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The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia Hardcover – October 15, 1997

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1 edition (October 15, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805052941
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805052947
  • Product Dimensions: 11.8 x 10.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #344,789 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

In Stalinist Russia, it was commonplace for Soviet history to be rewritten with inconvenient participants removed--often men or women who had aided the Communist Revolution in the early days and then had somehow fallen afoul of Stalin himself. In The Commissar Vanishes, English art historian David King assembles an impressive body of photographs and artwork that shows the process whereby a hero could overnight be made into villain. "The physical eradication of Stalin's political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence," King rightly notes: in one noteworthy sequence reproduced on the cover, a photograph of Stalin with three revolutionary leaders is airbrushed and cropped and clipped until, one by one, those leaders disappear and only Stalin is left--conveying the message that Stalin carried the Russian Revolution by himself. Another photograph from the 1920s depicts a meeting of dozens of trade-union and Bolshevik leaders; by the late 1930s, all but a handful of them had been murdered at Stalin's orders. King's work restores some of these men and women to history and illustrates the essential inhumanity of totalitarian thought.

From Kirkus Reviews

The doctoring of photographs didn't begin with the advent of computers in magazine production departments. ``So much falsification took place during the Stalin years that it is possible to tell the story of the Soviet era through retouched photographs,'' writes King. For Joseph Stalin, photo retouching was a technique for controlling public perception and memory. People who vanished in real life--whether banished to the farthest reaches of the Soviet Union or eliminated by the secret police--vanished as well from photos, and even paintings. In many cases they were airbrushed out completely, in others their faces were clumsily blacked out with ink. This creepy visual rewriting of history is documented here by King, who has been collecting such revised images since 1970, when he found Leon Trotsky completely expunged from official Soviet archives. Placing original photos alongside the altered ones, King also explains in lengthy captions who has vanished and why. A disturbing testament to the destruction wrought when a megalomaniac becomes a dictator. (History Book Club selection) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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See all 20 customer reviews
The author has done a tremendous job.
Makes it easier to understand the secret of a successful dictatorship - eliminate all potential rivals before they even realize who they are.
M. Livshutz
It was part of "a systematic falsification of history". "Everything contrary to Stalin's cult was criminalized or expunged from history."
R. M. Peterson

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By The Sanity Inspector on August 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"We can always find another widow for Lenin." So threatened Stalin to Lenin's real widow Krupskaya, whom he hated. So absolute was the Communist Party's hold on all aspects of public life in Russia in Stalin's reign, that famous people, who had been praised to the skies just the week before, could be utterly effaced from the public's mind through sheer terror. Once someone fell from favor with the dictator, his name and picture were erased from the public record--even books critical of the person could be proscribed--and to even mention his name might mean prison or worse. This book is the author's attempt to trace the trail of falsification through Stalin-era photos and artworks.
It is a testament to the censor's thoroughness that the trail is quite incomplete. In many cases, the author hasn't been able to find even the name of the extirpated individual in the before-and-after photos. Some of the examples given here were taken from the folio albums of the Soviet photographer Rodchenko. After the bureaucrats he had photographed were arrested and shot, he went to work inking and scissoring out his own work, the images of the new non-persons.
The heroic photomontages, with the jut-jawed Bolsheviks vanguarding the masses, are appalling when you think of how many would later be arrested, tortured into accusing themselves of the most heinous, yet baseless, crimes, and then shot. The damned were airbrushed out of the picture, replaced with a stripped-in comrade, or a painted-in pillar or staircase, sometimes leaving a shoe or elbow that the retoucher missed. The Western mind shudders at the slavish worship that Stalin had at his command, to cause such colossal lies to be perpetuated. Read this big, lavishly illustrated book, and get the real picture.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By John C. on June 10, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A true gem of a book, dealing with a subject that is much overlooked. As the inspiration for Orwell's 1984 revising history, it is a chilling look at early Soviet attempts to rewrite history by erasing people from photos. Watching a photo of 5 men dwindle down to a picture of one as the others are disgraced, imprisoned, killed and then erased is just mindblowing!
Whether you are a fan of Soviet history (i'm not) or not, the cold war touched us all and this book documents it in the entirety
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By H. J. Wakenshaw on June 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I was very lucky to see the collaboration between composer Michael Nyman (of 'The Piano') and David King this year in a sort of son et lumière of Nyman's music and King's images. King only used a mere handful (10 at most) of pictures from "The Commissar Vanishes" for the concert, and on the strength of those, I bought the book.
For the show, King used only photographs which had been defaced - those faces eerily blacked out with india ink, faces cut from group portraits leaving unsettling holes. I had little idea that the book would include so much more fascinating evidence of the way in which Stalin changed history by retouching and manipulating images to suit his own highly manipulated image.
Particularly haunting are those pictures in which one person after another is removed, the image subjected to so much cutting and airbrushing that what is left is a painting rather than a photograph. Or the gradual morphing of an image of Stalin and Lenin together to produce rather odd paintings and statues where Stalin goes from being Lenin's bosom buddy to some sort of powerful giant, towering over the weak and submissive Lenin. None of which ever happened - even the original image of the two leaders sitting together was clearly fabricated.
There are lots of chances to play an absorbing version 'Spot the Difference' with pictures that have had objects like buildings, groups of people, litter and banners moved, removed, changed, or replaced altogther, usually by something far less politically threatening.
Not only is "The Commissar Vanishes' fascinating, it is also very well put together; the images, which are stories in themselves, are acccompanied by well written text which is arresting in its simplicity.
This is one of the best books I've read in the last year; a book of great quality, and perfect for those interested in communism, dystopias or the media.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Bucherwurm on April 23, 1998
Format: Hardcover
As a serious photographer I purchased this book because of an interest in photographic manipulation. After reading a few pages, however, I was caught up in the history of the Russian revolution, and Stalin's attempt to manipulate that history. The book is so interesting that I wasn't the least disappointed that the techniques used in altering the pictures weren't discussed. Suffice it to say in that regard that Stalin's photographic retouchers were quite primitive.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 2, 1998
Format: Paperback
There is a secret inside this book. Inside is a collage showing about 200 people. These people were instrumental in getting Russia's October Revolution off the ground. Stalin is not one of these people. Therefore, to maintain the myth that Stalin and Lenin were the "Two Leaders" of the Revolution, Stalin had to kill off three quarters of the people on the collage because they "knew too much." And the great purges are what the rest of the book is about.
Stalin, more than anyone else in history, has altered the past to serve the present. His censors have visibly altered old photographs in order to remove the latest denounced "traitor to the working class" (or whatever) from old group photographs. With the old Soviet archives now open to the public and ex-Soviet citizens now free to view the unaltered archives in the West, we can see today how extensive this process was.
Trotsky, his chief opponent, was systematically removed from thousands of photographs -- those where he stood next to Lenin. With Trotsky gone, the 'Trotskyists' (however Commrade Stalin defined them) were next. The group photos had to be cropped in order to cover up the dwindling number of Revolutionary heroes. The comparison between the 'before' and 'after' pictures is chilling reminder of the immense suffering that Stalin caused to people who were as dedicated to the same ideals as he was -- but not as ruthless.
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