Every picture tells a story.

This is my review of Russia in Revolution, 1900-30 by Harrison E. Salisbury.

This provides an engrossing photographic record of the period from the disintegration of the last Tsar Nicholas ll's rule, through the often farcical chaos of revolution, and Lenin's inability to practise what he had preached, to Stalin's ruthless establishment of dictatorship and the collectivisation of agriculture on a huge scale. The mainly black-and-white prints, many still of great clarity show not merely the leading political players and artists but the life of the peasants, and a sense of the gulf between the wealth of the few and the muddy vastness of the countryside. We see the range from Rasputin posing with a prince and a colonel, to an unnervingly handsome and harmless-looking youthful Stalin. The faces are often startling in their modernity: members of the revolutionary "Women's Battalion" with heads shaved as stark protection against lice, an impassive-faced commissar noting details of dealers in human flesh during the famines of the 1920s (this is not really explained in the text), Russian woman doctor conducting stress and fatigue studies on a resigned young female worker.

At first, I found the supporting text very informative, including one of the most concise and effective explanations I have read of the various political parties in 1905: the uncompromisng Socialist Revolutionaries who saw violent terror in support of the peasants as the only path, the Marxist Social Democrats split in three groups with Lenin's Bolsheviks forming the largest party, the idealistic if impractical Anarchists and Constitutional Democrats or Kadets. Although there is only enough space for a fairly superficial coverage, the tragic if understandable confusion and ineptitude of the revolutionaries in their efforts to achieve a daunting radical change are made very clear – including the irony that after only four years Lenin was practising the kind of repressive rule which had led him to call for the Tsar's removal.

Apart from many telling quotations from letters and the comments of observers, the author also finds space for the role of art: Malevich's Futurist painting "The Knifegrinder" and the widespread application of "constructivist", machine-like art to propaganda posters like "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge", the latter depicted piercing a white cirle, labelled "red" and "white" respectively. It was even applied to plain, angular clothing displayed in the 1920s.

The lack of an index is frustrating at times, the point being perhaps that most of the pictures defy classification in what they reveal. Poring over these photographs gives more insight than many a text on this fascinating if depressing period of history.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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