Colin Thomas explores the impact of the Russian revolution on Welsh writers
“Eithr gwelais wedd y ddaer yn cyfnewid
A breuddwyd gwlad yn troi yn newydd wyrth…”
“What I did see was the earth in transformation
A country’s dream becoming miraculously true…”
In T.E. Nicholas’s poetry the Russian revolution is seen as a hugely liberating event. At first many Russian writers and artists too saw the first stage of the revolution, the abdication of Nicholas II in February 1917, as the longed for unshackling of the artistic fetters that they had endured during Czarist regimes.
Just at that moment the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev was about to stage Parade in Paris, an extraordinary collaboration between composer Erik Satie, writer Jean Cocteau, artist Pablo Picasso and choreographer Leonid Massine. “It heralds the advent of a more complete art” claimed the poet Apollinaire at the time and Marc Rees, the curator of a new Welsh version of Parade, sees it as “hugely radical, an extraordinary revolutionary moment.”
Only Satie’s music – complete with clinking milk bottles, foghorns and gunshots – will be the same this time as that of the 1917 production which outraged some of its first night audience in Paris. But curator Marc Rees and director Caroline Finn promise that their version will be equally bold, beginning National Dance Company Wales’s performance on October 24th and 25th outside the Wales Millennium Centre and then cajoling the audience inside. The new Parade will be part of a season of arts events in Wales commemorating the Russian revolution.
A hundred years ago many in Wales could understand the sense of rage that had led to revolution in Russia. “They had suffered wrongs and injustices in the quarries; the oppression of the masters and the owners” wrote Kate Roberts in her novel Feet in Chains which focussed on north Wales quarrymen and their wives at the time of the First World War. “In the depths of their being they believed by this that someone was making money out of it, the same people who exploited them in their quarries and sucked their blood to turn it into gold for their own use.”
Some Welsh writers looked to Russia for a solution, undeterred by the Bolshevik takeover of the revolution in October of 1917. Novelist Jack Jones was a miner in 1921 and went as delegate from his lodge in Pontypool to the founding conference of the British Communist Party where “in private we proceeded to accelerate the revolutionary tempo of Great Britain.” In his autobiography Unfinished Journey he writes “Our Russian comrades, we were informed, had in ten days shaken the world, and there was no earthly reason why we shouldn’t give it another shaking before long.” He took the train back to Wales “returning to play my part in the class-war.”
Soon afterwards, to the delight of the newly formed Party, he was elected as a miners’ agent but soon became disillusioned. He started to ignore his instructions and to fight “for the right to do one’s best for one’s own people without dictation from Moscow. Yes from Moscow.”
Jack Jones eventually became a successful novelist and his Off to Philadelphia in the Morning became a best seller but he was not noted for political consistency – he moved to the Labour Party, to Oswald Mosley’s New Party, to the Liberal Party and eventually to the Conservative Party. Lewis Jones on the other hand – another miner who became a successful novelist – maintained his belief in the Russian revolution throughout his short life. “Red was the colour of the blood they lost. Red is the colour of the revolution they will make” he wrote in his short story The Power of the Pit and the whole purpose of his novels Cwmardy and We Live was to further the possibility of bringing Communist revolution to Wales.
The impact of the Russian revolution found its way into the visual arts in Wales too. Swansea Art School graduate Evan Walters kept his distance from the left wing Artists International but his powerful painting The Communist suggests the influence that the Party had in the valleys in the 1930s. Art critic Peter Lord speculates that Walters may have had Lewis Jones in mind as its subject.
Despite her anger about the capitalist exploitation she had witnessed growing up in a quarryman’s family, Kate Roberts was not at all attracted to the Communist Party and the future implied by revolutionary Russia. She and Saunders Lewis searched instead for a remedy through another new Party – Plaid Cymru. It is risky to assume that the voice of a character in a creative work is that of the author but the words of Dewi, the hero of Saunders Lewis’s play Cymru Fydd, seem to come close to his own thinking.
“I can’t become a Communist. Wales has had more than a bellyful of Puritanism already. Communism is just Puritanism without God.” Cymru Fydd was written fifty years after the Russian revolution and the debate was still raging when Raymond Williams published Loyalties in 1985. He articulates it as a debate between brother and sister Norman and Emma Braose in 1945. “Well, take the Soviet Union” says Norman Braose, “it’s been clear since Spain and the show trials what kind of regime that is. Yet for other reasons there are millions still loyal to it. Loyal, I mean, beyond its own frontiers, and within other systems.” To which Emma Braose answers “Nobody says there haven’t been faults” and her brother responds “They say there haven’t been faults.”
Raymond Williams had briefly been a member of the Communist Party himself and was all too aware of its faults. He sought to find a way of achieving the defeat of capitalism but then of preventing the erection of a system of authoritarian socialism, exemplified by the Soviet Union, in its place. He saw the Welsh working class community in which he grew up “with its emphases of neighbourhood, mutual obligation and common betterment” as exemplifying the kind of society he was aiming for. Crucially he saw the extension of the meaning of culture as one of the key ways of achieving it.
This chimes with the assertion of Marcos Morau that “revolution was only possible as a union between people, and not a result of individual efforts…an absolute democracy.” Morau is the choreographer of Tundra, the other half of the Parade double bill; it promises to be a reminder of the high hopes with which the Russian revolution began a hundred years ago.
From the Wales Millennium Centre to the National Museum of Wales, Welsh arts organisations are marking one hundred years since the Russian revolution of 1917 with performances, events and public lectures.
“Russia 17” – the R17 season – is designed to reflect Wales’ historic connections with this time in history.
But why Wales? There is a strong historic resonance between the revolution and the radical traditions of South Wales. Immediate links were forged with the emerging Soviet Union: letters sent from Lenin himself to Valleys miners and the foundations of the first UK Communist Party established in South Wales. The red flag flew at pitheads and the area’s socialist sympathies produced several important trade unionists. Maerdy was even called “Little Moscow”.
In “A History of Wales” historian John Davies wrote: “The unrest in the coalfield was encouraged by the revolution in Russia… “There was no place outside of Russia where the Revolution has caused greater joy than in Merthyr Tydfil,” proclaimed the Merthyr Pioneer, and the miners of Ammanford sang: “Workers of the Vale of Amman/ Echo Russia’s mighty thrust.”
R17 Patrons are actor and director Michael Sheen and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre St Petersburg Valery Gergiev. Valery Gergiev said: “The Centenary of the Russian Revolution is a time for reflection and the arts provide an ideal vehicle to explore this momentous historical event.”
R17’s extraordinary Autumn season includes events by prestigious names such as Welsh National Opera, National Dance Company of Wales, Sherman Theatre and BBC National Orchestra of Wales (www.r17.wales).
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