Capitalism has butchered artistic expression beyond recognition. In today’s political climate it has been reduced to its profit and investment value. Monet and Picasso have been reduced to acquisitions and investments, sought after by the super-rich and sold on for obscene prices.
But during the Russian revolution, art was used to communicate important ideas, encouraging literacy, political education and participation. This was called ‘agitprop’ – a portmanteau of ‘agitation’ and ‘propaganda’.
There was even an agit-train that travelled the length and breadth of Russia spreading news of the revolution and its aims. The outside of the train was covered in protest art. Inside there would be literacy lessons, exhibitions, gramophone recordings of speeches, films and lectures.
Films were just as important as any other medium during the revolution. Director Sergei Eisenstein released ‘Battleship Potemkin’ in 1925. The dramatisation of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew rebelled against their senior officers proved an inspiring example of uprising.
The film’s radical reputation saw it banned in various countries over the years, but it remains an all-time classic to this day. The 1958 Brussels World Fair named it the greatest film of all time, and it continues to receive the highest reviews online. It’s an example of the deep communication that art can make, even generations after its creation.
Artistic enthusiasm started to ebb as Stalin’s counterrevolution transformed the Soviet Union into a thuggish dictatorship. But even in the Stalinist police state, the artistic spirit could not be completely crushed.
One example is a great musical phenomenon which took place in Russia during the Second World War. German troops had completely surrounded Leningrad (St Petersburg). People were starving to death. Conditions were horrific and the future bleak.
But, on the evening of 9 August 1942, the cacophony of German guns was temporarily silenced by a live orchestra. Loudspeakers had been hastily rigged up across the front line, and a strange sound – that terrified some of Leningrad’s residents and defenders at first – was eerily carried throughout the city.
It was a live concert of composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in C major. Shostakovich named it after the resilient Soviet city.
One eyewitness recalled that spectators were moved to tears when the musicians arrived for the performance in their shabby concert clothes; poverty-stricken, skeletal figures in dinner jackets and gowns. Three members of the orchestra died of starvation before the premiere even took place.
The score was photographed on 900 pages of microfilm and put in a tin can that was flown across enemy lines. It was a courageous act – and although the siege would continue for another two years, claiming the lives of nearly a million civilians – German officers who were later captured admitted that on hearing the ‘Leningrad Symphony’ they instantly knew the city could never be defeated.
It stands today as one of the most important art performances in history. A performance that had a direct effect on the minds of everyone present. A haunting example of the power of music.
Today, workers are again plunged into poverty – but participating in strikes, protests and organisation all over the world. We need to formulate an artistic response to spread the revolutionary message. Get involved, participate, stand up and fight, create your own revolutionary art and spread it far and wide!
Elaine Mallon is a musician and artist based near Edinburgh. She draws cartoons for the Socialist newspaper in Scotland. Elaine is currently working on street art, and an album with her new band, due to debut at a Bad Art event in October 2017