the Commissar Vanishes
The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia
Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 192 pp., $ 35
From its beginning in 1917, the Communist regime in Russia created -- in the words of the Sovietologist Robert Conquest -- "falsification on an enormous scale." The fact of this falsification has been documented many times in the last eighty years, but never quite as vividly and as graphically as in this new volume, The Commissar Vanishes, by David King, a former art director of the London Sunday Times. With his lavishly illustrated study of photographs, paintings, and sculptures from the time of Lenin and Stalin, King has given us a new kind of history of the lies of the Soviet Union: the before-and-after editing of the Soviets' own official visual history.
Some of the photographs King reproduces -- in the main, of commissars who killed for Lenin in the 1920s only to be killed by Stalin in the 1930s -- were fished out of Soviet archives by the resourceful author and are now published for the first time. If one can ignore the shaven skulls, mustaches, beards, workers' caps and military uniforms, most of the pictures have that old-fashioned, posed look of the college-fraternity group shot. Russian photographers seemed little influenced by Eugene Atget or Henri Cartier- Bresson and the rage for photography verite sweeping Europe at the time.
What they were influenced by was the already dated aesthetic of the photo studio -- with all its retouchers, airbrushers, montagists, scissormen, croppers, and paste-and-penmen. There must have been a whole Soviet industry, perhaps a government ministry, specializing in doctoring photos to order. In one picture of Lenin speaking to a crowd outside the Bolshoi, Trotsky listens nearby.
A decade later -- after his expulsion from the Party in November 1927, though before he was assassinated in 1940 in Mexico at Stalin's orders -- the very visible, goateed Trotsky has disappeared, replaced by five wooden steps leading up to the speaker's platform. Stalin clearly believed that if he altered a photo or ordered a fictitious painting of himself, he would alter history forever. As another Sovietologist, Adam Ulam, once put it: Stalin, as leader-in-chief of the Communist party, seemed to regard himself as also, ex officio, the party's historian-in-chief.
Two main causes produced all this mendacity. The first is that there were few photos of Stalin before 1922, the year Lenin appointed him the Party's general secretary. One early eyewitness chronicler of the Rus-sian revolution, Nikolai Sukhanov, described the man as "a gray blur, dimly looming up now and again but not leaving any trace." In the civil war that followed the revolution, dozens of other Bolsheviks played larger roles than Stalin -- particularly Trotsky, who created the Red Army. After Stalin's accession, however, actual photos of scenes of the Bolshevik revolution had to be doctored to transform that gray blur into the mythic superhero of Bolshevik history. So we see Stalin standing behind Lenin on the steps of a railroad car at the Finland Station, a meeting that never happened. The suddenly vivid figure was painted onto battlefields where he had never fought and at important party meetings he had never attended.
The second cause of the falsified images was Stalin's purges and the infamous Moscow trials. The same Party Congress photo could go through several versions depending on who had been arrested, tried, tortured, expelled, or executed between one congress and the next. Heroes at one congress became "enemies of the people" at the next, their presence in historic photos airbrushed out. Of 1,961 delegates to the 1934 Seventeenth Party Congress, no fewer than 1,108 were later liquidated.
Although King deals only with Lenin and Stalin, the fakery continued after Stalin's death in March 1953. The post-Stalin leadership prepared a secret instruction banning the practice, but this kind of falsification seemed built into the system. A famous photo of Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin, snapped after his April 1961 space triumph, shows him shaking hands with Nikita Khrushchev while the Soviet Presidium looks on. After the October 1964 coup by Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev was airbrushed out -- leaving Gagarin, right arm outstretched to shake hands with nobody.
Doctoring photos is, of course, not confined to the Soviet Union. A New York tabloid, the Evening Graphic (sometimes known as the Evening Pornographic), developed in the 1920s the "composograph" -- a technique for taking scenes described in testimony at sensational courtroom trials and reconstructing them as ersatz photographs. The U.S. postal service, according to the Wall Street Journal, recently airbrushed a cigarette out of the fingers of a pilot's hand as part of the anti-smoking campaign. When it's done by the Western media, however, it's usually done for trivial reasons -- as for instance when Newsweek three weeks ago used computer manipulation to straighten the teeth of Bobbi McCaughey, the septuplet's mother.
Nearly everyone knows, by this point, that everything in the Soviet Union was a lie -- and that those lies, embodied in party-line photos, paintings, sculptures, magazines, and books spread from the U.S.S.R. like a global cloud of pollution. In some places, like mainstream Soviet studies in America's own universities, Soviet lies became accepted truths.
But the system, then and now, has its defenders. The well-established American literary critic, Frederic Jameson -- Duke University professor of literature and a loyal Marxist -- declared, "Stalinism is disappearing not because it failed, but because it succeeded and fulfilled its historical mission to force the rapid industrialization of an underdeveloped country." An older defender of Stalinism, the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, once explained, "The terrible paradox of the Soviet era is that the Stalin experienced by the Soviet peoples and the Stalin seen as a liberating force outside were the same. And he was the liberator for the ones at least in part because he was the tyrant for the others." And the American professor Jerry Hough added that "the Soviet leadership almost seems to have made the Soviet Union closer to the spirit of the pluralist model of American political science than is the United States."
Jameson, Hobsbawm, Hough, and their associates don't really know or even seem to care that they are still in thrall to history that is not history, photos that are not photos, economics that is not economics, art that is not art. A picture, one hears, is worth a thousand words. But even the hundreds of pictures in David King's The Commissar Vanishes may not be enough to persuade those like Jameson, Hobsbawm, and Hough of the lies of Marxism- Leninism-Stalinism.