Stalinist visual censorship was crude and mundane, often sinister, and sometimes baffling. That much is apparent in an exhibition now showing at the Gulag History Museum in Moscow. Based on a book by David King, a collector of Soviet art and photographs, The Commissar Vanishes chronicles the falsification of photographs during the rule of the Soviet dictator.
Stalin purged thousands, his victims exiled, imprisoned, or murdered in basement chambers of the secret police. Many had once been part of the Soviet power structure. They were Stalin’s political allies, henchmen, and generals who fell from favour because of Stalin’s capricious paranoia, and because of seemingly arbitrary crimes such as contact with the West. For such men and women, death or disappearance was not sufficient. They had to be removed from the historical record.
The museum’s exhibit contains a photo from the July 1945 Potsdam Conference at which the leaders of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union met to plot to future of post-war Europe. Included in the original photo are Nikolay Kuznetsov, admiral of the Soviet fleet during the war, and Ivan Maisky, former Soviet ambassador to Britain. Both fell under Stalin’s suspicion and their presence at Potsdam was consequently eliminated from the photo.
A photograph of soldiers demonstrating during the 1917 February Revolution is clumsily doctored so a shop sign behind them advertising gold and silver watches instead urges a “Struggle for Your Rights.” The new photo was made into a postcard and reproduced by the thousands. In another shot, an unidentified bearded man is removed from an image of the “First All-Russian Congress of Working Cossacks” in 1920. It’s not clear why or what offence he might have committed.
Most unnerving are photos from a book titled “Ten Years of Uzbekistan,” produced by the Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko in 1934. It contains portraits of Uzbek leaders who were subsequently purged. Copies of the book were tracked down and photos of the offenders obscured with rough splotches of black ink. David King eventually found an original, untouched, book in Berlin, revealing the faces of victims once deemed unfit even to be seen.
That the Gulag History Museum is hosting the exhibit is something of a victory for the vanished. The museum is a small and modest place, tucked behind glitzy high-end shops not far from Red Square and Lenin’s embalmed corpse. There is a gap between the shops through to a courtyard and a second door ringed with barbed wire. It’s easy to miss. But at least it’s there. Admission is free to “victims of political repressions.”