It is 1917 and in Russia the Bolsheviks have seized power, de-throning the Tsar and declaring a revolutionary communist regime that would transfer the means of production to the people. Within a year, the royal family and their entourage lie dead as imperialism is violently dismantled to make way for Russia's radical new future. But one important remnant of the old order remains: the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory (IPM) on the outskirts of the city now known as St Petersburg.
Renaming it the State Porcelain Manufactory, the Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin, took control of this symbol of tsarist decadence, seeing surprising potential in it as a wheelhouse for artistic innovation and the production of propaganda. Stocks of unpainted, snow-white china became a tantalising canvas for avant-garde artists keen to express their utopian ideologies and rouse enthusiasm for the new socialist era, giving this delicate, bourgeois material an unexpected, almost contradictory, second life.
The IMP hallmark was scratched out or painted over and replaced with a cog (denoting industry and the worker's part of a greater whole) and a sickle and hammer, emblems that symbolised the union of worker and peasant and would feature on the Soviet Union's flag. Under the direction of artist and ceramicist Sergei Chekhonin, the motif would be integrated into many of the factory's designs, including his own. Increasing the country's productivity was at the heart of Leninist ideology and so it was that on this re-imagined porcelain, bold images of smoking chimneys, telegraph wires and tower blocks took the place of the pastoral scenes and intricate gilded heraldry the factory was once known for. They appear in a book published to accompany the broadest exhibition of the revolutionary porcelain story ever staged outside Russia, Russian Avant-Garde – Revolution in the Arts, which opened at the Amsterdam branch of the Hermitage Museum in January, but closed when the Russian invasion of Ukraine led the museum to cut ties with St Petersburg.
Agitation porcelain, as it became known, featured effigies of Lenin and was decorated with calls to action. Its creators hoped to galvanise the proletariat, whose idealised hand-painted image also rolled off the − rather slow − production line. Emancipated workers now took centre stage, often as noble engines of industry, striding towards a radiant future, as seen in the plates of Mikhail Adamovich (1921) and Anton Komashka (1923), or peasants jubilantly taking up arms, as in Natalia Danko's 1922 figurine.
In a curious twist, crockery once intended for the lavish feasts of the Romanovs was now emblazoned with militant Reds trampling upon their white ermine furs (Adamovich, 1923). Danko's porcelain chess set (1923) used the same colour play, with a red army taking on a white skeleton king whose proletariat pawns are in chains.
While the porcelain plates' blocky constructivist artwork conveyed energy, explosions and destruction, the requisitioning of the factory was part of a softer approach to demonstrate the communists' respect for Russian patrimony, and ingratiate the precarious new regime with the powerful upper-middle classes whose support they depended on in order to govern. ''The main reason for the Bolsheviks to maintain the porcelain factory was the preservation of cultural heritage,'' historian and guest curator of the Hermitage exhibition, Dr Sjeng Scheijen, tells BBC Culture.