Vladimir Stenberg and Georgii Stenberg, The Mirror of Soviet Society, cover of Red Field magazine, 1928 Credit: Courtesy Art Institute Chicago

One hundred years after the 1917 Soviet revolution in Russia, two baffling museum exhibitions attempt to recast one of the bloodiest regimes in human history in a positive light. “Revolution Every Day” at the Smart Museum and “Revolutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test” at the Art Institute take different approaches to their subject, but neither pays much more than lip service to the millions of victims of the historical period these shows celebrate.

“Revolution Every Day,” according to the introductory text in its brochure, “undermines our readymade responses to the Russian Revolution and makes it possible for Western audiences to experience Soviet visual art anew.” The show consists of Soviet propaganda posters, film clips, and photos from the 1920s and ’30s—many made by female artists—and attempts to relate all the material to more contemporary art, such as Olga Chernysheva’s videos of post-USSR parades and portraits by exhibit cocurator Zachary Cahill.

Wandering through the galleries I saw familiar Soviet slogans exhorting the proletariat to pull together toward a bright future but little acknowledgement of the grim reality of life in Russia during the early- to mid-20th century. In a blog entry on the exhibit’s site, Cahill seems to defend those who overthrew the Czarist regime, then circuitously ties that time period to our present political moment. I’m horrified by the current state of American life, but looking to Lenin and company for a way forward is dangerous and foolish. By even the most generous accounts, the father of the Soviet Revolution was a ruthless dictator who crushed anyone who dared oppose him, be they the old-guard Whites—who wanted to restore the monarchy—or the Mensheviks, competing socialists who championed alternate approaches of governing to Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

“Revolutsiia! Demonstratsiia!” doesn’t try to associate the early days of the Soviet era with the present, but instead attempts to exhibit the arts and crafts of that time on their own terms. It’s a sprawling show spread across several interconnected galleries. Each room addresses an aspect of Soviet life, such as home, school, and work. There are re-creations of a period exhibition space, a workers’ clubhouse, and numerous examples of artists’ designs for everyday objects, from chess pieces to dishware to furniture.

Exhibit organizers Devin Fore and Matthew Witkovsky quote Walter Benjamin in their introduction to the exhibit catalogue, saying that the Soviet Revolution was “one of the most grandiose mass-psychological experiments ever undertaken in the gigantic laboratory that Russia has become.” But almost nowhere throughout this encyclopedic ode to the era is there acknowledgement of the many victims of that experiment. The curators’ aim is stated thus: “Permitted to inhabit its own artifactual temporality, the artwork drifts out of phase with the historical parameter of political exigency and enables alternative accounts of Soviet culture on this centenary occasion and into the future.” The trouble is that no amount of theorizing can wash away the blood of the millions murdered by that “culture.”

By conservative estimates, the Red Terror that took place between 1918 and 1920, which Lenin initiated to squelch opposition, accounted for 100,000 deaths; that doesn’t include casualties of the concurrent civil war. The Bolsheviks fought a sociological and cultural battle as well—the “New Man” the Soviets sought to create would soon enough turn on artists who thrived during the first decade of the USSR. But the Art Institute doesn’t stray too far into the 30s, when Stalin extinguished most attempts at individual expression.

In the catalog forward, Art Institute president James Rondeau describes “Revolutsiia! Demonstratsiia!” as “panoptic,” which immediately made me think of 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison. Bentham described it as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example” and as “a mill for grinding rogues honest.” Those are much more accurate descriptions of the Soviet enterprise than anything one will find in the halls of the Smart Museum or the Art Institute at present.

On my way out of “Revolutsiia!” I looked into a vitrine filled with children’s drawings. I was momentarily charmed, until I read the explanatory text identifying the doodles as belonging to Stalin’s daughter. In a little girl’s scrawl she commands her father to spend more time with her, using the cold and bureaucratic language of the Bolsheviks, an impersonal style you might find in legal documents, in which requirements are made to one party. This was the New Man being created in Russia—unbending, authoritarian, savage, and certainly nothing to be inspired by, no matter how dark our own times have become.  v