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Sunday, April 19, 2009
Soviet-era trove shows that photos never lie, except when they do
"I have not taken a single step, spoken a single word, written a single line, or had a single thought which I need conceal from the party, the central committee, and you personally . . . I implore you to believe my word of honor. I am shaken to the depths of my being."
Despite being shaken to the depths of his being, Grigori Zinoviev, the old Bolshevik, party member since 1901 and intimate confidant of Lenin who penned that plea to Joseph Stalin (general secretary of the Communist Party) only minutes after being arrested, was not saved.
Chief defendant at the first Moscow Show Trial, Zinoviev was found guilty and executed on Aug. 24, 1936.
Two photographs of Zinoviev — one in profile, the other face-on — show a man bitter and betrayed. If only the Boss knew about this, his expression suggests. In fact, the Boss had ordered his arrest and that of thousands of other loyal party members.
The photographs appear in one of the most remarkable books — perhaps the most remarkable book — on Soviet history I have ever read. I picked up David King's "Red Star Over Russia," published this year by Tate Publishing, at the Tate Modern in London last month. Its 350 pages cover, with stunning photographs, poster and design art, the years from the revolution in 1917 until Stalin's death in 1953. King's explanatory text of the content of the visual materials and their historical background is meticulous and brimming with insight.
Many of the hundreds of photographs in this volume have never been in the public domain before. Among them is a parade of mug shots of defendants at the three Moscow Show Trials, all men who had sacrificed their very souls to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; all of whom were either shot or, if lucky, dispatched to the Gulags in the Siberian Arctic. Many members of their families were tortured, executed or imprisoned as well.
But the artistic, and avant-garde, propaganda of the era reproduced in "Red Star Over Russia" tells a radiant story. It's no wonder so many progressive people outside Russia were duped into believing that here was the new Paradise on Earth.
The Soviet workers and peasants appear content and sated; the enemies of the USSR (capitalists dribbling fat; fascists massacring women and children), are depicted as representatives of a bloodthirsty but dying race.
In fact, first-class arts flourished in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, with the likes of Rodchenko, Popova, Lebedev, Altman and Klutsis creating the angular and imposing style of the Soviet Art Deco movement. (Gustav Klutsis, a Suprematist painter, a Latvian, was arrested in February 1938 and shot with 63 of his compatriots, all artists and intellectuals.)
Even the world-renowned film director Sergei Eisenstein could not escape Stalin's intervention. A full third of his film based on John Reed's account of the revolution, "Ten Days that Shook the World," was excised on the Boss's orders. Even by then — 1927 — no mention of Leon Trotsky, the prime mover and inspiration behind the Red Army, was allowed in public. Lenin's legacy, too, was slowly being manipulated. "Lenin's liberalism is no longer valid," said the Boss, "editing" the film.
The list of people betrayed by Stalin's absolute terror seems endless, from the brilliant theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was tortured and executed (his beautiful actress wife, Zinaida Raikh, was tortured and shot in their Moscow apartment), to the distinguished general Mikhail Tukhachevsky (whose wife, mother, a sister and his brothers were all liquidated) and literally millions of ordinary workers and peasants who were sacrificed in the name of the Supreme Leader. (Even Tukhachevky's two ex-wives and three other sisters were packed off to the Gulag.)
Needless to say, the imposition of such radical terror on the Soviet population greatly weakened those people's will and ability to defend the bastion of world socialism that Stalin had proclaimed his country to be. Soldiers of the Wehrmacht were greeted warmly by many as they swept across the country on their way to Moscow before Stalin turned the tables on the Nazis by abandoning terror and adopting nationalism as the ideology underpinning the war effort. ("The Internationale" was abandoned as the national anthem in March 1944, replaced by one that mentioned the traditional old name for Russia: Rus'.)
When I made my first visit to the USSR in July 1964, I took my place at the front of the queue before the Lenin Mausoleum to see the embalmed body of Stalin's predecessor. Foreigners were allowed to join the long line near the entrance. The country had been de-Stalinized on the surface; but it struck me keenly at the time that this was a nation that had worshipped — and, to a great extent, was still worshipping — its former leaders as gods.
I flashed back in my mind to those moments spent viewing Lenin's body in that dim light when I beheld the 12 amazing photos in King's book of the construction of the mausoleum in 1924.
Elsewhere in that volume, one of the most chilling photos is of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky after he shot himself on April 14, 1930. He is lying on his back on a divan, his mouth agape as if caught in the middle of a yawn, a blotch of blood the size of an apple on his white shirt beside his heart.
There are rare shots here, too, of Stalin's wife, Nadezhda, who also committed suicide; of Soviet Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov and his Nazi counterpoint Joachim von Ribbentrop signing, on Aug. 23, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact that shocked the world; of Soviet soldiers destroying and looting a church. There is even one showing Ho Chi Minh beside Trotsky, on the occasion of the Vietnamese communist leader's first visit to Moscow, for the Fifth Comintern Congress, in 1924.
All in all, it's astonishing to ponder what this nation went through in the 20th century: revolution, civil war and famine to begin with; again horrendous famine in the early '30s and mass terror a few years later; war on a scale surpassing that experienced in any other country; again terror and mass murder until Stalin's death in March, 1953.
"Red Star Over Russia" is a book that records this epic tragedy with immense power. How modern Russia will deal with this legacy of monumental brutality will decide whether it can establish democracy in any one of its acceptable forms.
Trotsky, who himself was eliminated by Stalin, called the Moscow Show Trials "the greatest frameup in history." The photographic record in this book attests to the personal loss that accompanied those trials and all the various other trials Russia underwent in the 20th century.
Let's hope that the Russian people will not be framed forever.