Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2


The Commissar Vanishes

David King
The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia
Canongate, Edinburgh 1997, pp. 192

READERS will know how ‘unpersons’ vanished from Soviet pictures during the Stalin era, and will recall that infamous example where Trotsky and Kamenev became a set of steps up to the podium from which Lenin was speaking. Indeed, a few years ago, a graphics software advert reproduced that picture with a caption which went something like: ‘We could make Trotsky disappear better than Stalin.’ Certainly, there was often something incompetent about the hatchet-men’s scissor-work in Stalin’s time and afterwards. I remember seeing a pamphlet recounting Brezhnev’s wartime career illustrated with a picture of the man not only in which his head was twice as big as it actually was, but you could also see the join under his chin.

The Commissar Vanishes is a striking and chilling insight into the insane proportions of Stalin’s regime. The vivid style that we have come to expect from David King is used to brilliant effect, showing how people who had fallen from grace literally disappeared from official photographs, and the continual purges meant that each revision had to be replaced by a further one, often until only Stalin remained. Moreover, people would mutilate their own copies of books to ensure that ‘unpersons’ did not disgrace their shelves, and thus leave them open to accusations of sympathy towards them.

Oppositionists from the 1920s disappeared from photographs, airbrushed out or cropped. In one example here, Mr and Mrs Trotsky vanish behind two nonentities who have been crudely pasted over them. Later on, it’s Stalin’s cronies who disappear. Yagoda’s fall meant that Dmitri Nalbandyan’s group portrait was revised, with the disgraced secret police chief’s image being replaced by a coat draped over a handrail ‘as if he had neither the time nor the need to take it with him’ (p. 156). It wasn’t just political rivals who went. Some editing jobs were pointless, like the ordinary worker who vanishes from Stalin’s side, or just bizarre, like the telescope pointing at Krupskaya’s head in a family shot by Lenin’s sister Maria, which gradually disappears over three revisions.

Although all governments lie about their activities and try to suppress unpleasant facts, and although much history is written to serve the paymasters, and even in the most open parliamentary democracies much is withheld from the probing historian, let alone the general public, official falsification under Stalinism was peculiarly intense and far-reaching. How did the Soviet regime get into this appalling position? Why did it feel obliged continually to rewrite its history? Although this is not touched on in this book, it’s worth making an analytical aside.

The Bolsheviks took power in October 1917 at the head of a militant working class, with which it had a dynamic and close relationship. However, that relationship soon started to disintegrate as the more militant workers took up posts in the party-state apparatus, and many others returned to the countryside or became disenchanted with the Bolsheviks as conditions deteriorated during the Civil War. Rather than gradually dissolving itself within the working class, as a revolutionary party should do under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the party started to substitute itself for the disintegrated working class, representing it in spirit, as it were. Instead of a dynamic relationship between party and class, the party-state apparatus started to see itself as the incarnation of the interests of the working class, and in its insecure position in the Soviet republic, it then began to see itself as the indispensable core of society.

Although the Bolsheviks looked to this mystical image of the party in order to legitimise their rule, it should not be thought that this was necessarily cynical or even conscious on their part, at least at first. As the 1920s drew on, however, and as the party-state apparatus developed into a discrete social stratum with interests that diverged from those of the working class, the myth of the party took on an increasingly cynical tone as the party’s leadership battled against the sharp criticisms of its revolutionary opponents, and used it as a device to discipline and expel them. Under these conditions, the sense of indispensability became mutated into a quasi-religious sense of infallibility – from having a monopoly over power to having a monopoly over the truth.

The cult of the mystified infallible party reached a peak under Stalin with the transformation of the Soviet bureaucracy into a self-conscious ruling élite. This coincided with the hypertrophied state control that was imposed during the massive industrialisation and collectivisation schemes of the First Five Year Plan. Lacking the coherence that genuine planning or even the market would provide, the Stalinist system was chaotic, with the centre attempting to control all aspects of social life. This proved an impossible task, and rule of the omniscient and infallible centre was necessarily convulsive and subject to sudden and dramatic shifts. Infallibility cannot coexist happily with drastic changes. In a situation in which what was correct yesterday may be totally wrong today, those responsible for the blunders of the past must not only be punished if the myth of infallibility is to survive, but their very presence and their actions must be struck from the record as well, in order to enable the current version to be seen as the only possible historical truth. This, of course, runs into problems as today’s truth may well be tomorrow’s blunders, thus leading to another round of record expunging and new historical truths. And so it goes on.

Faced with the rewriting of history, Trotsky told the Stalinist regime:

‘You can juggle quotations, hide the stenographic reports of your own speeches, forbid the circulation of Lenin’s letters and articles, fabricate yards of dishonestly selected quotations. You can suppress, conceal and burn up historic documents. You can extend your censorship even to photographic and moving-picture records of revolutionary events. All these things Stalin is doing. But the results do not and will not justify his expectations. Only a limited mind like Stalin’s could imagine that these pitiful machinations will make men forget the gigantic events of modern history.’ (The Stalin School of Falsification, p. 69)

Although the re-emergence and discovery of hidden Soviet photographs, documents, etc., occurred in circumstances that Socialists did not particularly desire, at least they are now in the open, as are the ‘pitiful machinations’ of those who usurped and destroyed the Russian Revolution.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011