searching for traces of work by Soviet photographer Alexander Rodchenko
August 7, 2015 4:51 PM   Subscribe

Formally, I came to the White Sea Canal to try to find the missing photo archive of the famous artist and photographer Alexander Rodchenko—to be exact, to try and find the negatives of photos taken during the construction of the canal named after Stalin in 1933.
Informally, I wanted to know the reasons for the falsification (if not the crime) of history in Soviet photojournalism and the era of visual art during Stalinism. Why? Because I’m a photojournalist, a witness to the collapse of the Soviet empire, the formation of the new Russia, and—now—a witness to Stalin's renaissance in a society that calls him a "good manager" and describes his regime's propaganda as “art.”
posted by infinite intimation (7 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Very interesting; apparently we've only had one other post on the canal, which surprises me (and that was back in 2003). I wish Klimov (the author of the linked article) weren't quite so impassioned and one-sided, but of course he's Russian, so he can hardly be "objective" (not that it's possible, or desirable, to be objective about Stalin's murderous projects); his indignation is righteous, but he seems to be equating anyone who worked on the canal project or benefited from it with the thugs who ran things, and that's unfair. (It's not just me who calls it unfair, many Gulag survivors say the same thing, and Vassily Grossman expresses it very powerfully in Everything Flows.) None of us can say what we would have done in the USSR in the 1930s, and neither can Klimov. This sort of thing is self-righteous chest-thumping:
Perhaps it can be called creativity, art even, if you don’t know or don’t want to know what a lie this all is—the propaganda and the crime against humanity, elevated to the rank of art. If you don’t see or don’t want to see the burial pit, where between 100 and 200 people were shot in the head.

Traveling along the White Sea Canal, those days, I often asked myself: did I go to photograph one of the crimes of Stalinism under the protection of the criminals themselves? And I have to answer—I went because I've done it many times in one war or another, in our time. But the main question is: did I side with the criminals, insofar as I used the photos I took of them? The answer doesn’t lie in art or time; it’s a matter of conscience, which you’ve either got or don’t.
It's the height of hubris to pronounce on the consciences of people who had to deal with Stalin, and there's no reason to think Rodchenko (or any of the great writers who wrote for the canal anthology) knew about people being shot.

Also, it's misleading to talk about "the Soviet photographer Alexander Rodchenko"; he and his wife Varvara Stepanova were among the leading artists of the pre-revolutionary Silver Age in Russia, and he can't be reduced to his work for Stalin. (By the way, the stress in his name is on the first syllable: ROAD-chinko.)
posted by languagehat at 5:43 PM on August 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

With my uneven education I'd read about Stalin's purges but it was only last year that a grand tour of wikipedia's articles on its most well known victims allowed me to gain a more useful understanding of the true psycho-social degeneracy of it all.

For 5+ years the State ate its own! Purgers of the Old Bolsheviks became the purged! Purge or be purged!

And individuals were utterly powerless to fight it, unless they could pull a Stauffenberg on Stalin, the one man around whom the entire system revolved.

I would guess Hitler in the 1930s was in a better position to see its true damage than the West's 'useful idiots' (the non-Trotskyists were somewhat befuddled by 1930s pro-Soviet misinformation or at least reflexively defensive about the new communist state), making his decision to go toe-to-toe with Stalin in mid 1941 a bit more understandable.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 9:58 PM on August 7, 2015

I'm quite sure Hitler didn't give a damn about the "true damage" of Stalin's regime, assuming by that you mean its horrific effects on the Soviet populace; what he cared about was getting Lebensraum for the encircled and stifled German people, and he would have invaded regardless of what regime was running things. Remember, he considered all Slavs as Untermenschen and expected to eliminate any that weren't useful as slave laborers. Also, the West was in general far more anti-Soviet than anti-Nazi; remember that the US stayed out of it until attacked by Japan.
posted by languagehat at 8:42 AM on August 8, 2015

I think what Heywood means is that Stalin was exterminating his own top people, his generals, his experts, the intelligentsia, the old elites, the Kulaks, most of his fellow Bolshevik revolutionaries, etc. Hitler was, of course, engaging in something very similar, but from his point of view the victims of his genocide were those people who contributed the least; the (racially) "best and brightest" of Germany were his top men and soldiers. Given his ideological blinkers, it would be easy for him to convince himself that Russia had made itself a pushover through Stalin's endless purges.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:58 PM on August 8, 2015

Oh, so by "true damage" was meant the elimination of many top officers and experts (again, he didn't give a damn about kulaks, or Old Bolsheviks). Well, I'd want to see evidence that Hitler knew more about that than Western leaders—the purges were certainly not hidden, they were reported on by papers like the New York Times (which credulously reported that those purged were genuine traitors)—and it wouldn't require ideological blinkers to assume that Russia had made itself a pushover, but if that's what you meant, Heywood, my apologies for misunderstanding you. (It's disputed whether the purges actually did as much damage to the army as is often supposed, but that's a separate issue.)
posted by languagehat at 2:49 PM on August 8, 2015

the purges were certainly not hidden

that's just it, my imperfect understanding was that some of the "Old Guard" got picked up shot in the 1930s and that was that, but the reality of it was the entire state purged itself centrifugally -- those at the center expected lower hierarchies to conform to the purge mentality, and this eventually swept up nearly everyone in what was supposed to be the Soviet technocratic utopia. If Sorge hadn't the wisdom to refuse recall to Moscow at the height of the purges Stalin would have killed his own super spy. for Tupolev's experience.

As for Hitler, his "We just have to kick in the door and the whole rotten edifice will come down" was stated in the run-up to Barbarossa.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 7:25 PM on August 9, 2015

I wonder if the Soviet (and earlier: Bolshevik. And earlier: Tsarist?) purges were influenced by Russia's geography. The classic Russian strategy is "draw your enemy deep into the interior, then wait for winter". And it worked, most famously against Napoleon, and also against Hitler. But perhaps this history contributed to a feeling that internal enemies are the rule rather than the exception, and that you need a sort of internal winter in which these enemies can be "frozen out".

In contrast, England is the archetypical island fortress: paranoid against foreign threats, but slow when it comes to internal ones. Its defenses were notoriously breached by members of its own Establishment (e.g., Philby), which would simply not have happened in Russia.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:58 PM on August 9, 2015

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