Utopianism has a bleak reputation in the early twenty-first century. In our violent, anti-intellectual and destructive age, the idea that humans, using their creativity and reason, might perfect society and resolve their conflict with nature is laughable, though the notion that we might perfect ourselves enjoys a dismal vogue. Less than a hundred years ago, after all, utopian politics led to the Gulag, while its handmaid, the science of the late industrial era, created bombs and smoke and industrial battlefields. If today’s Left has a colour after all that, it is probably greenish-yellowish (or red-brownish, with chauvinist overtones, in Russia). The contrast with the confident scarlet banners of the revolutionary Russian avant-garde of a century ago could not be greater.
Vladimir Tatlin, the artist whose work is the subject of Norbert Lynton’s last – and posthumous – book, was a dreamer in that great utopian age. Born in 1885, Tatlin grew up in Kharkov, a major industrial city but also a centre of revolutionary thought in the Romanov