The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia
by David King
Metropolitan Books, 192 pp., $35.00
Eyewitness to History: The Photographs of Yevgeny Khaldei
with a biographical essay by Alexander Nakhimovsky, by Alice Nakhimovsky
Aperture, 96 pp., $40.00
At one time or another every kid draws a mustache or eyeglasses on a portrait in a history textbook. Men are usually decorated with beads, earrings, fluffy curls, bow-tie lips, a deep, ample décolletage, and, space permitting, a crinoline. Women are provided with a five-day beard, scars, a pirate eyepatch, and a burning cigarette stuck between their teeth. My history book looked more like an illustration of the Venetian carnival than a text. This long-forgotten, thirty-year-old pleasure held nothing insidious: as I see it now, awakening sexual curiosity and awareness of the difference between the sexes drew a thirteen-year-old child into a creative game. It was all dressing up, theater, carnivalizing, the testing of borders, changing social roles.
At that age we have an easygoing attitude toward ourselves: we’re perfectly happy to be photographed with our tongues sticking out or eyes crossed. As we grow older, our relationship to our own image is more often characterized by alarm and suspicion: How fat I look there! Hide that photograph! Eventually some of us turn to direct interference with the past. (Why is this photo cropped? And whose arm is around your shoulders? Oh, that’s an old friend. We had a fight, I got mad and cut him out of the picture.) And at some point in life we realize that certain photographs (our own photos!) could be compromising evidence. We wish they had never existed. And in those shots we allow to exist, we may ask the photographer to remove the bags beneath our eyes and the shadow under our noses.
All this is the harmless mischief of private life. Who are we, after all? Just people. But what if we were tyrants with limitless power?
David King’s album of photographs opens with a large, three-quarter color portrait of Stalin by the artist Andreyev in 1922, that is, while Lenin was still alive. This very realistic portrait is at once strangely competent and inept: the artist seems to have trouble with the contours, part of the forehead seems dead, the hair glued on, the proportion of the head is wrong. But the skin, the wrinkles, the heavy Caucasus beard, which seems literally to crawl across the face like a shadow and thicken into blackness at the nose, are ably drawn. There’s no sense of flattery in the portrait, other than perhaps a bit of politeness vis-à-vis the bosses.
Here Stalin looks older than his forty-two years. He’s not yet in power, but in the expression of his eyes and mouth you can read hidden expectations and caution. Did the future dictator like this portrait? The reproduction has preserved the surprising comments of the “marvelous Georgian” (as Lenin called Stalin): “This ear speaks of the artist’s discomfort with anatomy.” And again: “The ear cries out, shouts against anatomy.” And the ear itself (an ordinary, unremarkable ear) is marked by a fat red cross!
This extraordinary illustration, strategically placed at the very beginning of the album, sets …