The Commissar Vanishes

The Commissar Vanishes, David King’s classic visual history of Stalin’s Russia, has been published in Britain for the first time.

Originally published in the US in 1997, the book documents the degeneration of the Soviet utopia into dictatorship as the Stalinist faction that emerged after Lenin’s death sought to strengthen its grip on power through the comprehensive falsification and reconstruction of the republic’s collective memory. Stalin’s objective was to eliminate political rivals not only through their physical imprisonment and execution, but also their erasure from the public record. Censors were ordered to eradicate any reference to ‘enemies of the revolution’ preserved in any image, book, journal or film.

In the years just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union King scoured public and private archives across Russia to unearth a mass of defaced images and documents that revealed the sheer extent of the Stalinist effort to rewrite history. He uncovered the original versions of hundreds of photos that had been cropped and retouched to serve the regime’s propaganda purposes, and libraries of blacklisted books and documents that had been defaced by citizens fearful that their ownership of prescribed material might be discovered by the authorities.

King lets the documents and images he found tell their own tale, presenting his discoveries in chronological order, from the early Revolutionary years to the rise of Stalin in the mid–1920s, through to his death in 1953. Each item is accompanied by matter-of-fact commentary detailing the fate of those whose names and profiles were removed or scratched out. The cumulative effect is powerful: here is the totalitarian world imagined by Orwell in 1984 made real, the record of an extraordinary effort made in relatively recent history to redefine the past, to re-engineer a people’s collective memory.

Soviet historical revisionism started even before Stalin took control. Some of the most famous photographs of the February and October Revolutions of 1917 were doctored, the crowd scenes bolstered through cut-and-paste to suggest greater popular support for the Bolsheviks than was actually the case. Indeed many supposed photos of the Revolution later passed-off as eye witness records were actually stills from Soviet propaganda films, most famously Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World, which were commissioned to fill gaps in the visual record.

But Stalin took things to a new level. Early Bolshevik propaganda had been directed against the party’s political rivals. As it became clear following the victory of the Red Army in the Russian Civil War of the early 1920s that the party’s grip on power was secure, Stalin turned the focus of the state’s security apparatus inwards, on the elimination of rival factions within the party itself. Official publications issued during the early years of the Revolution were scoured for references to Stalin’s rivals, and destroyed, defaced or retouched. Paintings commissioned to commemorate the inauguration of the Soviet Union that placed Lenin in the company of those who had fallen out of favour, were withdrawn from galleries. Essays by undesirables were destroyed or consigned to state archives.

The regime introduced a ‘Summary List of Books Excluded from Libraries and the Book Trade Network’, its own version of the Roman Catholic index of proscribed publications. Stalin’s edict actually went further, ordering the liquidation not only of texts by proscribed authors, but anything written in opposition to them. Even Stalin’s own ‘On the Opposition’, written in denunciation of Trotsky, was banned. The stark ambition of the ‘Summary List’ was to eliminate any evidence there had ever been opposition to the Stalinist regime.

As part of this process professional designers were instructed to falsify the photographic record of the early years of the Revolution to magnify the (relatively minor) role Stalin had played. Photos were cut up and recomposed to move Stalin and his associates closer to Lenin, and to remove the profiles of rivals altogether. Embellishments which today could be accomplished with relative ease by a skilled user of Photoshop required painstaking work using scalpel and airbrush. As King describes:

[W]ith a sharp scalpel, an incision could be made along the leading edge of the person or object adjacent to the one who had to be removed. With the help of some glue, the first could simply be stuck down on top of the second. A little paint or ink was then carefully brushed around the cut edges and background of the picture to hide the joins. Likewise, two or more photographs could be cannibalised into one using the same method. Alternatively, an airbrush (an inkjet gun powered by a cylinder of compressed air) could be used to spray fine clouds of ink or paint onto the unfortunate victim in the picture. The hazy edges achieved by the spray made the elimination of the subject less noticeable than crude knife-work.

The obligation to edit the past to fit the regime’s narrative extended to the wider public. Stalin enforced a policy of ‘personal responsibility’, requiring ordinary citizens not to reference the ‘disappeared’ in any way. Their names were not to be brought up in public conversation, nor images of them kept.

Soviet citizens, fearful of the consequences of being caught in possession of material considered ‘anti-Soviet’ or ‘counter-revolutionary’, were forced to deface their own copies of books and photographs, often savagely attacking them with knives and scissors or disfiguring them with crayon or India ink. The visual violence expressed by the perpetrators of these erasures was not only intended to show their strength of indignation against the erased, but also their supreme loyalty to Comrade Stalin, whether real or false.

More poignantly, the oliterations extended onto the personal level. Snapshots of friends, family and loved ones who had fallen foul of the state’s apparatus had to be scratched out or destroyed by the husband, wife, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, distant cousin, niece or nephew, lover, friend, comrade worker or passing stranger who was trying to avoid arrest for being in contact with an ‘unperson’.

King’s book features dozens of examples of pages from books, magazines and newspapers, and personal photos, kept by ordinary people, featuring photos that have been scratched out, or doctored through scrawls and the application of India ink.

It is only to be expected that members of the public should have carried out these disfigurements in haste, using the crude tools available to them. But it is intriguing that so much of the retouching work carried out by supposed experts was of similarly poor quality. Many of the reworked photos betray shoddy workmanship: crude collage, slapdash overpainting, careless application of inkjet spray. Perhaps a half-hearted commitment to the revisionism they were instructed to undertake was the only form of rebellion available, a silent message to succeeding generations that the past could never be erased, and one day would be rediscovered:

[W]hy was the standard of retouching in Soviet books and journals often so crude? Did the Stalinists want their readers to see that elimination had taken place, as a fearful and ominous warning? Or could the slightest trace of an almost vanished commissar, deliberately left behind by the retoucher, become a ghostly reminder that the repressed might yet return?

The Commissar Vanishes by David King is published by Tate. All images in the post are from the book.