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Revolutionary Russia revealed in Leeds

 March 3, 2017 | Simon Jenkins


A new exhibition reveals the dramatic events of the Russian Revolution from a fresh, British, perspective.

Caught in the Russian Revolution: the British Community in Petrograd, 1917-1918 is the latest exhibition at the University’s Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery.

The exhibition, open until the end of July, marks the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which changed the course of world history.

Dr Stella Butler, University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection, said: “By putting these items from the Leeds Russian Archive on public display for the first time we are bringing a slice of one of Russia’s most tumultuous periods to Leeds.”

Offering a unique perspective on this violent episode, the exhibition focuses on the British community in St Petersburg, renamed Petrograd at the start of the First World War.

The community was well established from the 18th century. Several generations of families helped to develop the city’s infrastructure and commerce. The Revolution in February 1917 disrupted all their lives and the Bolshevik seizure of power in October destroyed any hope for their future in Russia.

This exhibition draws on the Leeds Russian Archive, which includes eyewitness accounts in the form of diaries, letters, and photographs to explore a pivotal moment in world history. The exhibition celebrates 35 years of the Leeds Russian Archive, one of the University Library’s Special Collections that has has been designated as nationally and internationally important by Arts Council England.

Richard Davies, curator of the exhibition, has been archivist of the Leeds Russian Archive since its establishment in 1982. Mr Davies, who was awarded an MBE for services to Anglo-Russian Scholarship in 2003, said: “The exhibition tells a story of a community experiencing at first hand the extreme upheaval and turmoil of a revolution.”

Stories and objects on display include:

  • Patent of hereditary Russian nobility granted to George Baird by Alexander II, 1872

George Baird belonged to a Scottish civil-engineering and ship-building dynasty. The patent of nobility was granted by Emperor Alexander II in recognition of George, and his family’s, contribution to the development of St Petersburg and Russian shipping from the late 18th century. This unique artefact is an intricate handmade object which comes with the huge seal of Alexander II, and represents the integration of British families, like the Bairds, into Russian life prior to the Revolution.

  • Reverend Lombard’s prison mug, letters and drawings, 1918

Reverend Bousfield Swan Lombard was Chaplain of the British Embassy and English Church in Petrograd from 1908 to 1918, and a central figure in the British community in Russia. During the October Revolution, shortly after drinking tea together in the British Embassy, Reverend Lombard witnessed the murder of his friend Captain Francis Cromie, naval attaché and Royal Navy submarine commander. Reverend Lombard, alongside many of the remaining British community, was subsequently imprisoned. Lombard’s prison mug, letters he received and drawings he made whilst incarcerated, act as vivid reminders of the brutal end to the British Community in Russia.

To accompany the exhibition, The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery nearby will be displaying a selection of objects, textiles and jewellery from the Leeds Russian Archive, until 10 June.

Public events

A varied programme of public events will be held to accompany the exhibition. Highlights include:

  • 23 March, 13:00 – 14:00 Free Lunchtime Talk: Curator and archivist Richard Davies explores the British expatriate experience during the Russian Revolution.
  • 26 April, 13:00 – 14:00 Free Lunchtime Talk: Vera Pavlova, a visiting research fellow at The University of Leeds, examines Russian theatre around the time of the Russian Revolution.
  • 25 May, 17:30 -18:30 Chris Sheppard Lecture: Helen Rappaport, alumna of the University of Leeds, will give a lecture on the subject of her latest book: ‘Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917’.
  • 21 June, 13:00 – 14:00 Free Lunchtime Talk: David Jackson, Professor of Russian & Scandinavian Art Histories at The University of Leeds explores Russian Art during the Russian Revolution.

Full details of the events programme can be found at library.leeds.ac.uk/treasures-events, or pick up a What’s On leaflet.

Revolutionary Russia revealed in Leeds