In Saint Petersburg

Here is a photo of my wife Tamara looking at a plaque on the wall of Vladimir Nabokov’s house in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

We visited Saint Petersburg and got back just this last weekend. We’ll post some articles on the Quillcards Blog and I’ll put some extracts and links here.

Socialist Realism and The Danger Of Thinking


Tamara and I went to see the Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 exhibition at the Royal Academy. We learned that Lenin viewed culture as a stepping stone to the Communist State. When that was achieved, art would have no function and it would be removed ‘snip, snip’ as he described it.

Stalin allowed only Socialist Realism in art. That is art that could be understood by the most uneducated of workers.

The narrator described how Stalin disliked Avante Garde art because its message was unclear.

And suddenly I understood it. Art that has a message that is unclear requires that the viewer makes an attempt to understand it. The viewer has to think – and that is what Stalin did not want. Because of course, once people think, they are wild cards – unfathomable and unreachable.

And of course I understood why the Nazis banned what they described as decadent art – for the same reason. Previously I had thought it was because its themes were racy or against the stereotype of the Germanic ideal. But the reason was more basic; that people might think. And thinking carries all kinds of dangers.

Poster For Sale

We saw a poster from the exhibition for sale. The image at the top of this post is a snippet from the poster. The full image shows that giant carrying a red banner, marching inexorably towards Revolution while the masses march and run to defeat the Bourgoisie, the Church, the old State.

We were both attracted to the graphic of the image but we both also thought that the violent scene was one we didn’t want to live with. We came together at one point to talk about buying the poster and it struck me how wonderful it was that we had both independently concluded that we didn’t want to buy it.


This article originally published on NoMorePencils under the same title.

You Say You Want a Revolution

On Friday 10th February, Tamara and I went to see the ‘You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970’ exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Tamara thought it would be good to see something from ‘our’ period – although I am five years older than Tamara and so ‘our’ periods overlap but don’t match.

And of course, I grew up in the UK and she in the USA.

The V&A advertises the exhibition thus:

This major exhibition will explore the era-defining significance and impact of the late 1960s, expressed through some of the greatest music and performances of the 20th century alongside fashion, film, design and political activism. The exhibition considers how the finished and unfinished revolutions of the time changed the way we live today and think about the future.

The very word ‘revolution’ sends shock waves and tremors through me and I guess through most people. A revolution in thinking is a different beast than a violent political revolution, but where one exists it tends to rub against the other. And that’s the rub.

I’m not here to get into a big discussion of how violence or the threat of violence underpins all authority in society.

We know it is true and we understand that when the society is just and fair both socially and economically, that the threat of violence is a communal censure and not the censure of a self-serving elite.

So, to the exhibition.

Everyone was given a pair of headphones that played different music depending on which room you were in.

The exhibition affected me. It was not something I viewed with passing interest. It was the same with Tamara. We spent about five hours there. When we came out it was 8:30pm and we both thought for a moment that that must be wrong. It didn’t seem like five hours.

What follows is what I thought. It won’t be the same for other people. I know that. This is just what it triggered in me.

In the first room there were posters and statements from people – mostly in the USA – talking about their vision of what things should be like and how they were working towards that.

There was a short quote from Marcuse about how our decisions are directed and controlled, but hidden under the illusion of choice. But the overall tone of the room was positive.

At the entrance to the second room there was a short film made in Britain in the ’60s. It was a caustic film about the delights of a video camera that could capture your whole life.

The voiceover was soothing and led you want to appreciate this wonderful technological thing – except we saw the camera capturing all the vacuous, angry, painful moments as well.

The intent of the film was to show how wrong things were. But in the manner of the production it hit me how even in critiquing the malaise of modern life the English approach was to spend all its time irritating the wound with finesse rather than turn its back on it and look for something better.

It came to me that the English never wanted to turn their backs on the horror – they revel in it too much. Passed off as a greater insight into the true nature of man, it is really just sadism and self loathing cloaked as critique.

You Say You Want a Revolution

And then on with the exhibition and the flowering of ideas. Until we get to the room with films of police baton charges and riots. And I read a quote from Abbie Hoffman’s ‘Steal This Book’ which says that all the nice flower power things mean nothing, and nothing will get done until the power structure is changed.

But then I read that the Diggers felt Hoffman had betrayed his promise not to publish details of the scams that could get people free things.

Suddenly, they said, all the deals that kept poor people in the Lower East Side alive outside of the system were exposed and sucked dry by disaffected kids from better-off backgrounds.

That’s important isn’t it – someone who promotes changing the system rather than living outside of it but who broke his promise to those who took him in?

Is it true? Are they more shades of grey to what happened? Perhaps they were precious and exclusive and he was right to spread the word to as many people as he could. Shades of grey.

Understanding what things are and how they work is important because when we decide we want to follow a certain direction, we better be sure we have good foundations.

And that’s the other famous problem: Thinking people worry about what is right while others just march in and take it.

And I got thinking of Kent State and dead students and comments about how young the National Guard soldiers looked scared and innocent.

Except they opened fire. And I am thinking that the real elephant in the room is the question of when it really comes down to it – how many people will stand on the other side of the line and open fire on the people who want a fairer and more inclusive society?


Originally posted on NoMorePencils

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