This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. In the first of a new series of articles for Northern Soul, Alfred Searls explores how 1917 – and the Soviet society which developed in its shadow – has been portrayed by writers since that momentous year of revolution. 

The Russian Revolution was enacted in a country that was simultaneously largely illiterate and yet peculiarly prone to the transcendental power of the icon and the written word. It seems apt, then, that one of the most capable and captivating accounts of the revolution, and the Soviet state it spawned, should be David King’s sumptuous visual history Red Star Over Russia

First published in 2009, the book is an outstanding graphic account of the twin revolutions of 1917, and the years leading to the death of blood-soaked red Tsar Josef Stalin in 1953. Its cinéma vérité style and blend of arresting photography, art, agitprop and graphic design impresses not only with the scale of its ambition – 350 pages containing more than 550 posters, photographs and graphics, reproduced to the highest quality – but also with the detail in which it’s carried out.

King’s careful, considered curation and narrative gives the book an authoritative impartiality. On page 229 we see pictures of newborns sleeping peacefully in the maternity ward in a new Moscow hospital in 1936, emblematic of the genuine advances in healthcare that were being made available to ordinary Soviet citizens. But on the very next page we encounter the orphans of Stalin; a full page of mugshots of the children of ‘Traitors to the Motherland’. Each tiny, shaven-headed, haunted face is an inmate of one of the children’s homes, run by the secret police, in which teachers encouraged them to denounce their parents, living or dead.     

Vsevolod Meyerhold and Zinaida ReichElsewhere, we encounter the agitational propaganda trains, equipped and dispatched by the Bolsheviks to the farthest regions of the country throughout the civil war, their carriages brightly decorated with revolutionary murals and satirical images. These engines of change brought revolutionary theory and practice to the people in the form of mobile libraries, lectures, meetings and discussions. There was even an agitprop ship, the Red Star, which made summer cruises along the Volga in 1919 and 1920, towing a barge that had been converted into an 800-seat cinema.

Sometimes the book is beautiful, with that beauty found in the faces of ordinary people, captured in a single moment of their lives and at a time – and in a place – where photography was still rare. It is found in the riot of colour and shapes in images so abstract that they seem to have decoupled themselves from the horror of the Government that has inadvertently sponsored their birth.

But sometimes the book is dark, very dark indeed.

On pages 281-282 we discover two surprisingly sharp photographs, opposite one another, each filling a page. On the left is a dishevelled, frightened looking man in late middle age. He is the famous, avant-garde theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold and he has just been arrested by the secret police, the NKVD. Across from him is his wife, the beautiful actress Zinaida Raikh, her soulful dark eyes gazing out from across the decades.

Vsevolod Meyerhold, NKVD mugshot

The accompanying text bears witness to the true character of the Soviet State. It contains a letter from Meyerhold, written in captivity and kept in his case file, addressed to Foreign Minister Molotov (it is unknown as to whether it was sent). In it, Meyerhold details the horrific torture he endured at the hands of his interrogators. It’s harrowing and hard to read, but even this is eclipsed when you discover the fate of his wife Zinaida who, one week after Meyerhold’s arrest, was murdered in their Moscow flat by the NKVD. They gouged her eyes out. Less than a year later, Meyerhold was executed.

All the main elements of Soviet life and iconography are found in Red Star Over Russia, from the good (Sergei Eisenstein, Constructivism, Suprematism) to the bad – the wars, the famines, the secret police and the whole rotten inevitability of totalitarianism when a single idea is allowed to hold sway over a people’s lives for decade after decade.

King, a former art editor at The Sunday Times who died last May aged 73, was the owner of one of the world’s pre-eminent collections of revolutionary Russian artefacts, and many of them are reproduced here for the first time. In doing so, King has produced an invaluable work that will doubtless educate and enlighten readers for many years to come.

By Alfred Searls