Now you see him—now you don’t. Compare a photo taken in the 1930s of five Communist Party officials in the USSR and you’ll see Avel Enukidze, photographed next to Soviet premier Vyacheslav Molotov and others. But during Josef Stalin’s Great Purge, the onetime member of the Communist party’s highest governing body was deemed an enemy of the state and executed by firing squad.
Then, he disappeared from Soviet photographs, too, his existence blotted out by a retouched suit on another official from the original photo.
Enukidze’s erasure was the product of a real conspiracy to change public perception in the USSR during Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship. Stalin’s commitment to censorship and photo doctoring was so strong that, at the height of the Soviet Union’s international power, he rewrote history using photo alteration. The stakes weren’t just historical: Each erasure meant a swing of Stalin’s loyalties, and most disappeared subjects also disappeared (or were killed) in real life, too.
After consolidating his power in 1929, Stalin declared war on Soviets he considered tainted by their connections to the political movements that had come before him. Beginning in 1934 he wiped out an ever-changing group of political “enemies.” An estimated 750,000 people died during the Great Purge, as it is now known, and more than a million others were banished to remote areas to do hard labor in gulags.
During the purges, many of Stalin’s enemies simply vanished from their homes. Others were executed in public after show trials. And since Stalin knew the value of photographs in both the historical record and his use of mass media to influence the Soviet Union, they often disappeared from photos, too.
Stalin used a large group of photo retouchers to cut his enemies out of supposedly documentary photographs. One such erasure was Nikola Yezhov, a secret police official who oversaw Stalin’s purges. For a while Yezhov worked at Stalin’s right hand, interrogating, falsely accusing and ordering the execution of thousands of Communist Party officials. But in 1938, Yezhov fell from Stalin’s favor after being usurped by one of his own deputies. He was denounced, secretly arrested, tried in a secret court, and executed.
Stalin’s censors then removed Yezhov from the photographic record, including cutting him from a photograph in which he smiled next to his former boss, Stalin, next to a waterway. The photo retouchers removed Yezhov from the photo and inserted new water to cover up the space where Yezhov would have been.
Stalin did the same with scores of party officials who had been photographed next to him at various events. Sometimes, official censors had to retouch photos over and over again as the list of political enemies grew longer. In one photograph, Stalin is shown with a group of three of his deputies. As each deputy fell out his favor, they were snipped out of the photo until only Stalin remained.
It’s thought that Stalin’s obsession with photo doctoring constituted a mini industry in the USSR. Publishers were contacted by Stalin’s minions and told to eliminate the enemy du jour from upcoming photos—and they did. According to design historian Peter King, who uncovered thousands of doctored photos and their original versions, the work was not performed in one location or even through an official ministry.
Rather,” King writes, “photographic manipulation worked very much on an ad hoc basis. Orders were followed, quietly. A word in an editor’s ear or a discreet telephone conversation from a ‘higher authority’ was sufficient to eliminate all further reference—visual or literal—to a victim, no matter how famous she or he had been.”
Sometimes, photo doctoring meant going back to the past to change the historical record, as when Stalin ordered Leon Trotsky, once a leading figure in the Communist Party, eliminated from all photos. After Trotsky was exiled by Stalin for mounting a failed opposition to his leadership, the revolutionary was snipped, airbrushed and covered up in countless photographs. Sometimes, Stalin inserted himself in photos at key moments in history, or had photo technicians make him look taller or more handsome.
Even citizens had to get in on the act. As Stalin’s purges became more and more widespread, civilians who feared being branded as his political enemies began to realize that owning photos of Stalin’s political enemies—even photos in books or magazines—was dangerous. They learned to deface their own materials with scissors or ink. “Such was the atmosphere of fear that families of those arrested and condemned were compelled to destroy even the image of their loved ones in their own personal records,” writes biographer Helen Rappaport.
Stalin’s obsession with image manipulation didn’t stop with photos. As historian Jan Plamper notes, the omnipresent portraits of Stalin that were in every home and business were subject to maniacal oversight. The dictator commissioned an army of painters to create his official portraits, offering some artists massive amounts of money to paint him. Then, the official portrait was reproduced and retouched over and over until it met with Stalin’s liking.
“The amount and detail of documentation on retouching (and the entire reproduction process) is astounding,” writes Plamper. “This reflects a heightened concern to fix upon paper clear responsibilities—and tremendous anxiety, lest something go awry.”
As photo doctoring became more and more common in the USSR’s propaganda effort, it also became a way to evade Stalin’s wrath. Take the famous photo of Soviet soldiers raising their flag over the bombed-out Reichstag during the Battle of Berlin at the end of World War II. This now iconic photo was staged (it was inspired by the flag-raising at Iwo Jima). It was also altered specifically to sidestep Stalin’s anger: The photographer concealed the wrists of the soldiers, which were covered in stolen wristwatches they had looted from German citizens on their way to the Reichstag. Stalin had ordered his soldiers not to loot—so the watches would have caused the soldiers to be disciplined and, perhaps, killed.
Stalin wasn’t the only dictator who loved to doctor photos. Adolf Hitler removed his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, from a photo of him and director Leni Riefenstahl in 1937, though his motivations for doing so are uncertain. Benito Mussolini circulated a famous photograph of himself riding victorious atop a horse—after cropping out the handler holding the horse. And Kim Jong-Un apparently uses Photoshop to make his ears look smaller.
But as Stalin shows, manipulating photos isn’t always about the size of one’s ears. It can be a way of literally erasing today’s political enemies from tomorrow’s picture of history—and making the future as unreliable as a present filled with propaganda and lies.