Russians still to read, Even so, I must say my feelings about it have changed, both positively and negatively, since I started reading about it. For a start, I hadn’t realised just how bad things were for a lot of people before the revolution…

      • No worries, I’m not sure I ever mentioned it 🙂 I’m from Lithuania. We had a chance to be a free country for maybe 20-30 years after the revolution, because they “let us go”, but then came WWII and the country was forced to be in the union pretty much till I was 2 years old.
        So you can see anything I know is also probably biased xD
        And yeah, it was bad both before and after the revolution. I can’t say it got better… it just became different.

        • Interesting! Before I started this challenge to read about the revolution, I hadn’t realised that there was that period between it and WW2 when a lot of the neighbouring countries had been “free”. By the time of my own awareness, the ’70s really, the Soviet Empire was probably at its fullest extent, and it was easy to kinda assume it had always been like that. Certainly, the impression I’ve gained from my reading is exactly what you say – that it wasn’t really better or even particularly worse after the revolution… just different. Hopefully the European Union will stop the “new” version of Russia expanding again – hopefully! 😀

          • In case you haven’t noticed, the EU is kind of falling apart 😀 and maybe North Korea will blow everything up even before it starts to matter… but yes, that short period when we were independent? Golden age. It was pretty good times.

            • Haha! I was hoping it was only us Brits who felt that way about the EU! (I’m still hoping a maricale will happen and we won’t leave!) And I’m actually marginally more worried about Trump than Kim Jong-un… 😉

            • Oh, no! Well, hopefully even if the worst happens and we do pull out, they’ll come to some arrangement for Brits living abroad and Europeans who are living here. They keep promising they will…

            • That one is definitely true. Gotta keep hoping other people see that too, because not many people actually think this. They’re all like GO HOME you’re taking our jobs, blah. I’d see actual British people doing shitty immigrant jobs that nobody likes doing 😀 my boyfriend’s dad was visiting last week, he said that the NHS is suffering more and more because of immigrants leaving, cause a lot of them worked there…

            • I know it seems that way but remember Brexit only passed narrowly – 16 million people voted against it. It’s just that the ‘go home’ mob shout loudest. It’s the fault of the leaders (of all parties) really – they’ve never taken the time to explain properly that the lack of jobs in certain sectors is to do with the way the economy has changed rather than immigration, because to do that might suggest they’d failed…

            • The funny thing is that not wanting to admit it, they just failed some more 😀 oh well, it’s not like it’s them alone. This year in the world is sort of a year of “I wonder which country fucked up the most” 😀 if you know what I mean…

  4. Thanks for answering the question I was trying to work through about which book to choose; I want to gift a book about the Russian Revolution to a friend – it looks like this is the one! I’m not in the space to read it myself at the moment, but might borrow it back one day…

    • Oh, I think this would be a great choice for a gift – I hope your friend enjoys it! I thought it would be a much lighter, kinda insubstantial book – mainly images. But there’s plenty of actual history in it without it going into overwhelming detail as some of the other histories do. Ha! Yes, I think tackling the Russian Revolution is not something to do when you’re not in the mood for it – it would be hard to describe it as fun… 😉

    • Yes, it’s a much more accessible one than some of the huge tomes I’ve been ploughing through and the pictures always help! And I liked that it looked at what happened afterwards, especially the section on books – it almost inspired me to read some Russian literature. Almost! 😉

  5. Yes, I went there, in July. Amazing, isn’t it? Very much my kind of thing. I learned a great deal. My only reservation was that there was too much about the Tsar and too little about the actual revolution.

    • Oh, lucky you! A pity about the over-emphasis on the Tsar though – I really didn’t get that impression from the book, so perhaps it’s better balanced somehow. Only the first chapter was about before the Revolution – all the rest was either during or after. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt almost as if I’d got to the exhibition after all…

  6. I feel like you’re doing a public service reading these books about Russia and the Soviet Union… it’s certainly an area of world history that I need to read more about! I’ll mark this one as a good place to start!

    • I’ve enjoyed concentrating on one period for a change rather than jumping about all over the place. This one is definitely a good starter if you ever decide to find out more about the revolution – the illustrations are so powerful. 🙂

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