Lenin at the North Wall Art Centre Oxford

Lenin in Oxford

On the Woodstock Road into Oxford lies one of the most renowned of England’s public schools – St Edward’s (or Teddies).  Its Victorian quadrangle and chapel exude privilege and establishment values.

But here’s a surprise. Celebrating its tenth anniversary – the nearby North Wall arts centre, built over the school’s former swimming pool and co-administered by St Edward’s is hosting LENIN: Leader of the Russian revolution.

Some 70 photographs, paintings, posters, letters and documents illustrate Lenin’s life from illegal organiser to revolutionary leader and founder of the Soviet Union.

Demonstrators in Petrograd fleeing as government troops fire into the crowd.
17 July 1917 © SCRSS

They are drawn from the huge archive held by the Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies. The SCRSS was founded in 1924 by, amongst others, EM Forster, J M Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, Konstantin Yuon and Alexei Tolstoy.

The exhibition illustrates the point made by historian Alessandro Iandolo in the exhibition flyer: “From the ashes of the Revolution and the bloody Civil War that followed, the Soviet Union was born. This state was different from anything that had existed before”.

St Edward’s warden Stephen Jones –  recalling his childhood hero Yuri Gagarin, the first man to fly into space  – said at the opening of the exhibition: “There is nothing quite like the relation between art and social upheaval as in Soviet culture”.

The material collected over many years by the SCRSS illustrates that not only art but all aspects of life were indeed transformed – education, theatre, health, farming, industry, warfare, agriculture and politics.

Georgian mother learning to write. © SCRSS

An excellent 38-minute documentary film (Granada 1964) about Lenin can be viewed above the photographs and graphic art.

Focusing as it rightly does on Lenin’s life, as well as the history of the SCRSS itself, the exhibition does not explore his legacy. In the exhibition flyer Iandolo refers to the “horrors of Stalinism” – thus distinguishing Lenin’s time from what came later.

There was a tense moment at the show’s opening night.  Members of the public challenged a speaker who claimed that Lenin was responsible for the crimes of the Stalinist counter-revolution and even equated him with Hitler.

This is a revealing, controversial and brilliant display in an exciting art and theatre venue. It’s free to visit. Don’t miss it.

LENIN is at The North Wall Art Centre, South Parade, Oxford OX2 7JN until 18 November.

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