1. V. I. Lenin
The man at center is Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the founder of the Russian communist party known as the Bolshevik’s, who came to power in 1917. Here Lenin stands in Red Square on November 7, 1919 celebrating the second anniversary of his Bolshevik party taking control of the nation.
He has his hand over his heart, and many in the photo are saluting, suggesting some sort of anthem is being played. Lenin looks a little lonely and isolated on the stairs, though it seems he has a grin on his face like he’s sharing the moment with someone important. But who and where is he?
2. Leon Trotsky
The man to Lenin’s left (who has been erased from the photograph) is his right-hand man, Leon Trotsky. While Lenin was the founder of the party and the nation’s leader, Trotsky was no less important in the success of the Bolshevik’s revolution. He was instrumental in the communist consolidation of power, and at the time of this photo was Commissar of War in the new regime.
So why was he eliminated from this photography if he was so important? The answer is he made enemies with the next leader of Russia, a man who was also heavily involved in the revolution and shaped Russian history for almost half a century. His name was Josef Stalin.
3. Josef Stalin
No, that’s not an altered image of the young revolutionary: Josef Stalin was really that good looking. But the second leader of communist Russia had a very ugly side that started at an early age.
He was both a criminal and a revolutionary (often a thin line) and took the name of “Stalin” because it means “man of steal.” Stalin saw Trotsky as a threat to his efforts to build Russia according to his vision, and tried to have him eliminated — not only from the face of the planet but from the pages of history as well.
4. “A single death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.” – Josef Stalin
Things rarely went well for rivals of Stalin, and his paranoia combined with a brutal leadership style resulted in the deaths of millions of Russians. The birth of communist nations are typically accompanied by great purges (also in large part due to moving into a one party political system).
While plenty died in fighting during the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin was responsible for the murder of countless innocent civilians. The quote from him above was made during his efforts to collectivize Russian farming under Soviet control, and certainly speaks to lengths he was willing to go.
5. Borisovich Kamenev
Here we see Lenin giving one of his fiery speeches to an impassioned crowd in front of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1920. To his lower left, we can see the familiar figure of Leon Trotsky looking back at us, and behind him is his brother-in-law Lev Borisovich Kamenev.
Both men were a part of the original Politburo, which was the seven member council formed under the leadership of Lenin. Kamenev was actually the first leader under the Bolshevik regime and then later helped lead the nation when Lenin’s health began to decline. Another member of the original Politburo (and the leader after Lenin was Josef Stalin) who was responsible for having this photograph altered.
6. The Great Purge
This photograph truly shows off the skill of those within the party who altered the images. They employed the use of a razor to cut out the undesirable people (Trotsky and Kamenev). Then, they used a piece from another photograph to glue over it. Some ink or paint were used to make the lines seamless.
Both men met with violent ends at the hands of Stalin’s terror. Trotsky was banished from Russia and later killed with an ice axe in Mexico City by a Russian agent in August 1940. Kamenev was arrested and endured a show trial before being executed by the Russian state in 1936 during the Great Purge.
7. The Great Terror
The Great Purges of 1936 to 1938, or the Great Terror (as it is also known) resulted in the elmination of all the members of the original Politburo (though Lenin had already passed) except for Stalin. Historians argue the reasoning behind them, but the results are not disputed.
Estimates say that as many as 750,000 soldiers and civilians were casualties of Stalin’s efforts to rid himself of his rivals, institute the nationwide collectivization of farming, and the government takeover of the entire Russian economy. It was learned rather quickly that not aligning with Stalin was a bad idea and that helped get everyone on board. Citizens were encouraged to spy on one another and he vastly increased the power of the secret police.
8. The Dwarf
The man Stalin leaned on the most to inflict his terror on the Soviet Union was the head of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhov. Nicknamed “Dwarf” for obvious reasons, his reign as head of Stalin’s NKVD was during the height of the Great Purge. Don’t feel bad for his lack of height: “Dwarf” was an absolute monster.
Millions of people were either executed or sent to prison during his reign as he rose to power within the central Soviet government. But meteoric rises in Stalin’s regime usually turned into meteoric crashes. Stalin soon became suspicious of “Dwarf” and had him arrested in early 1939. The next year he was sentenced to death after going through a show trial — a process he was largely responsible for creating.
9. Door attendant
“Dwarf” ended up doing something that probably happened to a lot of people: He turned on all his friends and family to try and get out of his ultimate fate. It didn’t work for him, and hundreds of people he held closest were also purged. It seems that Stalin was aware that ideas are more powerful than people, and when someone had to go, all records went along with them.
Take this picture for example. Who is this man that was removed? Sources say he was just the door attendant as the photograph shows Stalin exiting a party conference. Perhaps people remember who he is, but for whatever reason he’s been erased from the pages of history.
Notice the difference between these two photographs? This side by side comparison is more reminiscent of your morning paper than actual history. The photograph at left is the original photo of Russian revolutionaries in Petrograd in February 1917, and the one at right is the same, except the wording on the sign behind the crowd, and the flags being held up are altered.
The shop behind the crowd is a jewelry store, and instead of it saying “Watch: Gold and Silver,” it’s been altered to “In the fight you will gain power.” The flag was also altered to say, “Down with the monarchy! Long live the republic!” It was later turned into a postcard.
11. Stalin & Lenin
It has been argued that the photograph at the top left is a fake, showing Lenin in ailing health. It suggests he’s passing the proverbial torch to Stalin. That’s how Stalin used this photo after Lenin died, to make it look as though he was the Soviet Union’s natural choice as the next leader.
But Lenin didn’t want this, and wrote at length about the dangers of making Stalin head of state. Stalin then immortalized the moment (whether it happened or not) in 1938 by creating the statue at the top right. He took it further by commissioning the statue shown at the bottom left, where he towers over Lenin and appears more powerful than the founder of his government.
12. Old Bolsheviks
The old Bolsheviks, one by one, were removed from photographs, until all that remained was Stalin himself. Painting in galleries were taken down that depicted Lenin with the old guard. Thus, the story began to evolve over time as to who was responsible for the strength of the Soviet state.
Stalin’s life was depicted in all kinds of mediums that vastly exaggerated facts about the man’s life. His name became part of the Soviet national anthem and several works of art, literature, and music celebrated his life. Not only that, but Stalin and his regime had complete control over the press.
13. The last days of Lenin
Stalin may have been able to erase the memory of some of the Bolsheviks founding members, and diminish the role of Lenin, but he was unable to rid the books of Lenin altogether. Lenin was a tireless leader and effectively worked himself to death. Toward the end he feared his government was plagued by incompetence and worried the system he set up was crumbling.
In January 1923 he wrote, “I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from [the Secretary-General] post and appointing another man in his stead.” His suggestion didn’t turn into action, and against his wishes, Stalin took over. Lenin died on January 24, 1924 after succumbing to a series of strokes.
14. Normal citizens
This photograph is so obviously altered, it looks like a five year old with a pen got a hold of the family photo album. The job of eliminating enemies of the state from photographs went well beyond government officials and propagandists.
Stalin encouraged everyone, including normal citizens, to commit to the same degree of revision. Books in libraries and photographs in books at home, or just in picture frames were to be altered. Not only that, but Stalin insisted that the people removed or blacked out were to never be spoken of again.
15. Busy work
Some of the measures to erase people don’t make a lot less sense. The picture at left shows Lenin playing a game of chess against a favorite opponent of his, Alexander Bogdanov. Behind them is Zinovii Peshkov, a French General that really has no reason for being dismissed from the photograph.
According to sources, no historical data exists as to why it was done, and what does remain leaves historians scratching their heads. The photo to the right is the original, then it was altered to not include him, and then redone another time to make him reappear.
Either Stalin’s grip on his authority or his ego got bigger as his rule of the Soviet Union continued. The more likely scenario is that it was both, as WWII and the subsequent land grab of Eastern Europe put him beyond the reach of dissenters.
It’s interesting that he allowed the publication of the 1925 photograph at left in his biography in 1939, and then had most of the men in the photo omitted by the time his 1949 biography came out. One of the men in the photo even died of natural causes and wasn’t an “enemy of the state.” Perhaps this was just part of Stalin’s effort to make it look like he had a bigger role, by mathematically increasing his share of the glory.
17. Socialism in One Country
This photograph was taken in Leningrad in 1926 after Stalin successfully maneuvered Grigory Zinoviev out of the Politburo. After Lenin died, there were two factions siding against each other for the ultimate control of the country. Trotsky led the United Opposition along with Kamenev and Zinoviev, which railed against Stalin’s Socialism in One Country idea.
In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx laid out the global struggle that was communism, and this captured the imagination of the United Opposition. But Stalin watched as every single communist revolution in the early 20th century Europe failed with the lone exception of Russia. He felt the direction that communism needed to take was to make Russia a strong industrialized nation: A pillar for the socialists of the world to lean on.
18. The process of elimination
The people in the photograph below originally served to show the moment that Stalin’s Socialism in One Country idea came to fruition. Zinovieve, Kamenev, and Trotsky were expelled from the communist party, and then Zinoveive and Kamenev begged for forgiveness. The tactic didn’t work — they both became victims of the purge.
Likewise for Nicolay Komarov (not pictured at the far right), and Nikolai Antipov (first photo far left) who was the prime minster’s secretary until Stalin had him arrested and shot in August 1941. Nikolai Shvernik (second photo far right) was a faithful servant of the Soviet nation and actually outlived Stalin, but still was eliminated from the photo. The final man was Sergei Kirov, who historians believe was shot by NKVD agents in 1934. By the time his biography was published in 1949, Stalin was the only one pictured.
19. Vyacheslav Molotov
20. Abel Yenukidze
Molotov maybe smiling in this photograph, but the man not seated to his left doesn’t even have a face to put a smile on. This 1935 reprint excludes Abel Yenukidze who was responsible for writing and printing much of Lenin’s propaganda in the years leading up to the revolution.
This effort ultimately led to him falling out of favor with Stalin, who wanted his own name to be attached to these printing efforts. So, in true Stalin fashion, he had Yenukidze arrested in 1935. Over the next two years he endured a show trial that tarnished his name and met his end with a bullet.
21. India ink
It might look comical to us that someone would even keep this photograph, but the evidence of people erased from history was everywhere in Stalin’s Soviet Union. In a book titled The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, is a fictional account of a “retoucher” based on the actual people who did the work.
Marra writes, “For these, obliteration by India ink was the answer. A gentle tip of the jar, a few squeezes of the eyedropper, and the disgraced face drowned beneath a glinting black pool.
22. Personal responsibility
Even thought the Soviet state hired censors, it was the personal responsibility of every citizen to participate in the blotting out of faces in photographs. If ones face was blotted out, that didn’t necessarily mean they were killed. The Gulag offered a sentence worse than death to everyone from criminals to political rivals.
The Gulag was a system of prisons usually located in remote outposts such as Siberia, and they were camps that instituted heavy doses of forced labor. The Gulag was a nightmare to the Soviet people that lived in the facets of their deepest fears. It was illegal to circulate images, film, or photographs of the Gulag, leaving its perils to the imagination of citizens.
23. The Gulag
The vast expansion of the Gulag was performed under the monstrous watch of Lavrenty Beria. Beria was an intelligence officer and instrumental in operations on the Eastern front during WWII. He became head of the NKVD in 1938 succeeding “Dwarf.”
He stayed at this post until Stalin’s death, but amassed a despicable human rights record before then. Sources say he personally carried out heinous acts on innocent Soviet citizens. It’s even rumored that he takes credit for Stalin’s death, saying that he poisoned him. Like his predecessor at the NKVD, Beria was met with a bullet after a show trial.
By the time Stalin was late into his tenure as the leader of the Soviet Union, there was little left of what Lenin built. The photograph at the bottom is just a picture of a crowd likely assembled for a party gathering.
The top photo was originally of Lenin addressing a much smaller crowd in Palace Square in Petrograd on July 19, 1920. It’s a very rudimentary cut and paste job, but effective nonetheless. It was touched up and re-released in February 1924 — not even a month after his death. As time went on, retouchers got much better at the their methods. This photo also appears to have a nice Valencia filter applied, and got over 1 billion likes — more than 5 times the population of the Soviet Union at the time! (We digress…)
25. Pretty no more
Stalin may have had a pretty face when he was a young man, but years at the top aged him and placed inevitable crows feet beyond his eyes. While Photoshop was a half century away from being created, airbrushing had been around since the mid 1870s. So, was Stalin really concerned about how he looked?
The answer is likely “yes,” as leaders for centuries (and today) constantly release photographs and images that reveal a vital figure in place of the aging man. That’s important when someone has as many rivals as Stalin, as enemies will seize upon any weakness to gain an advantage (Beria didn’t hesitate).
26. The Sochi Six
The Sochi Six are the Russian equivalent of the Mercury 7. While many will remember Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space (April 12, 1961) many will forget Grigori Nelyubov was chosen as his second backup. Nelyubov may have been a talented pilot, but he was also a decided alcoholic.
He was arrested in 1963 after a bout of disorderly conduct while drunk, and was expelled from the cosmonaut program. This was an embarrassment to the nation, and records of Nelyubov were swept under the rug.
27. Grigori Nelyubov
This photograph of Yuri Gagarin, the pride of the Soviet Union, was widely circulated. The man behind him looks inconsequential enough, but it’s actually none other than Grigori Nelyubov.
These two photos reveal what great lengths the Soviets went to alter their history. Stalin had been dead for the better part of a decade by the time this photograph was taken, meaning that altering efforts continued beyond his reign of terror.
28. The death of Stalin
Josef Stalin passed away on March 5, 1953 from a cerebral hemorrhage. It’s rumored that Beria insisted no physician be brought to the aid Stalin when he was found unconscious (not that that would’ve helped, since his physician was being tortured for telling Stalin he needed to rest).
The photograph at the bottom has been altered from the real version at the top to eliminate “Dwarf” )on the back right, where there is just a blank space in the bottom photo). Surviving the alteration and Stalin’s great purges is the man to “Dwarf’s” right, Nikita Khrushchev, who would rise to become Stalin’s successor.
Stalin’s reign as the head of the Soviet state saw his country rise to become one of the two most powerful nations on the planet. His citizens suffered at his expense to make this happen, and his distrust of the West ushered in the era of the Cold War.
There’s no telling how many people were killed or imprisoned from his purges, and it’s likely that no one will ever know because records in the Soviet Union had a habit of vanishing. While the Western world would not necessarily get along with his successors, they did not rule Russia with nearly the same murderous, iron grip.
30. Nikita Kruschev
Altering photographs may have continued after Stalin’s reign, but not to the extent that Stalin had it done. Khrushchev took over in 1953 after Stalin died, and went on to denounce Stalin’s actions, especially that of the great purge. In a speech he gave in 1956, Khrushchev said that Stalin’s purges were “an abuse of power” and publicly acknowledged that many innocent victims were caught up in the carnage.
He also took efforts to drastically reduce the Gulag, leading to its eventual dismantling under the reign of Mikhail Gorbachev. Now historians such as David King, writer of The Commissar Vanishes, are left to decipher just what happened in the Soviet era, bring back the memory of the dead, and hopefully figure out how to avoid this kind of behavior in the future.
Modern day Photoshop puts us at greater risk of this behavior. Just look at that photo below and go ahead and lie to yourself in saying Stalin doesn’t look awesome. One past that actually happened meets a past that never was, and one must ask, what kind of future does it create? In the instance of Stalin’s Soviet Union it created a state of fear that eventually crumbled upon itself.
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet empire two years later was a triumph of the human soul. History has time and again shown us that subjects of such cruelty can only be repressed for so long, and in the end the soaring spirit of the desire for freedom prevails.