Fascism was glamorous--the tailored uniforms, the coy viciousness of it all.
Communism was a gray, baggy-suit bureaucracy that went about its business of slaughtering tens upon tens of millions of people with the bleak arrogance of a state motor vehicle department.
Yes, there were May Day parades, and all the statues and propaganda posters with lifted faces looking at a future hovering like a blimp above a distant stadium. But the soul of communism was a bureaucracy so dingy and paranoid that you wanted to reverse Hannah Arendt's famous phrase and talk instead about the evil of banality.
Joseph Stalin, a hero of banality, is said to have said, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic."
Sometimes, though, single cases were too important for mere statistics. They required the panoply of denunciation, torture, confession, show trial and a bullet in the head. Then their friends, wives and children were shot or imprisoned. They were tossed into what George Orwell's "1984" called "the memory hole." Their names could not be spoken. Their photographs were destroyed, their very existence denied so that Stalin could head toward the future each morning with a clean windshield and a shoeshine.
The photographs were a problem, because enemies of this importance had appeared in so many of them with Lenin or Stalin. Offices of airbrushers, razor wielders and croppers spent their days retouching photographic history. Is that the saboteur Leon Trotsky standing next to Lenin? Into the memory hole.
They might have come closer to success if an Englishman named David King hadn't spent the last 30 years collecting photographs of the sort now hanging in a passageway at the Newseum in Rosslyn. There are only about 30 of them, but they hint powerfully at the story that King tells in his 1997 book, "The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia."
Here's a group shot of 10 high-ranking Communists at the 14th Party Conference in 1925. King tells and shows what happened to them. One named Lashevich committed suicide. Comrade Frunze died--possibly murdered--on the operating table. Smirnov was shot (along with his wife and daughter). Rykov was condemned as a right-wing opportunist and shot. Skrypnik was accused by Stalin of Ukrainian nationalism and shot himself. Bubnov died in the Gulag. Ordjonikidze killed himself at the height of the Great Purges, and Unschlicht was shot. By 1939, only four people were left in the photograph, and Stalin's hair had been tidied.
(Imagine the work that had to be done on photographs of the 17th Party Congress in 1934--out of 1,961 people attending, 1,108 were liquidated, King says.)
Speakers come and go in front of crowds that shrink and swell. Candelabra and pillars are touched in and out. Here's Stalin in a famous Soviet icon, "Friend of the Little Children." He holds a bouquet and a gleeful little girl, Gelya Markizova, while a first secretary of the party, M.I. Erbanov, grins in the background.
A year later, Gelya's father was shot for spying. Then her mother died in a murder that authorities never investigated. Then Erbanov was purged and deleted from the photograph. A sculpture was made, but when rumors about murder circulated, the propaganda value of the image fell, causing the sculptor to be denounced.
Stalin wanted Lenin to be sanctified, and himself shown as Lenin's chosen heir. The retouchers took care of it, erasing all enemies and ambiguities.
Trotsky, Stalin's rival to succeed Lenin, was wiped out of all photographs after Stalin won, though Trotsky himself wasn't killed until 1940, in his exile in Mexico. (In the late 1960s, American student radicals would chant "Off the Trots!" at anti-war demonstrations. Banality has a glamour all its own.)
You might point out that Lincoln credited Mathew Brady with helping him win the 1860 election by retouching a portrait to make his neck shorter and his face younger; that photographers rarely showed Franklin D. Roosevelt in his wheelchair. And advertisers, artists and photographers themselves have been superimposing and airbrushing photographs for more than a century. The famous film of Hitler dancing with glee at the surrender of France was a Western propaganda fraud. And the Postal Service took the cigarette out of Jackson Pollock's mouth when it printed his face on a stamp, thereby improving history. There's a touch of Stalin in us all, perhaps.
Mathew Brady didn't kill uncountable millions of people, however, and he did the retouching better. And he didn't threaten to kill us if we didn't join him in rewriting history in the name of revolutionary truth. We're still allowed to own a picture of Pollock with cigarette. (But should we let our children see it? Oh, the banality of prudery.)
Under the doctrine of "personal responsibility," good Soviet citizens would cut enemies of the people from their books and albums.
Even Alexander Rodchenko, a great photographer of the '20s and '30s, defaced his copy of his "Ten Years of Uzbekistan," leaving faces inked out with a sloppiness that gives them a postmodern touch, as if they were ironic comments on portraiture or photography.
Retouching of photographs and history went on long after Stalin died in 1953. Khrushchev restored people, Brezhnev blotted them out again.
Then when communism was overthrown, crowds throughout the Soviet Union pulled down statues of Stalin and Lenin and destroyed them, too.
The show runs through Nov. 21 at the Newseum in Rosslyn.