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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bringing Doctored Past Into Focus




During the unusually cold winter of 1970, David King, at the time the art editor of The Sunday Times newspaper, was in Moscow researching a photographic biography of Leon Trotsky. When he inquired after photographs of his subject, the obstreperous Soviet archivist answered: "Why do you ask for Trotsky? Trotsky not important in Revolution. Stalin important!" Almost 20 years after Stalin's death, there was still not one single photograph of Trotsky accessible in the state archives. He had been painstakingly cropped or airbrushed or crudely cut out of his own history with a scalpel.


It was at that moment that King decided to begin collecting Soviet-era photographs in their original and doctored forms. Nearly 30 years later, he now has a large working reference library. A small percentage of these photographs, posters, paintings and sculptures have been reproduced in The Commissar Vanishes, which offers a fascinating visual account of the Soviet mania for falsifying the past. The blackened faces and gaps in the photographs -- with the ghostly outline of a vanished figure, or the awkward posture of members of a group photo in which half the group has subsequently been removed -- tell the history of the Stalinist era in their own macabre way.


Photographic retouching began in an informal, ad hoc way during the very first months of the Revolution. The practice reached its zenith in the mid-1930s, however, once Stalin had consolidated power and the reign of terror had begun in earnest. Unlike literary censors who were part of a formal bureaucracy which produced notable documents such as "The Summary List of Books Not Available in Libraries and the Book Trade Network," photographic retouching was not centrally controlled. Editors and publishers, authors and artists and librarians took up their scalpels and India ink pens seemingly spontaneously in a drive to rewrite history and erase embarrassing documentary evidence. And even private individuals felt the need to deface the books in their personal libraries, lest the portrait of an "enemy of the people" get them into trouble.


One of the most poignant parts of King's book is the section on Alexander Rodchenko. He was a skillful photographer and designer who, in 1934, was commissioned by the state publishing house OGIZ to design a photographic album celebrating a decade of Uzbekistan's membership of the Soviet Union. Although "Ten Years of Uzbekistan" was inevitably propagandistic and full of tedious mug shots of party personnel, Rodchenko was a skillful manipulator of the newest photographic techniques and his book was a labor of love. By 1937, however, many of the Uzbek party hierarchy had been purged and the book was banned. Rodchenko, who presumably felt unable to destroy his personal copy of the book in its entirety, instead brutally defaced it, blacking out the names and faces of the liquidated apparatchiks with thick ink.


This was the height of the Stalin cult, and one of the biggest challenges was to insert the leader into all the key moments of revolutionary history. King estimates that no more than a dozen photographs of the Generalissimo existed from the time of his birth in 1879 to his appointment as General Secretary in 1922. Yet Stalin had to be shown to be Lenin's most trusted lieutenant, his constant helper, his natural heir. The first step was to remove Trotsky and other leading Bolsheviks from existing photographs. And then artists, such as Isaak Brodsky, were commissioned to reproduce the famous scenes in oil, stone or metal, carefully inserting Stalin at Lenin's side. Brodsky's mastery of the fawning socialist realist style earned him directorship of the Russian Academy of Art, and he was one of the few prominent personalities of the period who died of natural causes.


The photographs collected here put flesh on the unimaginable statistics of murder. Although we are told that, of the 1,961 delegates who attended the 17th Party Congress, 1,108 did not live to see the end of the decade, the photograph of 20 delegates from the Eighth Party Congress in 1919 is much more poignant. During the purges 11 of these men were killed and three committed suicide, thus the photograph was radically cropped in 1938 to portray only the central ruling triumvirate of Stalin, Lenin and Kalinin. The rows of blacked-out faces in a photograph of the military elite speak volubly of the extent to which the leadership of the Red Army was decimated during the purges.


But the retouching of photographs was not always motivated by murder. There is evidence of a playful pleasure in manipulating the truth for the sake of deceit alone. So King shows that a 1918 photograph of Lenin and Sverdlov, unveiling a memorial to Marx and Engels in Moscow, was later described as a photograph of the leaders watching an airplane demonstration.


Although "The Commissar Vanishes" does not succeed, as it claims to do, in telling the whole history of the period -- there is no photographic record of collectivization, the famines or the gulags to mention just a few gaps -- the book does provide a striking visual record. And the undoctored mug shots of Isaak Babel, robbed of his trademark glasses and his usual enigmatic expression by the NKVD, which was soon to kill him, will leave a chill in most readers' hearts.


"The Commissar Vanishes; The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia" by David King. Canongate Books. 192 Pages. pounds 25 ($40).