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Episode 96 - Russian revolutionary plate

Russian revolutionary plate (painted in 1921). Porcelain; from St Petersburg, Russia

I'm just now listening to the sound of the 'Internationale', the great socialist hymn, written in France in 1871 and adopted by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s as the anthem of the Russian Revolution. "For reason in revolt now thunders", run the lines, "And at last ends the age of cant! Away with all your superstitions, servile masses, arise!"

Throughout this series, we've had images of many individual rulers - from Ramesses II and Alexander the Great, to the Oba of Benin and King Edward VII - but today, in our final week, we have the image of a new kind of ruler, not an "I" but a "we". Not an individual, but a whole class. In Soviet Russia we see the power of the people, or rather, the dictatorship of the proletariat - the masses are no longer servile.

Our object in this programme is a painted china plate that celebrates the Revolution, and its new ruling class. Seven decades of communism are about to begin. This plate is just the start of the journey.

"In one object you can see the old regime and the new regime, and the change from the one to the other, and there are very few objects in which history is so clearly present before you." (Eric Hobsbawm)

This week in our History of the World through things, we're coming right up to the present day, and even looking into the future with the last, hundredth object. We begin, though, looking back at the twentieth century, choosing single objects that stand for a whole century of violence and transformation. It's a week dominated by ideologies and world wars. Fights for independence from colonial powers, and post-colonial civil war; fascism in Europe; military dictatorships across the world; and, central to the whole story, revolution in Russia.

The Russian revolutionaries created a state where politics were to be determined exclusively by economic interest and by class. And by 1921, the year in which this plate was painted, the Bolsheviks had constructed their new political system based on Marxist theory, and were setting about building a new world. It was an urgent task, in testing circumstances. The country had been abjectly defeated in World War One, and the new regime was under threat from foreign invasion and civil war. The Bolsheviks needed to promote Soviet aims with whatever means they had at their disposal, and one of those means was art.

I'm just going to take the plate out of the case now. Right at the centre, in the distance, is a factory - the source of economic power - it's painted in red. It's clearly a factory that belongs to the workers. It puffs out white smoke, evidence of a healthy productivity. And from that white smoke, a great sunburst of yellow and orange . . . the radiance of an enlightened future driving back the dark forces of the repressive past, shown here by the clouds that have been banished to the margins of the plate.

On a hill in the foreground, on the left - not surprisingly - a man strides forward into the picture. He, like the factory, is aglow, with a golden aura around him. He's painted in red silhouette with no detail at all, but we can see that he's young and that he's looking fervently forward. He's clearly not an individual. He represents the entire industrial proletariat, moving into that brighter future that they are going to make themselves. With his next stride he's going to trample over a barren piece of ground, where the letters of the word KAPITAL lie broken. His left foot's just poised above the first letter. The plate is of course a lucid and effective piece of Soviet propaganda, but it also shows its designer, Mikhail Mikhailovich Adamovich, to be a very accomplished graphic artist. This is high art in the service of the Revolution, and we showed the plate to the great historian of the Industrial Age, Eric Hobsbawm:

"Ideology is important as far as the artists were concerned. Behind all this, there was among the people - who felt themselves to have made the Revolution and to be on its side - this enormous sense of, 'We have done something that nobody in the world has done, we are creating a completely new world, which won't be complete until, you know, both Russia and the world are transformed . . . and we have the duty of showing it, and pushing it forward'."

Not long after the Bolshevik take-over, the Imperial Porcelain Factory was nationalised, re-named the State Porcelain Factory, and placed under the authority of an official with the ringing utopian title, the People's Commissar of Enlightenment. As the Commissar of the State Porcelain Factory wrote to the Commissar of Enlightenment:

"The porcelain and glass factories cannot be just factory and industrial enterprises. They must be scientific and artistic centres. Their aim is to encourage the development of Russia's ceramic and glass industry, to seek and develop new paths in production, to study and develop artistic form." (Petr Vaulin, Art Council for the Affairs of Industrial Design, and Commissar of the State Porcelain Factory, January 1918)

In the Russia of 1921, the year of our plate, there was an acute need for striking messages of unity and hope. The country was facing disaster - with civil war, deprivation, drought and famine. Over four million Russians are thought to have starved to death, and the worker-owned factories, like the one shown on our plate, were producing just a fraction of what they had done before the Revolution. Here's Eric Hobsbawm again:

"This undoubtedly was made in 1921, when there was famine in the Volga and people died of hunger and typhus, at a time when in fact, looking at it in a realistic way, you'd say, 'This is a country lying flat on its back, how can it recover?' And what I think one has to recreate by imagination, is the sheer impetus of people doing it. You know, saying, 'In spite of everything, we are still building this future, and we are looking forward to the future with . . .', well actually, with confidence, they thought, with enormous confidence."

The plate brings us what one of the ceramic artists called "news from a radiant future". Normally, new regimes revisit and reorder the past, appropriating it to their current needs, but the Bolsheviks wanted people to believe that the past was no longer relevant in any way, that the new world was going to be built from scratch.

But there's a paradox embodied in this plate, because this image of a totally new egalitarian world of the proletariat is painted on porcelain - the luxury material historically associated with aristocratic culture and privilege. Painted by hand over the glaze, this plate was for display, not for use. It's scallop-edged and very fine. In fact, it was a blank porcelain plate made before the Revolution, one of thousands that had been left over from the Porcelain Factory's Imperial days. The Empress Elizabeth had set up the Imperial Porcelain Factory near St Petersburg in the eighteenth century, to produce porcelain that would rival the best that Europe could offer, for use at court and, above all, for official Imperial gifts to foreign dignitaries. Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, talks about what porcelain has historically meant in Russia:

"Russian porcelain became an important part of Russian cultural production. Beautiful dishes [from] there are now extremely expensive at the world auctions. It is a good example of art in connection with economy, and with politics. Because it was always a kind of pronouncement of the Russian Empire - military parades, the life of ordinary people, pictures from the Hermitage. Everything which Russia wanted to present to the world, and to itself, in a beautiful manner."

It's a good example of the way in which the Soviet rhetoric of total rupture could never match the reality. Given the parlous state of the country, the Bolsheviks had to take over the existing structures where they could, and so much of Soviet Russia continued to echo Tsarist patterns. They had to do it that way but, in this case, they deliberately 'chose' to do it. If I turn the plate over, I can see two factory marks. Underneath the glaze, applied when the blank plate was first made, is the Imperial Porcelain Factory mark of Nicholas II, dated 1901. Over the glaze, just beside it, is painted the hammer and sickle of the Soviet State Porcelain Factory, and the date 1921.

You would have expected the Tsar's monogram to have been painted over, blotting out the Imperial connection, and it often was - but, as somebody at the factory realised, there was a great advantage in leaving both marks visible. The regime was desperate to raise foreign currency, and the sale of artistic and historic objects like the plate was one obvious part of the solution. In a letter dated 4 June 1920, just before our plate was painted, an official at the new State Porcelain Factory writes:

"For foreign markets the presence of these marks alongside the Soviet marks is of great interest, and prices for the objects abroad shall doubtless be set higher if the earlier marks are not painted over."

And so we have the odd situation of a socialist revolutionary regime making luxury goods to sell to the capitalist world. Some would argue that this was perfectly sound. Profits from the plate supported Soviet international action, designed to undermine the very capitalists they were selling to, and at the same time the porcelain propaganda vividly promulgated the Soviet message. In 1923, a Soviet critic proudly claimed:

"Artistic industry is that happy battering ram which has already broken down the wall of international isolation." (Yakov Tugenkhold)

This complicated yet symbiotic relationship between the Soviet and capitalist worlds was initially seen by the Soviets as merely a transitional necessity, until the west followed Russia's lead and joined it in the radiant future of Communism. But the compromise, in fact, became the pattern for the rest of the century. The front of the plate shows us the simple binary opposition of Soviet proletarianism overwhelming the forces of capital. The back shows us the pragmatic accommodation - a negotiation with the Imperial past, and a complex economic with the capitalist world. And this was to be the model sustained for the next 70 years, as the world settled into two huge, competing but constantly interacting, ideological blocs. The only time they were able to combine, was to defeat the threat of fascist aggression, but we all know what followed that.

Tomorrow, we have another picture, also intended probably to be used as propaganda. But it's not on a plate, but on paper. It's a print, by the British artist David Hockney . . . and it was made at the beginning of the sexual revolution in Britain in 1966.

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