Magazine article The Spectator

Abolishing and Inventing Enemies

Magazine article The Spectator

Abolishing and Inventing Enemies

Article excerpt

Adam Zamoyski

THE COMMISSAR VANISHES by David King Canongate, 25, pp. 192 A HISTORY OF TWENTIETH CENTURY RUSSIA

by Robert Service Allen Lane, 25, pp. 654

The cover of David King's book shows four different stages in the life of a photograph taken in 1926. In the first, we see Stalin standing by a table flanked by three comrades. In a print of the same photograph appearing in a history book a few years later, one of the four has disappeared. A second comrade is airbrushed out of the next version, and the third is absent from the last version which, fittingly, is turned into an oil portrait of Stalin.

There are many examples of this game of political musical chairs here. Some are highly primitive, with pieces of paper placed over the offending figure. Some are more sophisticated, but the more ridiculous for it. They foreshorten a car in order to obliterate an offending passenger, or stick different faces onto the same bodies in a group. Others simply have strips torn out or, worse, faces blacked out with ink. This last variety, redolent of a kind of occult fury, is the most sinister.

The practice of falsifying pictorial evidence (paintings were not immune) had its heyday under Stalin, but it began long before he came to power and survives, albeit passively, today. This is important to keep in mind, for the practice says a great deal about the political culture of 20thcentury Russia. It also helps to explain why the Soviet system was doomed.

The falsification of photographs, like the doctoring of statistics and the misrepresentation of events with which it went hand in hand, was an instrument of manipulation. But it also stemmed from an infantile refusal to accept reality. At another level it betrays a primitive and crypto-religious urge to destroy or negate that which cannot be countenanced. Shooting a man was not good enough, his political death had to be pronounced. The chistka, or purge of those destined for oblivion, was carried out with the same frenzy and hysterical language as the extirpation of heretics by the mediaeval church.

Once embarked on, this process demands successive waves of reprisal, creating a momentum of struggle that keeps everyone too busy and terrified to reflect. The Soviet system needed the civil war in order to establish itself, and then invented a series of internal struggles, against kulaks, counter-revolutionaries, revisionists, saboteurs, etc, to maintain itself. …

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