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December 9, 1997

David King
Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 0805052941; hardcover 192 pages, 1997.

by D.B. Spalding

Truth, it's said, is stranger than fiction. Sometimes the bare truth ... where you can find it ... is frightening. The paranoia that grew like a cancer in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin was notorious. And as George Orwell had dramatized in 1984, those who can control and change public perception can sway public consciousness; those who control how history is remembered, therefore, can control history.

In THE COMMISSAR VANISHES, archivist David King shows us the extent to which Stalin's regime gained control of his country's collective memory by altering the visual records of recent events. Laying original photos alongside the manipulated versions that were later published, King shows clearly how individuals were erased from official history after they'd fallen out of favor, and explains the background for each. As citizens and party officials are denounced, and "liquidated," their images are airbrushed out, or covered with other political figures who've been cut and pasted to new positions. In one creepy image, a boy is leaning out of a supply train, reaching out to someone on the train station platform. The inept "wiping" of some person in the window behind them has left a ghostly spectre, a mystery that makes one wonder, "Who? Why?" Another cheery shot of Stalin holding a little girl hides a fearsome truth: her parents were killed or banished not long after the photo was taken. Later versions show just Stalin holding the little girl, a "beauty and the beast" portrait.

The level of complete control and revision of visual records was astonishing, if somewhat clumsy at times. In one chilling example after another, individuals are removed or covered over. For a photo of Lenin delivering a speech, the crowd wasn't impressive enough, so it was replaced with another background shot of a much larger crowd. The impact of the image is clearly greater, though no longer sincere. A portrayal of Stalin as a man of the people is also fabricated. He is clumsily superimposed over a crowd of workers, an obvious montage; less obvious, though, is that the crowd is itself made up of elements that are repeated, the same faces visible in several places. The picture is a pure fantasy, in more than one way. Images of Stalin with the workers belies the reality that he actually disliked, and distrusted, the common man.

The bulk of this book comes from Mr. King's private collection. He began his interest in 1970, when he found that Leon Trotsky had been almost entirely expunged from all official Soviet archives. As King collected images, he found originals that had been smuggled out of the country. Throughout the book, he provides numerous examples in which Trotsky and others are "disappeared" from the historical record by later revisionists.

What remains beyond the technical intrigues of faces wiped or covered, or even just scribbled over, is the haunting power of the faces themselves. The stories that David King relates in his book support his conclusion that, "So much falsification took place during the Stalin years that it is possible to tell the story of the Soviet era through retouched photographs." Indeed, page after page, he relates tales of loyal (and sometimes despicable) party members and citizens who've been arrested, tortured, and shot ... then erased from history. Finally, one can only wonder just how reliable the State's representation of reality is, and the effect upon its public.

One image of an artist and theater director in his studio is particularly moving; he is posed, elegantly, before a portrait of his wife, a beautiful young actress. King's notes tell us that he was later arrested and eventually shot. While he was in jail, his wife was murdered in their apartment, brutally stabbed; neighbors had heard her screaming, but thought she was only rehearsing for a play. Without the unretouched photo, how could we know of the dignity in their faces?

Though the bright red dust jacket would make this an impressive Christmas gift, the tragic tone proscribes its choice as a perky holiday item. This is a somber look at one of the century's most tragic settings. The lessons one learns from THE COMMISSAR VANISHES can be a dire warning against the continuing power of film, television and interactive media. Today's "spin" is yesterday's "Newspeak." Reader, and viewer, and user,... beware.

D.B. Spalding is an infopreneur and consultant based in Marin County, CA. Many of his articles can be found on the World Wide Web at Email D.B. Spalding at

(C) Copyright 1997 D.B. Spalding.

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