When Lavrentiy Beria, the former head of Stalin's secret police, was executed following a secret trial ordered by Khrushchev, his fawning entry and full-page portrait in the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia had to be swiftly expunged. Thus subscribers to the publication were sent four replacement pages with photographs and extra information about the closest existing entry, on the Bering Sea.
|Left: Beria. Right: Bering.|
This minor episode is almost a post-script in The Commissar Vanishes, the book by British photo-historian David King on the systematic falsification of the photographic and artistic record under Stalin, yet it is particularly telling: firstly, in that it occurred after the death of the tyrant, thus representing a continuity in a two-decade history of revision; but even more so because of how this revision can be seen to operate. That is to say, not centrally, through a dedicated office and a staff of ruthless trained operatives, but rather by relying on the readers themselves, owners of a book suddenly found to contain an impolitic truth, to act as censors. It was up to them to take the new insert and 'update' the encyclopaedia.
King has more disquieting examples to offer, from a darker era. Upon visiting the family of the great photographer and designer Alexander Rodchenko, he comes upon his personal copy of Ten Years in Uzbekistan, a book commissioned to him by Stalin in 1934 featuring the portraits of local revolutionary heroes. But the copy is crudely vandalised, the faces of since-disgraced individuals blackened with China ink by – presumably – Rodchenko himself. It is the kind of fealty that Stalinism asked of its subjects: a disciplined willingness to forget and rewrite history on command. For you wouldn’t want to be found in possession of an intact copy.
King's book, originally published in 1997 and re-issued last year following the expansion of the author's archive with new contributions by its readers, is a morbidly fascinating and chilling document, each deletion, whether by ink or scissors, hinting at the gruesome fate of the disappeared: exile or, more likely, summary execution. In a minority of cases, such as Beria's, it's hard to feel sorry for the victim of this machinery for destroying lives in the past as well as present tense. Nikolai Yezhov is another such example. He, who was a vital cog in that machine, the chief butcher of the Great Purges after whom the term Yezhovshchina – shorthand for the terror – was coined, and who ultimately suffered a fate that barely rates as ironic: first killed, then erased, or possibly both at the same time. Stalin's friend and henchman no more.
Of the examples collected by King, the ones involving artful removals or insertions may speak to the contemporary reader more than the rough, heavy-handed blackening or cutting out of faces. Absent the privileged access to the original of the historian or archivist, we could easily fall for these images. The techniques, since refined, are familiar, and are used routinely by amateur photographers and professional artists alike. We all know how easy it is to do this, yet it's so hard to disbelieve in the evidence of our eyes.
This photograph appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times of March 31, 2003. It shows ‘a British soldier directing Iraqi civilians to take cover from Iraqi fire on the outskirts of Basra’ and was taken by Brian Walski. It is also a fake, and it may have gone unnoticed had not a keen reader spotted that some of the figures in the background appear twice. Quizzed by the Times editors, Walski admitted to have combined the image from two separate shots, in order to ‘improve the composition’ (which led to his firing). These are the source images.
The resulting fake, far from being merely more pleasantly composed, portrays the soldier in a much less threatening pose relative to the man carrying the child, thus substantially altering the meaning of the photograph. We are poles apart from the malevolence of Stalin-era manipulations, obviously, but a degree of unease is justified, along with the sense that the always uncertain status of the photographic real (for falsification is as old as the medium) is becoming ever more ambiguous and difficult to uphold.
A recent feature introduced by Google to the photo archives of its users, and that I hinted at not long ago here, automates the precise kind of montage work carried out by Wolski by taking the best features of two or more shots in order to produce an ideal image that, while plausible and possibly ‘as good as real’ – at this stage we’re talking about nothing more sinister than picking your best smile or the shot in which you had your eyes open – will capture a moment that never existed in time.
Possibly closer to Stalin’s heart is a software under development by the Max Planck institute aiming to enable users to automatically delete people from videos. All these connections are tempting to make, but the lesson of history is another: no matter how advanced the technical means of altering the public record become, our realities are socially constructed. That’s what makes so poignant the cases of Beria and the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, of Rodchenko and his China ink, and of the innumerable Soviet citizens who defaced their books and photo albums with razor blades and scissors. Always the act of falsifying the collective past requires the participation of the many, whether willing or extorted through fear. That is why those images, those acts requiring the least technology, are the most unsettling. This may yet be how we are asked to be forgotten.
David King. The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia. London: Tate Publishing, 2014.