The OG of Photoshop: The Fabrication of Photographs in Stalin’s Soviet Surveillance State

Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images
Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

It’s 1922, and a photograph of Stalin and Lenin sitting side-by-side appears in every newspaper across the Soviet Union. But everything wasn’t as it seemed. The photograph was a fake. It’s thought this photograph was the first time that Stalin used photo technicians to create a new reality, his own version of reality. 

This photograph gives the impression that Stalin and Lenin were close friends, when they were anything but. “Lenin described Stalin as intolerably rude and capricious and recommended that he be removed from his position as the Communist Party’s secretary general”. Stalin commissioned the photo technicians to make it appear as if the two men were sitting side-by-side, implying that Stalin was the heir apparent to Lenin. They also “smoothed Stalin’s pockmarked complexion, lengthened his shrivelled left arm, and increased his stature so that Lenin seems to recede benignly”.


Image Credit: Yevgeny Khaldei
Image Credit: Yevgeny Khaldei

From New Narratives to New Realities 

By the 1930s, Stalin and his army of retouchers had progressed from simple retouching to the pernicious practice of falsifying reality. As Berlin fell in the closing days of WWII, Red Army photographer Yevgeny Khaldei, staged a photo of several soldiers raising the Soviet flag on the roof of the Reichstag building. Inspired by the American flag-raising photograph at Iwo Jima, the iconic Reichstag photograph represented the final defeat of Germany in a war that had cost the USSR to the tune of almost 30 million lives.

On his return to Moscow, Khaldei was asked to edit the photograph by his editor who noticed that one of the soldiers in the photograph was wearing a wristwatch on each arm. This was a clear indication that he had been looting in the fallen city, against Stalin’s orders. The photograph was edited to appease Stalin and save the soldier’s life, who likely would have been executed. 


Image Credit: Tate Archive by David King, 2016/Tate, London/Art Resource, NY
Image Credit: Tate Archive by David King, 2016/Tate, London/Art Resource, NY

Erasing Reality and the Truth 

Photo editing was a form of censorship, and Stalin used it to rewrite the past. Like George Orwell, Stalin knew "who controls the past controls the future". After Leon Trotsky, another leading Communist Party figure mounted a failed opposition to Stalin’s leadership, he was exiled to Siberia. Stalin didn’t stop with exile, he purged the memory of Trotsky by erasing him from all official photographs, media and records. This practice became commonplace with other party officials who had fallen afoul of Stalin’s good graces, and were now deemed political enemies. Sometimes a single photo was retouched multiple times over several years. “In one photograph, Stalin is shown with a group of three of his deputies. As each deputy fell out of favour, they were snipped out of the photo until only Stalin remained.” 

Not even the architect of the Great Purge was safe. Nikolai Yezhov, the chief of the NKVD (later called the KGB) carried out the arrests, deportations, and executions of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. After falling out of favour in 1938, he was arrested, tried and executed, a victim of the systematic terror he himself had helped create. In 1937, he had been photographed walking along the banks of the Moscow-Volga Canal beside Stalin. After his death, Yezhov was erased from the photograph and water added in his place.

During the Great Purge, civilians participated in their own form of photo editing. It became dangerous to own a photograph, magazine or book that had a photograph of Stalin’s political enemies. Fearing that they would end up in the Gulag alongside his political enemies, many would cut deface or destroy such materials. “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. The act of erasing reality and truth through photo falsification under Stalin’s rule means “that it is possible to tell the story of the Soviet era through retouched photographs”.

Hordubal | Czechoslovakia | 1979 - Comrade Kiev

Hordubal | Czechoslovakia | 1979

International Ultrasound Exhibition | Lithuania | 1981 - Comrade Kiev

International Ultrasound Exhibition | Lithuania | 1981

12 April - Cosmonauts Day | Russia | 1989 - Comrade Kiev

12 April - Cosmonauts Day | Russia | 1989