The Commissar Vanishes:
The Falsification of Photographs and Art
in Stalin's Russia

by David King

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

preface by Stephen F. Cohen
photographs from the David King Collection

Metropolitan Books — Henry Holt: New York, 1997

192 pages December 2007

One history superimposed upon another

This is a sad but fascinating history; or rather, one history superimposed upon another. The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia is compiled from photographs in David King's own collection illuminating the dramatic and tragic development of Soviet Communism. The first history is what actually happened in Soviet Russia in the early Twentieth Century as shown in countless photographs; and the superimposed history is how Joseph Stalin ordered his henchmen to re-state, re-interpret, and re-illustrate what happened as seen in those photographs.

Stephen F. Cohen says in his Preface:

Under Stalin's regime, which ruled the Soviet Union from 1929 to 1953, photographs lied. In David King's unique and revealing book, the same photographs, their original images restored, speak volumes of truth.

Stalinist censorship of photography was, of course, part of a much larger official purpose — the systematic falsification of history itself. From the mid-1930s, almost nothing of significance could be published, exhibited, or publicly uttered in the Soviet Union that failed to glorify every aspect of Stalin's leadership. The cult spanned the three defining chapters of Stalinism, each of which brought the deaths of millions of innocent people:

  • his merciless "collectivization" war against the peasantry from 1929 to 1933;
  • his murderous police terror against Communist officials and ordinary citizens that peaked in the late 1930s but continued until his death in 1953;
  • and his catastrophic political and military maleficence before and after the German invasion in 1941.
The Red Tsar stands alone

Since Stalin needed to stand alone in Pharaoh-like splendor as the godlike Red Tsar, others of the Old Bolsheviks who made the 1917 Revolution and early Soviet events needed to be deprecated as well as destroyed; they were written out of histories or transformed into traitors and saboteurs; and wiped from group photographs even as their real presences were liquidated by Stalin in the 1930s. Revolutionaries, generals, and commissars vanished from photographs as though they had never lived. Thus, David King's Introduction to this annotated subset of his collection is titled Heavy Soviet Losses.

But there was also the obverse challenge for Stalin, as King points out:

The subtraction of Stalin's enemies, and even some of his friends, was one problem, but for the General Secretary, addition — the addition of himself — was another. From the time of his birth in 1879 until he was appointed General Secretary in 1922, there probably exist fewer than a dozen photographs of him. For a man who claimed to be the standard-bearer of the Communist movement, this caused grave embarrassment, which could only be overcome by painting and sculpture. ... A whole art industry painted Stalin into places and events where he had never been ....

Not all falsifications involved Stalin directly. Among the earliest scenes illustrated are two famous "icons of the revolutionary era not only in the Soviet Union but also in the West": Tsarist soldiers ready to fire on peaceful demonstrators in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 1905 — in reality is a still from a 1925 film. Another photo allegedly of the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 — "is actually of one of the many annual street-theater reenactments staged by the Bolsheviks."

The captains and the commissars depart

Another famous photo, "Lenin addresses the troops from a wooden podium set up outside the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow" in 1920, shows Trotsky and Kamenev standing next to the podium. In versions published after Trotsky's fall, they disappeared — until after the fall of the Soviet Union itself.

There are cropped photographs of the Central Committee at the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934. Attendance at this Congress turned out to be a virtual death sentence for leading Communists: almost two-thirds of the delegates were later liquidated, either via the infamous "show trials" or less formally.

King gives us a two-page spread of "A powerful Gustav Klutsis poster from 1933 entitled 'Under the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin'." A 1940 photo taken in Riga shows a small version of this poster in the background; "the designer of the work had already been shot."

A few promoted, many effaced

Some of the illustrations seem to have escaped from a film noir dark mystery, but they are all too real. Yet there are moments which are almost comic. After Stalin's death, when his vile secret-police chief Lavrentii Beria was shot on orders from Malenkov and Khrushchev, subscribers worldwide to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia were sent a four-page insert about the Bering Sea to substitute for the entry on Beria.

The annotations by King are clear and often pointed. One of my favorites describes versions of a crowd scene, a photo of

Soldiers of the Eleventh Red Army with political advisors at the train station in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1920. ...

A heavily cropped and airbrushed version of the same picture published in USSR in Construction magazine in 1939 shows only Kirov and Ordjonikidze.

In another issue of the magazine, the two commissars have now been joined by Mikoyan, who has been made to jump at least eight places from his position in the original photograph. The soldiers in the background of the original print have been upstaged by a backdrop drawing of a much more colorful band of stereotypes.

The great murderer of Communists

David King's The Commissar Vanishes is enlightening, useful, and exemplary. We see most graphically the real history and how Stalin tried to twist or conceal it. The great murderer of Communists in the Twentieth Century was Joseph Stalin, for the Communist system cannot brook rivals and critics, nor can its leader. We may be grateful that Stalin's parallel attempt to murder even the names and faces of his victims, is in the long run failing through the vigilance of those who guard the truths of history.


© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson

Thanks to WRP.

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