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A Historian of Photographic Defacement in the USSR Faces His Own Erasure

On the day when the Russian human rights organization Memorial became a co-winner of the Nobel Peace prize last year, its activists had very little opportunity to process the news. October 7, 2022 found them huddled in a windowless hall of one of Moscow’s district courts, where Memorial was fighting the capture of its assets by the Russian state. Nine months earlier, the Russian Supreme Court liquidated Memorial under the so-called “foreign agent law,” so the new judicial decision to take over their assets was hardly a surprise. On the day the organization was recognized in Stockholm for its human rights and educational work on behalf of victims of Soviet state terror, it became essentially homeless in Moscow.

While formally the cause of Memorial’s legal woes was its failure to consistently brand itself as a foreign agent in all of its public statements, the words of the prosecutor left little doubt as to the real reason behind the state’s hostility. Memorial’s crime was simply its commitment to commemorating the victims of Soviet-era state violence. As state prosecutor Aleksei Zhafiarov put it during the hearings that led to Memorial’s liquidation, “Why should we, the descendants of victorious people, feel shame and repent, rather than pride ourselves on our glorious past?” The organization’s keen gaze at state terror, he made clear, was perceived by the Russian state as actively harmful in the present.

The same commitment to making Soviet-era state violence visible that landed Memorial in the Russian courts is what animates the groundbreaking volume by Denis Skopin entitled Photography and Political Repressions in Stalin’s Russia: Defacing the Enemy. The book, published by Routledge in 2022 in its History of Photography series, is a conceptually and empirically rich study of a corpus of 57 photographs from Stalinist Russia (many of them from Memorial’s archives), in which faces of people declared “enemies of the state” have been removed: scratched out, painted over or otherwise excised. While the existence of such photographs is well known (one such image, for example, was reproduced on the hardcover of Orlando Figes’ Whisperers [2007]), Skopin is the first to probe this practice for what it reveals about both Soviet history and the ontology of photography — group photography in particular.

Photography and Political Repressions in Stalin’s Russia consists of five chapters. The first one lays out the historical context of Stalin’s terror before advancing to a close reading of the criminal cases centered on improper handling of representations of political leaders, the subject of Chapter Two. Chapters Two to Four are the theoretical heart of the book, in which Skopin lays out his theory of group portraiture and discusses specific cases of photographic defacement, before concluding this discussion with a fifth, empirical chapter on the defaced photographs in secret police archives. He argues persuasively that Soviet-era photographic destruction, while close in spirit to other acts of iconoclasm, such as damnatio memoriae, has its own distinctive logic. The removal of faces from photographs during the Great Terror, he suggests, was driven by a desire to purify the community depicted in these images by visually ejecting the newly discovered “enemy” from the group. Skopin’s theorization of group portraiture under Stalin takes inspiration from Gilbert Simondon’s concept of “transindividuality,” framing collective portraiture that was so prevalent throughout the Soviet period as a tool for cultivating the supra-individual nature of Soviet subjectivity. Such emphasis on the prevalence of the collective, and on one’s inherent entanglement with it, created problems for everyone who shared the photographic space with the people subsequently denounced as traitors. As the number of such bogus denunciations grew, more and more group photographs were swept into the vortex of a visual iconoclasm that targeted “less the portrait itself than its performative value, namely its power to create a relationship between the iconoclast and the enemy of the people” (141).

Given the immediate political danger posed by the visual evidence of association with an enemy of the state, why would so many such photographs be preserved? Instead of destroying the compromising evidence entirely, why would people keep the photos with the traces of violence done to them? Skopin’ hypothesis is that the images were simply too valuable to be disposed of, and this makes sense, especially given the outsized importance that belonging to a group carried for individual identities in the USSR. But it is also possible that these images were preserved precisely as records of the righteous indignation that drove their owners to iconoclasm. They were there to make that outrage visible, and in this way, to protect their owners by testifying to their loyalties.

The complex motivation behind photo tampering is especially evident in a particular subset of photographs – those of familial groups. Many of these more intimate portraits also carried the signs of violent modifications aimed at dissociating the family from a member exposed as “an enemy of the people.” The book considers them as congruent with the logic of group self-purification (the group in question this time being the family), but it also notes some details that seem to call for an investigation of the ways in which the practices around these images differed. While the visual editing of large-N collectives tended towards the dramatic, with faces violently blotched or torn out, images of familial groups more frequently strove to conceal the signs of their modification, for example, by painting a curtain over a figure, or even transforming the clothing of the sitter in order to hide a Tsarist-era uniform or military award in a preventative act of caution. The point with these images, it seems, was not so much to perform an act of outrage that ejected the traitor from the group, but rather to shield a loved one from the violence of history in an act of care.

While the release of Skopin’s study would be an important intellectual event under any circumstances, the grim irony of its publication in 2022 is that this research is unlikely to reach its readers in Russia for many of the same reasons that fueled the dynamic of mass terror in Stalin-era USSR. Indeed, in October 2022, just as the Memorial activists were busy fighting the capture of the group’s assets by the state, Skopin’s academic employer, St. Petersburg State University, terminated its contract with the author, citing “immoral behavior” as the reason for dismissal. The immoral act in question was Skopin’s participation in a public protest against the government’s mass mobilization of military-aged men to wage Russia’s criminal war on Ukraine. Skopin, who has had to leave Russia after spending ten days in detention, is but one among many Russian academics forced to choose between silence and abandoning their students in recent months; the history that his volume had been probing seems to have come a full circle. The very least the rest of us can do is make this violence visible.