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From czars to Russendisko

The Deutsches Historisches Museum tries to connect the Revolution's past and present in their exhibition 1917, with mixed results. It's on through April 15.

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1917, Deutsches Historisches Museum. Photo courtesy of the Staatliches Museum für Zeitgenössische Geschichte, Moskau

The Deutsches Historisches Museum tries to connect the Revolution’s past and present in their exhibition 1917, with mixed results.

Art, violence, education, oppression: all things that blossomed after the Russian Revolution. Berlin’s history museum couldn’t fail to mark its anniversary – but how to tackle such a monstrous event? The curatorial concept chosen by DHM seems to be mostly more descriptive than analytical in a didacto-chronological sort of way: taking the visitors on a topical journey from the Russian Empire of the 1880s through the Revolution and ensuing war (1917-22) to 1920s European politics.

Not that they didn’t attempt to do something original. The exhibition opens with a gimmicky prologue: nine white pillars displaying video interviews with local witnesses pondering on the meaning of 1917 today. There are “white Russians”, politicians, musicians and authors, among them Russendisko author Vladimir Kaminer saying, “A step in the right direction – just with the butt forward.” The intention is obvious: connect the Russian Revolution with Berlin 2017, albeit in a superficial sort of way.

The pedagogy starts on the floor, specially marked to make sure you don’t get lost on your historical journey through the six dark rooms, some more eloquent than others. The one themed about the Revolution’s impact on communist movements in Europe’s 1920s is well done. The part about WWI in Russia is too brief, and the civil war’s casualties, which cost more than eight million lives, feel glossed over. The curators have borrowed over 500 objects from around Europe and have smartly chosen not to rely solely on text and “historical items”. Paintings, architecture and famous Soviet posters are strewn around, giving needed contrast to the black-and-white videos and photos that dominate the documentation. Whereas the historic context and impact of the Russian Revolution are explored with textbook-like scrutiny, it’s a shame that only the smallest, last room tries to critically put into perspective how much of the pre- and post-Revolution-era’s oligarchy is still present today, a century later. The connection between dark rooms “of the past” versus the white rooms “of today” ends up feeling like another gimmick.

Does it amount to more that the sum of its parts? Not really. But it’s a worthy exhibition to bring the kids to, especially ninth graders on a rainy Sunday. Think of it as a 3D textbook experience!

1917. Revolution. Russia and Europa. Through Apr 15 | Deutsches Historisches Museum, Mitte, daily 10-18