The Very Picture of Bliss

The art of mangling photographs, Stalinist-style.

The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia
By David King
Metropolitan Books; 192 pages; $35

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We all know something of what went on during the reign (1924-1953) of Joseph Stalin: show trials, purges, mass executions, death camps. We may also know something about how history was rewritten wholesale in the Soviet Union during those years–how the facts concerning the October Revolution were successively recast as key figures fell from favor, how the existence of Leon Trotsky was first reviled and then denied after he was forced into exile in 1927, how even such things as the invention of electric light were reattributed to Russians in the textbooks (an astonishing number of scientific breakthroughs were allegedly the work of one Popov). These matters run the gamut from the monstrous to the comical. The scale of crimes against humanity, against truth, against common sense engaged in by Stalin and his minions is so extraordinary that merely reading about them can provoke numbness. The figures blur. The USSR seems an alternate universe.

David King’s new book, however, demonstrates all these things with clarity, concision, and force, through the use of period pictures. The four images on its cover, for example, dryly sum up the tenor of Stalin’s regime. In the first photograph, Stalin is shown in Leningrad in 1926, posed at a worktable with three cadres; one of them had just been made first secretary of the local party. The second is a version printed in a 1940 History of the USSR, looking less like a photograph than like an awkward charcoal tracing; the comrade on the left has been excised, having in fact been imprisoned prior to being shot. The third version, which appeared in a 1949 biography of Stalin, is more the work of an airbrush than a camera; the figure on the far right is now gone as well, although it is unclear why, since he remained in favor until Stalin’s death. The fourth picture, an oil painting from 1929, is actually out of sequence chronologically, but its point is clear. Stalin appears in the same pose, at the same table, but alone. The focus of that image turns out to have been the focus of the other images as well: the meaty knuckle of Stalin’s left middle finger, weighing on the table with a force of tons. The sequence is cartoonlike–by the fourth image, we imagine that the three absent apparatchiks reside in Stalin’s belly.

We know that nowadays, photographs can be digitally manipulated with ease; in the era in question, they were manipulated crudely and grotesquely, using scissors, ink, and airbrushes. King shows us sequence after sequence of group photographs–the original happy gathering of Old Bolsheviks, say, and then one or more variations printed in later years from which figures have been excised after they fell from grace. The altered pictures rarely look convincing. When I was younger, I would occasionally come across books issued by Progress Publishers, Moscow, and I never failed to be puzzled by the poor quality of the photographic illustrations–even works published in the 1970s featured pasty, smudgy, usually blue-tinted approximations of photos (the translated works, for that matter, were printed in a roman typeface that looked as if it had been purchased before 1917 from a Western dime-novel concern). The motive for this technical inferiority was probably budgetary, but there is no denying that it made falsification so much easier, since even the unaltered pictures look like fakes. A yawning gap in the lineup of military officers; a face that failed to match the body attached to it; a face whose shading did not match that of the faces on either side; an elbow marooned in space, bereft of other body parts–such things could just pass for evidence of ineptitude.

King’s book is rich in horrors: The photographs in which faces have been blotted out with ink smears or hysterically attacked with a pen are more immediately alarming than the ones from which figures have been surgically removed, and there are sobering unretouched group shots of NKVD bureaucrats and the prosecution staff of the Supreme Soviet, mass murderers who invariably look like factory hands or math teachers. But the overwhelming impression the book leaves is less of devastation per se than of contempt–the contempt the Little Father of the People felt for ordinary workers, the generalized contempt for human intelligence that pervaded his regime.

Nowhere is this contempt more evident than in the images that purport to represent friendship, fellowship, joy, triumph, and even grief, all of them exclusively formal modes. Stalin’s face juxtaposed with Lenin’s bier in a 1939 photomontage can be imagined as mourning only by an effort of will; he is sidelit, vampiric, sinister–but then Stalin rarely fails to look sinister in photographs, and this is not merely a matter of the viewer’s preconceptions. In paintings and drawings Stalin is often represented in utterly fictitious settings: addressing workers on the factory floor, say, or surrounded by gleeful ethnic types from the Soviet republics. His eyes are narrowed, his mustache conceals his mouth but is bracketed by laugh lines–he is made to denote some kind of perfunctory emotion, actual emotion being consigned to his grinning subjects. And he is often shown entwined in fishing-buddy affection with the departed Lenin, whose will actually called for Stalin’s removal as general secretary, though it was suppressed. In almost every representation, Stalin appears either more or less than human, a mobile icon wheeled about, as real as a stuffed trout.

Posed groups of commissars, meanwhile, display collective warmth in the way that department-store mannequins do when they are grouped on the same pedestal. Of course, the picture in your local newspaper of the fund-drive chairman handing an oversized check to the mayor features smiles that are scarcely more genuine. King’s book is of enormous historical value, but it should not encourage smugness. We are currently capable of perpetrating every kind of visual lie on display here, and seamlessly and invisibly at that, for reasons some may well think are justified. Everyone has a little Stalin lurking somewhere within.