Stalin didn’t have Photoshop, but that didn’t keep him from wiping the traces of his enemies from the history books. 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.” One day a politician may have been in favor, the next he could be facing the firing squad as an enemy of the people. In Soviet Union, people were literally written out of the history books by using photo manipulation techniques.
After he came to 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.” Some 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.
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. In this manner, Stalin could order written out of history such comrades he ultimately deemed disloyal (and who usually wound up executed as).
Sometimes, photo doctoring meant going back to the past to change the historical record, as when Stalin ordered Leon Trotsky, who helped create Communism, 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. Here in this article we have compiled a photo collection with such examples.
(Photo credit: AP / Russian Archives / Russia Beyond).