Broken Promises: Soviet Photography in the Age of Stalin

Broken Promises:
Soviet Photography in the Age of Stalin

image © 2007 Peter Harmathy

My childhood memories are filled with imagery that originated in the Soviet Union.  I can vividly remember watching the Ukrainian-language films that my father avidly collected.  The olfactory sensation of burnt dust on the projector bulb loomed in the basement where the movie screenings usually took place.  Equally enjoyable was leafing through the magazines and books stamped with a purple-ink mark reading “Printed in USSR”.  The black and white pictures were particularly out of the ordinary.  However, there was invariably something missing from both films and printed materials.  Book pages were torn out, or a sharp edit would interrupt the continuity of the film.  It was only later in life that I discovered what these omissions were.  My father, having grown up in the Soviet Ukraine, had edited the obligatory Soviet propaganda.  His actions are understandable.  His formative years were inundated with propaganda extolling the virtues of communism under the leadership of Stalin and he did not want to expose his children to the same disinformation.  A quarter of a century later, the Soviet empire is defunct and its totalitarian past is being reevaluated.  The depredations of one of the most abhorrent regimes in twentieth century history are slowly being exposed with the opening of archives and personal testimony.  A vast repository known as the Sovfoto archive is now in our midst.  From my experience, the spirit of these photos represents the lacunae of my past.

Let’s begin with the question,what is the Sovfoto collection? It is an image bank of over 23,000 black and white photographs that tell the official story of the world’s largest communist country, the Soviet Union.  Essentially every state-sanctioned part of Soviet society is touched upon in the fonds: industry, agriculture, defense, science, education, social welfare, medicine, sports, arts, and culture.  The raison d’être of the Sovfoto images was to propagate and bolster a superstate under the rule of Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, commonly known as Stalin.  The dates of the archive span from around 1930-1959 .Over half of the catalogue illustrates the Second World War period.  As such, we glimpse into a military state mobilized for total war.  Although some of the photos were staged, it is with the war photos that we sense the immediacy of the photographic medium.  Often the prints were developed only days after the film was exposed.  Nearly all of the prints in the collection are in vintage condition and masterfully printed.  The images in the archive are perhaps the most self-conscious and manipulated in the history of photography.  Having run the gauntlet of official censors, newspaper editors, ideologues, Party scissormen and other image manipulators, it was the photographers’ self-censorship that ultimately tempered each image.  After all, these were the men and women who had survived Stalinist terror and repressions against non-compliant cultural workers.  Many prominent photojournalists are represented in this archive including Max Alpert, Dmitri Baltermans, Yevgeny Khaldei, Arkady Shaikhet, George Zelma among other imminent image-makers.  Although many are identified by author, some remain snapshots taken by anonymous photographers.  The images were intended for export; appearing in print media to illustrate stories pertaining to the Soviet Union.  This massive propaganda arsenal was tightly controlled, brokered and disseminated for syndication by offices in New York.  The verso of each photograph is commonly accompanied by a typewritten caption, often indicating authorship and an accession number.  Also on the back of each print is an array of ink and graphite markings: crop marks, hand-written notations , various indicia and stamp-markings indicating provenance (Sovfoto, Press Photoagency), as well as loan conditions and other information.

© Sovfoto Collection, The MacLaren Art Centre, Barrie

How does one come to an understanding of an archive of propaganda images? How does a twenty first century contemporary viewer interpret (mis)information from a state which had closed borders and is no longer extant? These are just some of the questions which come to the fore when dealing with the Sovfoto collection.  We in North America, still to this day, know relatively little about the former-Soviet Union.  A perusal of this colossal archive reveals a myriad of fragments, always evading a complete picture and understanding of totalitarian power.  At times, however, the collection yields some surprising, compelling, even seductive results.  Beyond the predictable stock images of gimlet-eyed collective farm-workers, iron-jawed steel workers and Party delegations, are formally interesting and evocative moments.  I’ve culled a little over eighty images from the thousands I had reviewed.  In this exhibition, I hope to give a sense of the Sovfoto archive and spirit of Soviet photography in the age of Stalin.  Some selections will show patterns, or motifs, running through the record group as a whole, while others struck me as being anomalous in this context.  In relative terms, these images are aberrations- not entirely straying from the party-line - but somehow they challenge and compel one to ask more questions.

In her evaluation of the Sovfoto collection, Dr.  Margarita Tupitsyn presents cautionary terms: “one must remember that these narratives cannot always be entirely trusted as historical documents and must thus always be questioned” .  This caveat spectator applies to both image and accompanying text.  In this light, we question the veracity of several images in the exhibition.  R. Mazaleva’s and V. Fedoseeva’s lugubrious shot of Leningrad “evacuees” leaving freight cars is chillingly similar to scenes of mass deportation which affected entire ethnic groups and were endemic under Soviet rule.  Does this depict the latter? The Soviet drive for industrialization and collectivization had detrimental results.  The monumental construction projects of Stalin’s Five Year Plans (pyatelyetky) were, ostensibly, built by the zealous shock-workers.  More often than not, these poorly planned, hastily executed projects were built using mass forced labour.  One such industrial campaign called the Great Fergana Canal took place in the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan.  Arkady Shaikhet’s photo assignment focused on the building of the huge irrigation system.  The canal took fifteen years to complete and relied heavily on forced and child labour.  Militsa Romanova’s photo of a group of priests allegedly testifying against “German-Fascist Invaders” parallels the militant repression of religion in state-sponsored show trials of the 1930s.  In another photograph, we witness the interior of a Russian hut.  These are, the caption contends, the dismal living conditions in a Russian village under Nazi occupation.  But to what extent did conditions for its dwellers change before and after the war? As witnesses of Soviet totalitarianism tell their stories, and ever-increasing testimony reveals another side of Soviet society under Stalin, a contemporary viewer is compelled to remain skeptical, thus, rupturing the Soviet master narrative.

© Sovfoto Collection, The MacLaren Art Centre, Barrie

In terms of form and content, the archive is from the post-avant-garde period of Soviet photography, with a vast majority of the collection dating from the high-Stalinist period.  Vestiges of photographic experimentation characteristic of the avant-garde period in Soviet photojournalism of the 1920s can be witnessed.  Examples include the unconventional viewpoints of Skurikhin’s vertiginous 1935 composition of the Nadvoitsky Dam whirlpool or the May Day cavalry formations on the eve of the Second World War taken by an anonymous photographer hovering above Red Square.  A low-angle portrait of ballerina Susanna Zviagina near the Stalingrad front is reminiscent of the formal innovations of avant-garde artist Alexander Rodchenko.  Other photographs selected for the exhibition echo salient works which would have been well-known to Soviet audiences.  Mikhail Ozersky was commissioned by the Hammer and Sickle Steel Mill to document the factory’s literary club.  This assembly gathering has a striking resemblance to Sergei Grigorev’s painted composition, Admission to the Komsomol (1949).  This parallel underscores the importance and efficacy photography had in informing Socialist Realist painting.  The fluency of visual signs can further be witnessed in a photo titled Electrification of Ukrainian Collective Farms.  A post-war Soviet viewer would undoubtedly recall the late-nineteenth century canvas They did not Expect Him by Ilya Repin.  However, where Repin’s work was decisively critical of the Tsarist regime, the photograph veers clear of any negative social commentary. 

Just as the Western world relied on mass media to popularize its public figures and personalities, so too did the Sovfoto archive disseminate Soviet cultural figures and celebrities.  If household names and stars were being produced by the silver screen in the West, the Soviets had a different model.  Hero of Socialist Labour, People’s Artist, Academician, Distinguished Gunner are just some of the nominations that formed the hierarchy of the Soviet elite.  The Sovfoto archive has vast holdings of virtually every officially approved personality of the era.  I have highlighted just a few in the exhibition.  Two such images are of Alexei Stakhanov, the Soviet Union’s superstar of labour achievement.  Allegedly, the miner Stakhanov had over-fulfilled his coal quota by some herculean amount, giving rise to a movement in shock labour known as Stakhanovism.  The myth of Stakhanov reverberates through the Sovfoto archive binders, which are replete with portraits of heroic labourers and collective farm workers.  In the field of culture, I have selected some of the more unusual portraits of personalities.  The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is ominously isolated from the background of the photograph with a hand-painted grey wash.  From the file labeled “Stanislavsky”, I’ve pulled a photo of the founder of method acting lying in extremis or already deceased.  The famous Soviet cinema actress Lyubov Orlova is pictured before and after the war.  A studio portrait of the architect D.  N. Chechulin is shown wearing his Stalin Prize medal, as well as other decorations.  Vera Mukhina, another Stalin Prize recipient, is pictured sculpting in her studio.  The celebrated artist trio collectively known as Kukryniksi, are portrayed below caricatures of themselves.  A country as vast as the Soviet Union had a commensurately large amount of celebrities and personalities who were recognized Union-wide.  Although these cultural workers and notable personae operated outside the arena of Party politics, they were inextricably linked to ideological dictates of their day.

Vaska the Cat
© Sovfoto Collection, The MacLaren Art Centre, Barrie

Perhaps some of the most endearing moments in the Sovfoto archive are those depicting animals.  One such photo taken seventy years ago in the Soviet arctic shows a polar bear cub looking through the lens of a camera.  Another shows Alik the fox cub held in the arms of a young Pioneer.  These lighter moments are contrasted against the onerous, aggressive and dogmatic thrust of the collection.  The interface between the natural world and human society is a compelling one, particularly in the Soviet context.  Even here, ideological import seeps in.  Take, for example, Vaska the cat who pussyfoots around rats on a plank-an odd scene to be sure.  Odder still is the caption explaining this irenic relationship between felines and rodents.  In order to get a sense of Stalinist logic, it’s worth excerpting the caption which accompanies the photo: “The cat Vaska, has been trained to walk over these mice without harming them.  It is part of the Durov training in friendship among animals-particularly animals who are traditionally hostile.” Another favourite image from the same suite of photos is the portrait of Max the monkey who sagaciously looks at the camera, momentarily interrupted from reading his book.  Is this innocent anthropomorphism or is it that the natural world was something to be tamed, controlled and conditioned? Soviet science has a long history of experimentation with animal subjects.  A 1938 laboratory view shows a professor pictured next to a dog with a fistula attached to its salivary glands.  In another picture, short-tailed turtles lie under an ultraviolet lamp.

Academician Bohomolets
© Sovfoto Collection, The MacLaren Art Centre, Barrie

The collection as a whole tends to centre around the achievements of the Soviet state, highlighting modern living standards and populated by citizens building and defending a communist utopia.  Collectivism is a salient motif.  Both labour and leisure are often illustrated as group endeavours.  Groups of people watch television or films, they sing, play and listen to music, they smoke cigarettes and go for strolls together.  In the workers’ state the image of the earnest labourer gazing into the distance becomes a cliché stock image.  Brigades of young miners, steel workers, and armament builders pose with the accoutrements of their respective trades in hand, poised and ever-ready to serve communism.  The state comes to be personified in the image of Stalin/Lenin.  The Stalinist cult of personality reaches its apogee in the mid-1930s and continues until the death of the Soviet dictator in 1953.  Although this cult systematically infuses the Sovfoto images, I’ve chosen only a modicum of such examples for this exhibition.  One formulaic photomontage shows Stalin rising above an oceanic mass of humanity - below the scene a banner reads “Under the Leadership of Great Stalin - Forward to Communism.” In comparing photographic output prior to Stalin’s rise to power and the type of imagery we find in the Sovfoto archive, once again I turn to photography scholar Margarita Tupitsyn who writes: “If before photographers aimed at avoiding identifying political personalities and instead concentrated on the representation of the anonymous masses and the process of voting, coal mining, or constructing itself, now they were required to include the portraits of Stalin and/or Lenin as those people in whose name all the activities were performed.” In the context of the exhibition, this is well-illustrated in two staged photographs.  Both shots depict election day polling in the one-party state.  One shows Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexius casting his ballot with a figure of Stalin in the background.  In the other, a bust of Lenin watches over Wayland Rudd, an African American immigrant to the USSR. These exaggerated and egregious examples of propaganda convey the illusion of enfranchisement, and religious and racial tolerance in the Soviet Union.  Nothing was further from the truth.

In his review of a 1994 exhibition of Socialist Realism John C.  Welchman offers an analysis which can be applied to the Sovfoto archive:  “For many Western viewers all this is something like an exercise in voyeurism, an exotic glimpse at the unseen, the obscene and the paranoid …  For eastern European or other post-Communist viewers it is an exercise in sedimented folly, benighted pessimism and social catastrophe.” To be sure, the photos in this show open a window onto a parallel universe which had been closed for the greater part of the last century.  We are compelled to evaluate our contemporary reality vis-à-vis the Soviet other.  The Sovfoto collection is an immense record of how Soviets saw themselves, and a projection of how they wanted the rest of the world to view them.  Many realities of the totalitarian society such as dismal living conditions, purges, deportations, coerced labour, terror and genocide are not represented as such.  This state-sanctioned collection is a compelling one, not only for what it contains, but for what it neglects.  Behind the veneer of the shock worker’s revolutionary zeal and the forced smiles of collective farm-workers, these photographs are ultimately certificates of trauma.


Olexander Wlasenko
Guest Curator



1 Tupitsyn, Margarita “Evaluation of the Sovfoto Collection” (unpublished essay) p. 10.

2 Moynahan, Brian The Russian Century (London: Random House, 1994) p. 147.

3 Bown, Matthew Cullerne Socialist Realist Painting (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1998) p. 255.

4 Tupitsyn, Margarita “Fragmentation versus Totality: the Politics of (De)framing” in The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Gardee, 1915-1932, (New York: The Guggenheim Museum, 1992) p. 492.

5 Welchman, John C. Art+Text 48, May 1994, p. 79-80.

Exhibition at MacLaren Art Centre, Barrie, Ontario, Canada
Exhibition Dates: September 13 - November 4, 2007