Long Before Photoshop, the Soviets Mastered the Art of Erasing People from Photographs — and History Too

Adobe Pho­to­shop, the world’s best-known piece of image-edit­ing soft­ware, has long since tran­si­tioned from noun to verb: “to Pho­to­shop” has come to mean some­thing like “to alter a pho­to­graph, often with intent to mis­lead or deceive.” But in that usage, Pho­to­shop­ping did­n’t begin with Pho­to­shop, and indeed the ear­ly mas­ters of Pho­to­shop­ping did it well before any­one had even dreamed of the per­son­al com­put­er, let alone a means to manip­u­late images on one. In Amer­i­ca, the best of them worked for the movies; in Sovi­et Rus­sia they worked for a dif­fer­ent kind of pro­pa­gan­da machine known as the State, not just pro­duc­ing offi­cial pho­tos but going back to pre­vi­ous offi­cial pho­tos and chang­ing them to reflect the regime’s ever-shift­ing set of pre­ferred alter­na­tive facts.

“Like their coun­ter­parts in Hol­ly­wood, pho­to­graph­ic retouch­ers in Sovi­et Rus­sia spent long hours smooth­ing out the blem­ish­es of imper­fect com­plex­ions, help­ing the cam­era to fal­si­fy real­i­ty,” writes David King in the intro­duc­tion to his book The Com­mis­sar Van­ish­es: The Fal­si­fi­ca­tion of Pho­tographs and Art in Stal­in’s Rus­sia. “Stal­in’s pock­marked face, in par­tic­u­lar, demand­ed excep­tion­al skills with the air­brush. But it was dur­ing the Great Purges, which raged in the late 1930s, that a new form of fal­si­fi­ca­tion emerged. 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.”

Using tools that now seem impos­si­bly prim­i­tive, Sovi­et pro­to-Pho­to­shop­pers made “once-famous per­son­al­i­ties van­ish” and craft­ed pho­tographs rep­re­sent­ing Stal­in “as the only true friend, com­rade, and suc­ces­sor to Lenin, the leader of the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion and founder of the USSR.”

This qua­si-arti­sanal work, “one of the more enjoy­able tasks for the art depart­ment of pub­lish­ing hous­es dur­ing those times,” demand­ed seri­ous dex­ter­i­ty with the scalpel, glue, paint, and air­brush. (Some exam­ples, as you can see in this five-page gallery of images from The Com­mis­sar Van­ish­es, evi­denced more dex­ter­i­ty than oth­ers.) In this man­ner, Stal­in could order writ­ten out of his­to­ry such com­rades he ulti­mate­ly deemed dis­loy­al (and who usu­al­ly wound up exe­cut­ed as) as Naval Com­mis­sar Niko­lai Yezhov, infa­mous­ly made to dis­ap­pear from Stal­in’s side on a pho­to tak­en along­side the Moscow Canal, or Peo­ple’s Com­mis­sar for Posts and Telegraphs Niko­lai Antipov, com­man­der of the Leningrad par­ty Sergei Kirov, and Chair­man of the Pre­sid­i­um of the Supreme Sovi­et Niko­lai Shvernik — pic­tured, and removed one by one, just above.

This prac­tice even extend­ed to the mate­ri­als of the Sovi­et space pro­gram, writes Wired’s James Oberg. Cos­mo­nauts tem­porar­i­ly erased from his­to­ry include Valentin Bon­darenko, who died in a fire dur­ing a train­ing exer­cise, and the espe­cial­ly promis­ing Grig­oriy Nelyubov (pic­tured, and then not pic­tured, at the top of the post), who “had been expelled from the pro­gram for mis­be­hav­ior and lat­er killed him­self.” Yuri Gagarin, the cos­mo­naut who made his­to­ry as the first human in out­er space, did not, of course, get erased by the proud author­i­ties, but even his pho­tos, like the one just above where he shakes hands with the Sovi­et space pro­gram’s top-secret leader Sergey Koroly­ov, went under the knife for cos­met­ic rea­sons, here the removal of the evi­dent­ly dis­tract­ing work­man in the back­ground — hard­ly a major his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, let alone a con­tro­ver­sial one, but still a real and maybe even liv­ing reminder that while the cam­era may lie, it can’t hold its tongue for­ev­er.

h/t @JackFeerick

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Joseph Stal­in, a Life­long Edi­tor, Wield­ed a Big, Blue, Dan­ger­ous Pen­cil

Leon Trot­sky: Love, Death and Exile in Mex­i­co

Watch the Sur­re­al­ist Glass Har­mon­i­ca, the Only Ani­mat­ed Film Ever Banned by Sovi­et Cen­sors (1968)

Sovi­et Union Cre­ates a List of 38 Dan­ger­ous Rock Bands: Kiss, Pink Floyd, Talk­ing Heads, Vil­lage Peo­ple & More (1985)

Russ­ian His­to­ry & Lit­er­a­ture Come to Life in Won­der­ful­ly Col­orized Por­traits: See Pho­tos of Tol­stoy, Chekhov, the Romanovs & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (11)
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  • mr. Lasse says:

    Good thing they did­n’t have to erase the astro­naut from the image. That would have looked pret­ty awk­ward.

  • Justin says:

    Well, the for­mer sure­ly. If peo­ple want to read about peo­ple who had stat­ues, they can hit the inter­net or go to a library. With his­tor­i­cal records; once they’re gone, they’re gone.

  • Jay K. says:

    Here today gone tomor­row.

  • Glen says:

    Those first two pho­tographs look more like peo­ple were added to the orig­i­nals rather than removed.

    And then some­body claimed that peo­ple were removed from the orig­i­nals.

  • Juan says:

    i think its cool that they could do those things back in those days.

  • Allan Murphy says:

    Mao learned this tech­nique from the USSR.

  • Terry Walsh says:

    But the Hol­ly­wood film indus­try has been doing this since the 1920s!

    The last exam­ple above is a bit des­per­ate, I think — they’re sim­ply pro­duc­ing a bet­ter pho­to.

  • W says:

    The Hol­ly­wood film indus­try did this for enter­tain­ment pur­pos­es, not to erase peo­ple from the his­tor­i­cal record like the Sovi­ets did.

  • Wellington says:

    Well, in Stal­in’s “pho­tos”, both at the right are a car­bon draw­ing (up) and a paint­ing (down)… you can even see the artist’s sig­na­ture in the right-infe­ri­or cor­ner!

    You peo­ple don’t observe, but just look at things,
    and by it, also you say or think any­thing they put in front of you.

  • David Lloyd-Jones says:

    There is, of course, noth­ing “insid­i­ous” about remov­ing pro­pa­gan­da stat­ues set up dur­ing a peri­od of racist activism — after through pub­lic debate about the ques­tion. This is a mat­ter of a.) cor­rect­ing a pub­lic record and b.) dis­al­low­ing glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of trai­tors.

    insid­i­ous adjec­tive
    (for­mal, dis­ap­prov­ing)
    ​spread­ing grad­u­al­ly or with­out being noticed, but caus­ing seri­ous harm
    the insid­i­ous effects of pol­lut­ed water sup­plies
    Oxford Col­lo­ca­tions Dic­tio­nary

  • lee gume says:

    I think you mean ‘inte­ri­or’ cor­ner — you missed that while observ­ing about your obser­va­tion­al supe­ri­or­i­ty. When noth­ing is true, any­thing is pos­si­ble.

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