By Mark Steven
In Lenin’s Plan for Monumental Propaganda, first announced in April 1918, we encounter a moment of direct, unmediated contact between state power and the aesthetic regime. Lenin’s objective was a public art that affirmed socialism by using the material stuff of urban space. “The masses,” explains Susan Buck-Morss, “would see history as they moved through the city. The revolution entered the phenomenal world of the everyday.” The best-known take on Lenin’s idea comes from Anatoly Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar of Education, who made its announcement to a meeting of artists:
I’ve come from Vladimir Ilich. Once again he has had one of those fortunate and profoundly exciting ideas with which he has so often shocked and delighted us. He intends to decorate Moscow’s squares with statues and monuments to revolutionaries and the great fighters for socialism. This provides both agitation for socialism and a wise field for the display of our sculptural talents.
During the early years of War Communism, monumental propaganda acquired a distinctly modernist edge, resonating with the local avant-gardes. The constructivists, suprematists, and abstractionists placed their commitment to artistic invention at the service of revolution. That is what we encounter with the propaganda billboards of El Lissitzky and what was envisaged by Vladimir Tatlin as Monument to the Third International. It is also what took place in 1924 when Kazimir Malevich sculpted a monument to Lenin comprising a mass of tools and machinery atop which stood a simple cube without inscription or adornment. When asked of Lenin’s whereabouts in the sculpture, Malevich is said to have pointed at the cube, insisting that anybody with a soul could see that it is Lenin.
Just as Malevich was counselled for his non-representational artwork, modernist abstraction would soon give way to differently monumental expressions of revolutionary enthusiasm and to more functional types of production propaganda. “Now and again,” reflected Walter Benjamin on visiting the capital in the winter of 1926-27, “one comes across streetcars painted all over with pictures of factories, mass meetings, Red regiments, Communist agitators. These are gifts from the personnel of a factory to the Moscow Soviet.” It was this kind of artwork, the half-romantic valorization of those ten days that shook the world, that evolved into socialist realism. And it is within this tradition, socialist realism, that we much situate Nikolai Kochergin’s oil painting, “Storming of the Winter Palace,” through which we will chart an unexpected connection between 1917 and Australia.
The content of this painting is an amalgam of the event itself (which took place quietly and at night) and the spectacular recreation (staged in the light of day, with a cast of thousands). A revolutionary mass, surging in from the left foreground, rise up before the gilded palace gates. At the crest of bodies two armed me leap a wooden barricade, beckoning their comrades onward and trailing a red flag. It’s Petrograd as described by John Reed: “Like a black river, filling all the street, without song or cheer we poured through the Red Arch…” There’s vitality to the still image, the unmistakable force of a vast multitude moving together and as one. To the right of the mass are scattered adversaries either dead or wounded, a few smaller skirmishes, but mostly empty space: what remained of imperial Russia has fled before the Bolshevik tide. Behind this looms the Winter Palace, abandoned and ready for the taking, its white façade already lit in red.
It will therefore be in relation to the tradition of socialist realism and to this painting that Australia makes its most salient, though retroactive, contribution to 1917 and to an enduring program for Monumental Propaganda. Of course, the retrospective modification of images is especially apposite in the long history of the USSR. It has become something of a joke that former comrades would disappear from official photographs after their exile or execution. In the most famous iteration of this trend, Nikolai Yeznov – head of the NKVD during the Great Purge – vanished from a photograph in which he and Stalin once appeared beside the Moscow Canal. There’s something profoundly disturbing about the resulting image, its embodiment of what Mark Fisher would have called an “eerie thanatos,” the way it leaves us to wonder in the wake of a disappearance, sensing an unquantifiable absence, something stripped from the very fabric of reality. Here I want to suggest that by enacting a dialectical reversal of Stalinist censorship – by interpolating something new into the otherwise familiar historical frame – Australia registers the appropriately antipodean and altogether weird presence of that which does not belong. “The weird thing is not wrong,” suggested Fisher about this kind of aesthetic, “after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate.”
What I am thinking of here took place during a statewide history exam in Victoria during 2012. Students were asked to respond in prose to a photographic reproduction of Kochergin’s painting. Except it wasn’t just the painting, or at least not an accurately realist reproduction. Instead, students were given an image in which, behind the gates and clearly on side with the revolutionaries, loomed the imposing form of a BattleTech Marauder – a kind of bipedal tank or mech, a Metal Gear, the sci-fi apotheosis of soviet constructivism. “One student suggested it was a statue of Alexander Kerensky, head of the Mensheviks,” reads a news report. “Another student thought it was the battleship Aurora – it’s clear several students were thrown by it.” Or my favorite response, an awe-inspired auxesis: “What’s that thing? It’s definitely a robot. But it’s on my history exam, so it’s not a robot. But it can’t be anything else. LOOK AT THOSE GUNS!” But perhaps – perhaps! – we should approach this psychoanalytically, as world-historic parapraxis, and appreciate it for what it clearly is, a moment of fantastical wish-fulfilment, of counterfactual imagining subtended by utopian desire.
While message board nerds have debated the choice of this specific mech given the urban terrain – “Its autocannon and twin particle projector cannons are devastating at long range, but unwieldy in close quarters, and its armour is relatively light for its size. It also lacks the mobility that jump jets would provide” – here we need to think bigger, and think like the Bolsheviks. In 1919 Lenin was given to dream: “If we could give 100,000 first class tractors tomorrow, provide them with gasoline, with mechanics (you all know quite well this is a fantasy), the middle peasant would say, ‘I am for communism.‘” Now replace tractors with mechs and think how very different things could have been, and not just at the level of agricultural production. If the Red Army had mechs, then surely the Civil War would have ended much sooner – perhaps even in a treaty – and surely, too, Operation Barbarossa would have been obliterated somewhere in Mitteleuropa. Thus exempt from warfare and equipped with advanced technology, the purposes of which are not exclusively military, the socialist state would have flourished as the imperial powers cannibalized themselves and each other. What this would have meant, decades before the Cold War and even Hiroshima, is up for debate, but that’s the point: its suggestion is to think an alternative, a world very different from the one we have come to inherit, and it is a suggestion that originates here, in Australia. That’s something to be proud of – a real contribution to 1917, even if it comes the best part of a century after the event.