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February 26, 2009

History Division News
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» News from the Classroom ... out and about at the Tate Modern

<image title="Final Year Students at the Tate Modern" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/2/26/tate3.jpg" alt="Final Year Students at the Tate Modern">

Third Year Option: 'From the Second Reich to the Nazis:
Culture, Art and Politics in Germany, 1890-1933'

<image class="left" title="Final Year Students at the Tate Modern" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/2/26/tateside.jpg" alt="Final Year Students at the Tate Modern">

The years immediately after the First World War are often shrouded in gloom and depression: war was followed by economic strife, deep misery, the rise of the radical right and then more war. There is some truth in this miserable chronology but, like all chronologies, it obscures another truth. For artists, sculptors, architects, film-makers and designers of all sorts, the 1920s were most exhilarating and productive. Revolution in Russia and Germany had been accompanied by great artistic innovation, and the new regimes encouraged artistic experiment.

Many artists were eager to help shape the new world. After the horrors of the First World War and the trauma of revolution many were deeply committed to making a world that was completely different to anything that had ever existed before. Alexander Rodchenko, and Liubov Popova were two of the most influential and prominent members of the Russian avant-garde. Rodchenko was a painter, photographer, sculptor and designer; Popova was an artist and designer. They both rejected the idea that art was the simple representation of reality and – like many artists of the time – saw their work as intrinsic to their politics.

Last week, final year history students on Fiona Reid's 'Culture, Art and Politics' module went to the Tate modern to see an exhibition of Rodchenko and Popova’s work. There were fantastic examples of early abstract compositions: pure colour and pure line. We also had a glimpse into the everyday life of early Soviet Russia. Popova produced designs for peasant women’s headscarves, Rodchenko designed the poster for Eisentein’s famous Battleship Potemkin. Given their political commitment, the artists had no qualms about producing adverts for the new Soviet state. So we saw pictures of Moscow department stores during the New Economic Policy and we saw how Soviet citizens were encouraged to eat ‘Red October cookies’. We could even sit in the chairs that Rodchenko created for his ‘Workers’ club’, one of the Soviet exhibits at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in the summer of 1925.

Powerpoint is brilliant but there is really no substitute for seeing actual works of art. Only then can you gauge size, texture, colour and depth –as well as the indefinable thrill of seeing the original work.

This trip was only possible because the university agreed to subsidise it to a great extent. We would like to thank those responsible.

Thanks also go to John Arnold (Final year History student) for taking the photographs.

Dr Fiona Reid

January 28, 2009

History Division News
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» News from the classroom ... Lenin's Successor in Soviet Russia

Third Year Option: ‘The Soviet Union and Stalin, 1917-1953’

<image src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/1/27/Stalin-Lenin-Kalinin-1919crop1.jpg" height="248px" alt="Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Mikhail Kalinin, 1919" width="720px">

One popular option among students studying modern European history at Glamorgan is Norry LaPorte’s third year module on ‘The Russian Revolutions and the Soviet Union, 1917-1953’. A typical class deals with the rise of Stalin to absolute power during the 1920s.

Many leading personalities in history have been more than historical actors. By writing memoirs and other accounts of the events they were involved in, they aim to frame the subsequent historical debate. Trotsky was famously one such figure. His eloquent writings on the power struggle to succeed Lenin, after his death in 1924, were influential in prompting generations of scholars to dismiss Stalin as a power-hungry thug with no understanding of Marxism. One man, not the new Soviet system, could be blamed for the degeneration of the evolution, from bright new dawn of the ‘red October’ to the dungeons of the secret police’s torture chambers. Then the fall of the Berlin Wall opened the way to new research which used newly available documentary sources to question seeming certainties. Historians became familiar with previously unknown aspects of Stalin, the Georgian poet and intellectual whose appeal to ‘workers from the bench’ with radical polices were as important as his manipulation of the party machine in becoming Soviet Russia’s bloody, undisputed leader. Trotsky – the writer of history – was shown to have been as politically incompetent as he was intellectually gifted.

Students studying this topic engage with contemporary accounts of how Stalin came to power, questioning them in the light of the new findings and interpretations of new literature – such as Dimitri Volkoganov’s monumental biographies of Stalin and Trotsky. There is only one problem with studying the fall of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union – how do you put the books down or walk out of the seminar room?