The Commissar Vanishes: the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin’s Russia By David King: Book review
The Commissar Vanishes is another anthology of images from the David King collection in which he displays original artwork and photographs from the early period following the Russian revolution, against later images where people were edited out and removed in the campaign of political genocide initiated by Stalin.
Unlike Russian Revolutionary Posters, The Commissar Vanishes does not confine itself to discussing only one medium, it is a wide foray into a range of images from all types of photography and art. Secondly in the previously reviewed work, King let the images speak for themselves as it were, providing only a short scintillating introduction along with short footnotes for each image. Thankfully this is a larger book at 192 allowowing King to provide a much larger body of text, a welcome development. The commentary in the back story for each image, and the subsequent developments in the constant re-editing of each images are thought provoking.
The book takes its title from a photo from the celebration of the second anniversary of the October revolution in Red Square Moscow (page 46). In this image, Trotsky and Lenin are standing side by side, it is later retouched to remove Trotsky along with Kamenev and other minor figures in the Bolshevik party that fell out of favour. The original photo published in 1919, the highly edited version later appearing in 1967, 14 years after Stalin’s Death! So much for Kruschev’s secret speech and his call for the period of glastnost and perestroika with the full rehabilitation of the bureaucracies’ victims. This treatment did not apply for Trotsky and the most ardent Left Oppositionists. The falsification of Soviet history via direct orders from the Kremlin continued on long after Stalin’s death.
Next the cover shows a striking example of the ultimate absurdity of this historical revisionism. The original photo shows Stalin and three others “in Leningrad 1926, celebrating the destruction of Zinoviev’s anti-Stalinist opposition”. In subsequent photos one figure disappears at a time, until “Stalin the executioner alone remains”
(page 104). The ‘grey blur’ of the revolution eliminated all rivals and revised history to sit him front and centre in the Bolshevik Party and the history of the Russian Revolution as a whole, in all official records and books he was said to be Lenin’s best disciple.
Stalin and his cohorts were devastatingly characterised in Trotsky’s autobiography My Life as follows:
“the beginning of 1917 found them left to their own resources. The political situation was difficult. Here was there chance to show what they had learned in Lenin’s school and what they could do without Lenin. Let them name one of their number who arrived independently at the position achieved identically by Lenin in Geneva and by me in New York. They cannot name a single one. The Petrograd Pravda, which was edited by Stalin and Kamenev until Lenins arrival, will always remain a document of limited understanding, blindness and opportunism. And yet the mass membership of the party, like the working class as a whole, was moving spontaneously towards the fight for power. There was no other path for either the party or the country.
In the years of reaction, one needed political foresight in order to hold fast to the prospect of a permanent revolution. Probably nothing more than political sense was required to advance the slogan of the fight for power in March, 1917. Not a single one of the present leaders revealed such a foresight or such a sense. Not one of them went beyond the position of the left petty bourgeoise democrat in March 1917. Not one of them stood the test of history.” (1)
And again in Victor Serge’s brilliant novel Midnight in the Century, wherein two exiled Left Oppositionists are again imprisoned in the days leading up to a coming party congress, from prison they are allowed to write appeals for their case, but in the finest traditions set by other Marxists on trial they sought to use the trial as a political exposure of the real criminals, their letters from prison are vehement in their denunciations of Stalin, one prisoner writes from his cell:
“What more would you do. Kona Djugashvili Stalin, the Cain of tomorrow, what more would you do if, like the agent provocateur Avec, you were a mere tool of the bourgeois police scum? You were kicked out of the party in 1907 for pushing it into highway robbery; Mou were an opportunist in 1917, and opportunist in 1923, slapped down by Lenin in his last letter, an opponent of industrialisation until 1926, an apologist for the rich peasantry in 1926, an accomplice of Chiang Kaishek in 1927, responsible for the useless Canton massacre, the harbinger of Fascism in Germany, the organiser of famine, the persecutor of proletarian Leninists…” Ryzhik had written these lines – and many more vehement lines -in his impersonal hand, every letter etched deeply into the grey paper. With each sentence, as he wrote, Ryzhik had leaped to his feet and paced around his cell, gesticulating. Aloud, he harangued the Other: ‘Koba! Koba! You scoundrel! What have you done to the party? What have you done to our iron cohort? You’re as supple as a noose, lying to us at every congress, every politburo meeting, bastard, bastard, bastard…”
Like the fictional Rhyzik quoted above, King has successfully exposed the historical revisionism of the Stalinist bureaucracy by comparing the original images against later revisions, effectively demonstrating how political figures in the Soviet Union, Trotsky above all, were murdered then scrubbed from history. The Commissar Vanishes is another splendid contribution to the study of the Soviet Union. He has done us all a great service in preserving these images, and getting the message out there about what really happened in the degeneration of the first workers state though his many published works and exhibitions.
The Comissar Vanishes: the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin’s Russia
192 pp, 1997
1. Leon Trostky, My Life, pp 259
2. Victor Serge, Midnight in the century , pp 183
Exposing Stalin’s “retouching”