There's an image of a painting on the cover of this book. Josef Stalin is alone in the painting and he's looking at the camera with eyes that can only be described as Stalin eyes. You can tell right away that this person is not someone to be trifled with.

There's also a photograph on the cover of this book. It's immediately apparent that the painting is a reproduction of the photograph. Standing behind and to the left of Stalin in the photograph is Sergei Kirov. Shortly before the photograph was taken, Stalin had appointed Kirov to be the first secretary of the Leningrad branch of the Russian Communist Party. When the painting of Stalin was produced in 1929, there seemed to be no need to include Kirov so he was left out of the painting. Unfortunately for Kirov, he was later murdered on the evening of December 1, 1934. Apparently, his usefulness to the party had come to an end.

There's a second photograph on the cover of this book. It's clearly a version of the first photograph but there's a third person in this photograph. Standing slightly behind and to the left of Kirov is Nikolai Svernik. When the photograph was taken, Shvernik had just vacated Kirov's new post and was the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. For reasons which aren't entirely clear, it was felt that a photograph without Shvernik was needed so he was removed from the picture and the photograph of just Stalin and Kirov was produced. Shvernik held the post of secretary of the Central Committee until Stalin's death in 1953. Apparently, he remained useful.

There's a third photograph on the cover of this book. It is also clearly a version of the other photographs. Nikolai Antipov is standing to the right of Stalin with Kirov and Shvernik standing to Stalin's left. Antipov was a prominent Communist politician in the Leningrad area. His usefulness to the party eventually came to an end and he was thrown in prison. He was shot on August 24, 1941 and it became necessary to remove him from the scene (any scene).

There's a fourth photograph on the back cover of this book. It's yet another version of the same photograph which was discovered too late during the production of the book to be placed on the book's front cover. The same four people as the previous photograph are present plus Nikolai Komarov who is standing to the left of Shvernik. He was shot in 1937.

Although a less than perfect sequence, e.g. Shvernik was removed while still in good standing, the pattern which it suggests is disturbing (to say the least).

This roughly 200 page book by David King deals with the practice of falsifying the photographic record - a central element of the Stalin era. The book is literally filled with examples of how photographs were modified to conform with the ever changing and yet official and always authoritative party line. The process was, in many cases, brutal beyond words and yet, the notion that the current party line was the truth became, if not accepted, then at least integrated into one's outlook on life.

Everyone has heard the line about a picture being worth a thousand words. In the Stalin era, a picture could be worth a human life - possession of an image of a non-person could result in your arrest and/or disappearance. This was a strong motivating factor which led to the defacement of many books and photo albums in private possession, examples of which are shown in the book.

The book is a disconcerting yet fascinating look at the manipulation of history by the Stalin regime. Here are a few examples from the book:

  • There's a photograph on one page of Lenin surrounded by about fifty members of the Executive Committee including Andrei Vyshinsky who was later to become a prosecutor in Stalin's regime. The photograph was taken on October 31, 1922. Over the course of the next two decades, Vyshinsky would have most of the people in the photograph executed.

  • One photograph, taken on April 23, 1934, shows prosecutor-general of the Supreme Soviet, Vyshinsky, surrounded by his 228 staff members. These were the people responsible for prosecuting charges against those accused of being enemies of the state. Vasilli Ulrikh, a trial judge responsible for sentencing thousands to death, is in the photograph (the notion of conflict of interest had no place in this system). By the end of the decade, many of the people in the photograph will have been executed.

  • There's a painting produced in the Stalin era by Mikhail Sokolov showing Lenin's triumphant return to Russia on April 16, 1917. A young Josef Stalin is standing behind Lenin on the train's vestibule. There's only one problem - Stalin wasn't actually there that night.

  • A photograph shows Lenin and Leon Trotsky together in a crowd on November 7, 1919 while celebrating the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In a later version of the same photograph, there's a strange gap next to Lenin. Trotsky made the mistake of trying to stand up to Stalin during the power struggle following Lenin's death. There could only be one result - he became a non-person and a major effort was launched to remove all references to Trotsky. He was killed with an ice pick by a Stalinist in Mexico City in August of 1940.

  • On one page, Stalin is shown holding a bouquet of flowers. There's a six-year old girl named Gelya Markizova on his knee. The girl, Stalin and an onlooker are all smiling and it sure looks like a happy occasion. Her father, Ardan Markizova, would be executed a year later as a Japanese spy. Her mother, Dominica Markizoa, would be murdered mysteriously shortly afterwards. The authorities didn't feel that it was necessary to investigate her murder. As for the photograph itself - it was to be known as "Friend of the Little Children" and was used to boost Stalin's public image (the onlooker doesn't appear in the official version of the photograph).
A truly chilling book.

The Commissar Vanishes / the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin's Russia; by David King; Copyright © 1997 David King; published in Canada by Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd.; ISBN 0-8050-5295-X
(the book is bound to be available elsewhere but my copy was published in Canada)

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