What do you think of Lenin

Revolutionary moves for art, 50 percent illiterate, artistic experiments, art in the service of the state. How did art and politics develop and influence each other in troubled Russia back then? What changes have there been? How the avant-garde and civil war coexisted and how artistic freedom was brought under political control.


Demonstration on 'Petersburg Blood Sunday'.

1905: Revolutionary riots

As a reaction to the Russo-Japanese war and the violent suppression of a general strike on 'Petersburg Blood Sunday', there are first nationwide riots.

Tsar Nicholas II then allows elections to the Duma, a legislative House of Representatives. The tsar can block the Duma with his veto, so he still has considerable power.

Vladimir Lenin


1912: Bolshevik party founded

In 1903 the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party split into two wings, namely the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Under the leadership of Waldimir Ilyich Lenin the Bolsheviks demand social reforms and the overthrow of the tsar. The Mensheviks take a more moderate position.




During this period of time, the culture also develops a feeling that the reins are being loosened. These are the first steps towards departure. Slavonic studies professor Elisabeth Cheauré explains what the key year was for this development.


1914-1918: 1st World War

In July 1914 the mobilization in Russia begins, in August Germany declares war on Russia.

At the beginning of the war, Russia is enthusiastic and confident of victory. But after almost three years of war and insufficient supplies of troops and the population, war fatigue spreads.

Demonstration station on the Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg.

March 1917: February Revolution (Name goes back to the Julian calendar)

On March 16, 1917, eight days after the February Revolution began with a march of women protesting the poor supply situation, the Tsar abdicated.

A provisional government consisting of a workers' council and a Duma is formed.

In art, more and more experiments are made in the period between the two revolutions. The bud of the later avant-garde flower develops.

November 1917: October Revolution

There is permanent disagreement in the Provisional Government and it repeatedly fails because of political questions. With the October Revolution it is overthrown and a Bolshevik government is installed under Lenin.

Signing of the armistice (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R92623 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

March 3, 1918: The Peace of Brest-Litovsk

The separate peace with the Central Powers (German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria) ends
World War 1 for Russia. This means that Russia leaves the war before it actually ends on November 11, 1918.

Russia has to give up sovereignty over Poland, Ukraine, Finland and the Baltic states - that means over 1.4 million km² of territorial loss. Almost a third of the total population lives here.

Art, on the other hand, is spreading: it will soon roll through the country in trains and should reach workers and peasants. The new freedom also affects the moving images.

In 1925 the monumental work “Panzerkreuzer Potemkin” by Sergej Eisenstein was published and established revolutionary editing and assembly techniques in film, which have survived to this day.

1917 / 18-1922: Civil War

Civil war breaks out between the Red Army, the Bolsheviks and the White Army, an association of counter-revolutionary forces. Both sides are also particularly brutal against the population. 8 to 10 million people perish in the civil war between the Red and White Armies.

Leon Trotsky (Federal Archives, Image 183-R15068 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)



The Red Army goes by the superior leadership of Leon Trotsky victorious in the conflict, although their troops are outnumbered.

After the October Revolution, Trotsky was appointed People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs and also directed the negotiations that led to the peace of Brest-Litovsk.




The now almost unlimited freedom of the art scene irritates those in power more and more. They want to use art for their own purposes. Given what the avant-garde was creating, “Lenin was a philistine when it came to taste in art,” says Prof. Elisabeth Cheauré.

1921/22: Great famine

The famine is the effect of World War I and the civil war. 5 million people are killed.


Joseph Stalin

March 1922: Stalin's election as general secretary

As Secretary General is Joseph Stalin Head of the party organization and continues to expand the office in importance and the power that goes with it over the years. Stalin was General Secretary until his death in 1953, from 1941 he was Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars and from 1946 Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR. In addition, Stalin was Supreme Commander of the Red Army between 1941 and 1945.


December 1922: Founding of the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union is an amalgamation of formally independent, national Soviet republics, but is governed centrally. A republic's withdrawal from the Union is anchored in the constitution, but can only take place with the consent of the government in Moscow.

December 16, 1922: Lenin withdraws

Lenin is seriously ill and a triumvirate made up of Joseph Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev heads the Central Committee, the highest party organ of the Bolsheviks.

January 21, 1924: Lenin dies

Before his death, Lenin had demarcated himself from Stalin and said that he could not be tolerated in his function as general secretary because he was too rude. However, the party does not follow Lenin's recommendation to replace Stalin.

Meanwhile, art and culture are increasingly regulated. Culture has become a matter of politics. A formal decision is now being made about them, explains Prof. Cheauré.

1927: Stalin becomes sole ruler

Kamenev and Zinoviev, who until then ruled together with Stalin, are expelled from the party, as is Trotsky, and Stalin becomes sole ruler.

The cultural business is now organized by the state, initially indirectly through organizations that the artists have to join if they want to continue to be active. This is the penultimate step of the state takeover.

1934: Socialist realism as the guiding principle of art

“Socialist Realism” was adopted as a guideline for literature, visual arts and music as early as 1932 and was established as a binding artistic method at the first so-called “All Union Congress of Soviet Writers” in 1934. The focus is predominantly on the everyday life of workers and farmers in an optimistic tinge.

Long years of violence, terror and dictatorship followed. The effects of the repression run through the history of the country for 57 years until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The avant-garde currents, however, which had formed during the revolutionary years, radiated into the western world. Kandinsky, Malewitsch, Eisenstein and many others influenced art, culture and architecture in the following decades. We can therefore still find traces of the revolution and its art today.

Image: The Bolshevik, 1920, oil painting by Boris Kustodijew Videos: Ilyas Buss Published on November 17, 2017