The Photo Book That Captured How the Soviet Regime Made the Truth Disappear

[From The New Yorker]

How unreal can things get? As the sense of shared reality is eroded, more with each passing day, one wonders. Writing on the relationship between truth and politics in this magazine, fifty-one years ago, Hannah Arendt noted just how vulnerable factual truth is, using the example of “the role during the Russian Revolution of a man by the name of Trotsky, who appears in none of the Soviet Russian history books.” Thirty years after Arendt published her article, a British collector and historian of Russia, David King, published a study in the form of a photo album—a study of the disappearance of the physical record of Trotsky and a number of other Russians who fell out of favor, and out of history, during the Stalin era.

The book is called “The Commissar Vanishes.” The title is, incongruously, literal. Its specific reference is to a photograph, from 1919, of a second-anniversary celebration of the October Revolution. In the picture, Vladimir Lenin stands at the top of a set of stairs, surrounded by many unidentified men and children and a few recognizable men, including Leon Trotsky, stationed just in front of Lenin. By the time the photograph was published, in 1967, Trotsky had disappeared: he had been airbrushed out, along with several other commissars.

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