In Library Exhibit, Figures from the Russian Revolution Come to Life

Images from John Reed collection

Selections from the exhibit "The Russian Revolution: Actors and Witnesses in Harvard Library Collections." Background: Crowd at a Revolutionary Demonstration ca. 1917–18 (John Reed Papers, Houghton Library). Upper left: Gift for Comrade Red-Army Soldier, 1920—booklet of cigarette paper printed with anti-Bolshevik poetry and prose (Houghton). Center: John Reed in Moscow, 1920 (Houghton). Upper right: Helen Tisdel de Wollant in Russian Court Presentation Gown, Ca. 1900 (Fung Library).

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A small but powerful exhibit now on view at Harvard's Houghton Library, entitled "The Russian Revolution: Actors and Witnesses in Harvard Library Collections," showcases a striking assortment of original documents. We spoke about the exhibit with its curators—Svetlana Rukhelman, Library Assistant, Davis Center Collection at Fung Library, and Anna Rakityanskaya, Slavic Librarian, European Languages Division, Widener Library.

The title of the exhibit refers to "actors and witnesses." Please tell us about some of these.

ANNA RAKITYANSKAYA: When we were first faced with the task of creating this exhibit, we wanted to find an aspect of the Russian Revolution that would present it from a new point of view, speak to our contemporaries, and at the same time bring into focus the exceptional collections related to the revolution that are owned by Harvard libraries. While going through the personal archives of John Reed, Leon Trotsky, Helen Tisdel de Wollant, and others, we realized we were dealing with materials that tell as much about the revolutionary events as about the people who lived through them.

The truth is, the revolution affected the lives of every single person who happened to live in Russia in 1917 and the following years, be they the iron-willed “leaders” of the revolution, or its victims like Tsar Nicholas II and his family, or the ordinary people who formed the presumably faceless “revolutionary masses,” or the bystanders, like the American expats whom Russian history appointed as its witnesses and scribes. The exhibit brings all of these people closer to us by letting us experience that unique “what it was like” feeling that is evoked by the artifacts that Svetlana and I selected, and it is those artifacts that are the ultimate and extraordinary “witnesses” of the Revolution.

What surprised you the most about working on the exhibit?

SVETLANA RUKHELMAN: The biggest and most exciting surprise for me was discovering that a rich trove of photographs documenting key players and events of the Revolution has been here in our own backyard, so to speak, for years! Many of the artifacts on display come from the John Reed collection. Reed, the American journalist, Bolshevik sympathizer, and author of Ten Days That Shook the World, was an alumnus of Harvard College. Houghton acquired his collection of personal papers in 1936.

What has it been like to work with these materials?

AR: The experience of working with these materials can only be described as extraordinary. Holding in your hands hectically scribbled notes that Lenin and John Reed were passing to each other while the Comintern meeting was underway is literally like touching history itself. These materials are filled with the human energy of the people who created or owned them and you can’t help feeling it.

Is there a single artifact in the exhibit that speaks to you the most?

AR: Perhaps it’s not a single artifact, but a group of them—specifically the photographs of the people: the soldiers, the women, the crowds at demonstrations, or even Lenin, who has just turned around for a quick look at the photographer… Seeing the faces of people who lived 100 years ago, especially when they are looking directly at you, combined with the knowledge of the history that would follow, creates a haunting moment of silent communication between them and you, and I find that very moving.

SR: It's hard to choose just one. I'd say there are two artifacts that speak to me most—a pair of photos of American expatriates in Russia, which were taken at different historical moments but seem to be in dialogue.

One shows John Reed in Moscow, a few months before his death, looking earnest and wearing a big fur ushanka hat. The other is a studio portrait of Helen Tisdel, a young American debutante who came to live in St. Petersburg with her Russian diplomat husband around 1900. The photo shows her wearing a gown with Russian folk dress elements—a fur-trimmed shawl and a "kokoshnik" headdress. This was the gown in which she chose to be presented at the court of Nicholas II. Helen went on to learn Russian and really assimilate into her environment. Her diary and unpublished memoir are full of paeans to Russian culture. Even after her husband's death in 1916 she continued to live in Russia and probably would have stayed if hadn't been for the Revolution.

What I find touching about both these images is the affection that the American sitters clearly felt for this very foreign country that they had chosen to make their home, even though that country didn't treat them uniformly well—and the fact that they wanted to communicate this affection by posing in recognizably Russian clothes.

Looking at these artifacts, what might visitors be surprised to learn?

SR: I think most people associate the Revolution with the "Reds"— Lenin, red banners, mass demonstrations. What will surprise many people are all the artifacts of "White" resistance on display: anti-Bolshevik posters, a book of verses inciting Red Army soldiers to switch sides, the anguished diary of a "bourgeois" woman who had to fear for her life when the Bolsheviks occupied her city. The Bolsheviks didn't just come and take over; a substantial part of the population opposed them for years, and this exhibit bears witness to that opposition.

Is there anything else you wish people knew about these collections?

AR: Harvard’s collections related to the Russian Revolution are immense. This exhibit gives only a taste of the material that is available to researchers. It is my hope that our exhibit will give visitors a few surprises and encourage further exploration of these collections.

"The Russian Revolution: Actors and Witnesses in Harvard Library Collections" is on view through Thursday, December 21, at Houghton Library, Lowell Room, 15 Quincy St, Cambridge, MA. Features works from Houghton Library as well as the Fine Arts Library and the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies Collection. Open Hours: Mon. & Fri., 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Tue.–Thu. 9 a.m.–7 p.m. Free and open to the public. Houghton's front door is accessible via a short flight of steps up from the level of Quincy Street. For wheelchair access, please contact Public Services at 617-495-2440 to make an appointment.

A second exhibit, "John Reed: Reporting the Russian Revolution," featuring materials from the John Reed Papers at Houghton Library, is on view through Monday, November 13, in Fisher Family Commons, CGIS Knafel Building, 1737 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA. Open hours: Monday - Friday 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m.-9 p.m. Free and open to the public.