Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Commissar Vanishes

Okay, here's another book review that's vaguely art-related. It's for David King's The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia. This picture book tells the history of the Stalin era in the Soviet Union with a chronological collection of doctored photos and artwork. These are photos the author collected himself, many of which were never published before. We get to see the original photos alongside the photos that are were manipulated according to Stalin's wishes, either to put the dictator in a better light, or to remove a person or groups of people who fell out of favor with him and suddenly "disappeared".

This is way before Photoshop and the photo doctoring is all done with scalpel and airbrush, usually very poorly. The resulting images are both chilling and sadly humorous. In the photos below Stalin stands with three other party members celebrating the destruction of Zinoviev's anti-Stalinist opposition, then with two members, then just one, and finally the "Red Tsar" is alone in an obsequious portrait painted from the original photograph.

Below is another example. Now you see him. Now you don't. Watch NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov disappear.

And Stalin didn't like this humble worker, who is helpfully pointing the way for the "Boss", in the same photo with him, so he had the poor fellow airbrushed out in the official published version.

There was also something called "Personal Responsibility", which meant that not only could Soviet citizens not be caught mentioning the names of people who had suddenly "disappeared", but they could not keep books or publications of any kind with photos of "enemies" of Stalin's regime. Citizens had to black out offending photos and names themselves on any piece of property they had. Below a dutiful citizen has violently removed Trotsky's face. Stalin tried to have the revolutionary's name and image removed from history. So many photos and paintings of Trotsky were destroyed or unpublished that the author of "The Commissar Vanishes" dedicated a whole new book, which is again filled with images that David King personally collected, called "Trotsky: A Photographic Biography" to the maligned leader of the October Revolution.

Below is one of the saddest images from the book. A propaganda photo of Stalin with a six year old girl, who is cheerfully presenting the dictator with a bouquet of flowers. The photo became an icon. Stalin later had the girl's father and mother murdered. In the original photo there was also a smiling man present at the ceremony in the background. He was airbrushed out after Stalin had him murdered.

Also in the book are many examples of Soviet Social Realism meant to glorify Stalin or distort history. Stalin is painted taking part in key moments of the October Revolution he did not actually take part in and among the common folk, whom he despised being around. Here we see a painting of Lenin being cheered as he rolls into Petrograd on April 16, 1917. Even though he left no trace and was never remembered being a part of the historic event, Stalin can be seen in the doorway behind him.

My favorite painting from the book is below. Why not let "Uncle Joe" and First Deputy Premier Molotov take the kids out for a stroll in the countryside? Lol.

"The Commissar Vanishes" is an incredible collection of images that illustrate better than any text could the surreal horror of one psychopathic leader's complete control of a nation and its people. To bad Stalin didn't have Photoshop. Distorting history nowadays is a lot easier. Alles klar herr kommissar...

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