Set at the start of the Russian Revolution, The Vanishing Futurist (Faber & Faber, £16.99) depicts the shared interest of the avant-garde and the Soviet Union in bringing down the bourgeois system. It’s a love story too, between an English governess, an ambitious and idealistic Russian inventor and a communism that never was.
Why were young women drawn to Russia before the war?
There was something of a glut of governesses in Britain before the war, and a number of adventurous young women looking for work were drawn to Russia where, if they were lucky, the jobs were well paid and they were treated with more respect than in English homes. After decades of French educators, it had recently become the fashion in Russia to bring children up in the British way – which to Russians meant an emphasis on fresh air, exercise and “fair play”. Even the Romanov children had an Irish nanny – until someone disapproved of the fact that they were all speaking English with an Irish accent – and after her, a young man called Mr Gibbes, who stayed with them until a day or so before their death. Russia was considered a daring destination. Two and a half days’ train journey across Europe from Charing Cross, in the public imagination this was a country of wild Cossacks, anarchists, Rasputin and so on. On the other hand, however, the Tsar Nicholas II was the cousin and spitting image of our own George V, and the Russians were our allies in the Triple Entente. Russia also had the fastest growing economy in Europe during the decade before the war. No one foresaw the years of war which would make travel back to Britain impossible for the governesses, or the total collapse of the state in 1917.
What drew you to Russia and what was your first-hand experience of it?
My mother was half-Russian, although brought up entirely in England. She died of cancer when I was 17. So learning Russian for me was tied up with the longing to feel close to her – I suppose it was a way of resurrecting a little of her in me. I studied Russian at Edinburgh University and spent my third year in Voronezh, a provincial city south of Moscow. We arrived a week after the coup against Gorbachev in 1991. It was a year of hectic change – the dismemberment of the USSR, hyperinflation, ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus, the breakneck race towards market economics. That year was the basis for my first book, Black Earth City: A Year in the Heart of Russia (Granta, 2000). After graduating from university, I returned to Voronezh and then moved up to Moscow where I worked for Saatchi & Saatchi’s Moscow office. The nineties were an extraordinary time to be in Moscow. This was the moment when the wealth of Russia was being shared out among a few large pockets. Yet there was a (possibly illusory) sense that the cards were still up in the air – a terrifying and exhilarating sense of possibility, of optimism, of freedom. Some took to it, some retreated from it. Russia now feels like a different country to the one I knew in the early nineties.
Having been there during the dissolution of the Soviet Union how difficult was it to conceive the optimism of the start of the Russian Revolution?
It was precisely the arrogance and cynicism of the decade following the collapse of the USSR that sparked my interest in its polar opposite. It is difficult for us now to conceive of a time when idealism and optimism in the future were not considered naïve, but a reasonable and rational response to the circumstances. I see idealism as a natural human response, one part of the intellectual armoury that is mankind’s only defence against the huge challenges that our world presents. We dismiss it at our peril. This was really why I wanted to examine the early years of the revolution and to celebrate the incredible creative achievements of people who were not limited by lazy cynicism or excessive pragmatism.
What did futurism contribute to the revolution?
A great deal. When the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917, the Futurists were the only artistic group to support them. Members of the avant-garde were immediately promoted to important posts within the government, particularly in the Narkompros, the Commissariat of Enlightenment.
The modernist aesthetic did become the visual language of revolution and idealism both within the USSR and around the world.
In propaganda terms, artists and poets set to work to produce the thousands of hand-made posters that were displayed throughout Soviet-held territory, spreading public health and civic information as well as crude political messages. However the avant-garde’s own view of their role in the revolution was much broader – they aimed to “make a new garb for all the things of the world… to clear the wide world of all the chaos that prevails in it”, as Malevich put it. By means of their pure, modernist aesthetic they sought to change the way people lived, how they felt. Their rational, well-designed houses and cities, their china, furniture, clothes would allow Soviet citizens to interact calmly, sensibly and selflessly – and to leave behind the mercenary bourgeois approach. As the streets were emptied of Tsarist regalia, the avant-garde began to design modernist monuments to suitable revolutionary heroes. Unfortunately, due to poor materials and lack of time, many of these didn’t last long. They organised exhibitions in the streets of non-objective art, and Mayakovsky even painted some of the trees outside the Kremlin red – to symbolise the ultimate triumph of man over nature. Perhaps the most striking of the avant-garde’s attempts to transform reality were their mass theatrical events. One, arranged to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution, involved 8,000 participants. The public were at first bemused, yet in time the modernist aesthetic did become the visual language of revolution and idealism both within the USSR and around the world.
Both were committed to bringing down the bourgeois system – where did the relationship between communism and Futurism fall down?
To my mind, the relationship between the Bolsheviks and the Futurists was based on a fundamental lack of understanding between the two parties. Aside from a common belief in the basic tenets of Marxism, their concepts of revolution had little in common. The Futurists were not politicians; few of them played much part in the Bolsheviks’ political battles. They adopted the Bolsheviks’ violent, militaristic vocabulary but I think it’s fair to say that they were naïve about the means that the Bolsheviks were ready to use to achieve their ends. Their idea of revolution was primarily concerned with new forms of artistic expression; they had an almost alchemical faith in the power of art to transform individuals and society. Meanwhile most Bolsheviks, Lenin included, were uninterested and even scornful of art that had any aims other than didactic. The Modernist struggle to see the world anew, to discover a new language and a new style that expressed the modern age, largely passed Lenin by. Once the civil war was over there was a steady move away from abstraction and towards the hyper-blandness of Socialist realism.
How have these avant-garde revolutionary ideas become integrated into Western culture?
The constant stream of exhibitions showing the work of Malevich, Kandinsky, Rodchenko, Stepanova, Tatlin and so on in our cities is evidence of our fascination with the art of this period. Yet in a much more fundamental way, the Russian avant-garde invented modern life. They launched the modernist investigation into the types of houses, furnishings, utensils, clothes and so on that are suitable for our modern, urban age. The fundamental principles of “rationalism” – that the design of buildings can influence human behaviour – is a part of every aspect of urban planning nowadays. The streamlined, multi-purpose furniture and objects that the avant-garde imagined are still hugely influential. They, however, linked good design to the ultimate goal of progress – a harmonious, egalitarian socialist society. In this sense we are still very far from achieving their aims.
Can you draw a line between Stalin and Putin?
Varlam Shalamov, the great chronicler of Stalin’s gulag, observed that it was the mindset of the common criminals that dominated the camps – and by extension, the whole country. Amoral, brutal and primitive, this mentality terrorised and crushed the millions of ordinary citizens who passed through the camps as thoroughly as any physical hardship. Under Brezhnev it quietly spread and flourished; under Yeltsin it revealed itself; but under Putin it has found a new confidence.