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  • Visions of Russian Culture and PoliticsImages as Historical Sources

The old cliché says that a picture is worth a thousand words, yet pictures cannot speak for themselves. Rich as they may potentially be as primary sources, historians have to collect, collate, arrange, and interpret them, and doing so ultimately requires some form of textual analysis. This issue focuses on the role of images in historical interpretation. A special forum discusses the art and imagery of Muscovy, which was far richer in image production than in the manufacturing of textual sources.

Given the nature of the primary sources in Muscovy, conceptualizing and interpreting images presents one of the more challenging tasks for the scholar. As our forum participants note, Muscovy’s murals and illustrated manuscripts involved new and old forms of narration that combined some aspects of realism with the traditional Russian iconographic style. They were, in the words of Nancy Kollmann, the Muscovite equivalent of a graphic novel. While expressing a fascinating mix of secular and religious themes, Muscovy’s images also reveal a dynamic political system and culture flexing its muscle as a major regional power in Central Europe and Eurasia. As it expanded dramatically in all directions in the 16th and 17th centuries, Muscovy fused its own culture and traditions with aspects of Renaissance aesthetics and politics.

Two additional articles in this issue, Joan Neuberger’s reflection on homoerotic elements in Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part II, and Alexis Peri’s study of Vera Inber’s self-conscious scripting of herself as a blokadnitsa writer, remind us that the broader social and political context are also critically important aspects of the story. From Muscovite times to the Stalin era the process of cultural production—whether of words or images, or of both combined—always reflected the playing out of complex relationships among art, power, and social convention, which however much they may have changed over time also remained curiously continuous.

Continuing our focus on visual sources, our interview here features three of the organizers of an exhibit that celebrates the global impact of the [End Page 1] Bolshevik revolution in its centenary. The co-curators of that exhibit are Cristina Cuevas-Wolf (The Wende Museum), Stephen V. Bittner (Sonoma State University), and Choi Chatterjee (California State University, Los Angeles [CSU LA]). Their exhibit, “Revolutionizing the World? The Russian Revolution at Its Centenary, 1917–2017,” will be displayed in the fall of 2017 and spring of 2018 at three venues: California State University, Los Angeles; Sonoma State University; and California State University, Chico. Drawing on the impressive Wende collection of Cold War art from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as well as materials from the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Center for Political Reprographics, the exhibit has two visual trajectories: one composed of artistic representations of 1917 and its subsequent commemorations in artifacts and ephemera designed for the 50th, 60th, and 70th anniversaries. This first trajectory, according to its organizers, ends with the period of glasnost and perestroika in the 1980s, when dissident Soviet artists used their imaginations to challenge the communist state. They satirized communist leaders such as Lenin, as well as the aging conventions of Socialist Realism that compelled Soviet artists to produce state-sponsored propaganda.

In line with the current trend to study Russia in a transnational context, the second part of the exhibit represents the political impact of the Russian Revolution on the visual culture of the noncommunist world. Feminists, youth groups, labor movements, environmentalists, anti-imperialists, and advocates of a global multiracial future mined the canon of the Russian avant-garde together with socialism, communism, and anarchism in search of ideas about a different world. Posters from the United States, Asia, Africa, and Latin America on the themes of solidarity, women, education, anti-imperialism, and youth testify to the global percolation of these ideals and their relevance to progressive politics today.

Putting together exhibits of this sort obviously requires resources. What were the main challenges you faced in putting this exhibit together?


Because Choi and I had collaborated previously on an exhibit at the Fine Arts Gallery on the CSU LA campus that had been well received in...


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