Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.
In this post, Mariola Marsh looks at the extensive censoring of historical documents that took place in the Soviet Union.
A few weeks from now the world will mark the centenary of the October Revolution. In 1997 the print-designer and artist David King published a book entitled The Commissar Vanishes, which tells the story of the Soviet practice of falsifying the historical record, particularly by changing photographs. King gives us, for example, a 1919 photograph, showing a large group of Bolsheviks with Lenin seated in the centre (pp. 52-53 in the Russian edition). After the expert attentions of a professional falsifier the original is reduced, firstly, to a threesome consisting of Stalin, Lenin and President Kalinin; then to a two-shot of Stalin and his teacher Lenin; and lastly to a solo portrait of the General Secretary alone.
The typical purpose of such activity is to remove from the historical record those no longer favoured by the regime – to erase their memory. In the 1920s and 1930s photographic editing techniques were less advanced than now; therefore the effect can at times be unintentionally comic. An instance can be found on pp. 122-123. To a picture of thirteen Soviet leaders on the roof of the Lenin Mausoleum have been added the heads of several more, as if it were a collage; unfortunately the additional heads are disproportionately large. By the way, other heads, and also one hand, have been removed by the photographer, whose surname (Yavno) happens to be Russian for “blatant”.
Looking through King’s book, one does not know whom to admire more: the author, who spent three decades painstakingly gathering documents – photographs, posters, paintings – from archives in many countries; or the usually anonymous exponents of the falsifier’s art, who worked as best they could with the techniques then available to create their master’s vision of reality. In the end, however, all their efforts were in vain, because those were the “good old days” of analogue information, when it was easy to discover who controlled and manipulated information. Under a dictatorship, there were few sources of information, and one could hope that regime change would lead to, at the least, an improvement in the veracity of public information. The Thaw which followed Stalin’s death did indeed lead very quickly to a less unbalanced view of the Soviet past.
In our day, however, the tools of falsification have been handed to anyone with a computer and without scruples. According to the BBC News website, during the 2016 American presidential election campaign young people in the Macedonian town of Veles issued on-line stories designed to appeal to Trump supporters in the USA. The stories were plagiarised from existing right-wing websites. When picked up by American voters, they brought generous advertising revenue for the perpetrators. Ethics? To Macedonian schoolchildren, the USA is a faraway country of which they know little. Some of them hope to build a career in fake news.
But history offers a warning. In 1919 a White officer in the Russian Civil War “found” a number of planks on which was carved a “book” of pseudo-history glorifying the Slavs.
This important document disappeared during the Second World War. An obvious fake, it is extremely popular on the internet among Russian Nationalists. From its first words, it is known as The Book of Veles (for references see below, Works Cited). So modern media have revived a forgery of crude Stalinist type. There’s no one so gullible as those who want to be fooled.