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Why Official Photos Were Altered during Joseph Stalin’s Dictatorship

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In a 1934 photograph of officials of the Communist Party ofn the USSR, Avel Enukidze was photographed next to Vyacheslav Molotov and three other Soviet members. However, during the Great Purge, the former Soviet Union member who was considered one of the enemies of the state was executed.

Then, Enukidze disappeared from Soviet photos too, as his presence was erased by an edited suit upon another official of the Soviet Union from the original photograph. The removal of Avel Enukidze was the result of a conspiracy to alter public perception during the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. There were no professional Photoshop services back then, but that did not stop the dictator from editing out the traces of enemies from history.

The commitment of the dictator to censor and doctor photos was so strong that he rewrote history with photo modification. The stakes were not just historical; every removal meant a swing in loyalties of Joseph Stalin, and most disappeared people were also executed in real life.

During the purges, several enemies of Stalin simply disappeared from their houses. Others were killed following show trials. As the dictator knew the real value of photos in historical record and mass media’s use to influence the public, they often vanished from photographs as well. He relied on photo retouching services to remove enemies from supposedly documentary photos.

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It is thought that Joseph Stalin’s obsession with image doctoring even constituted a mini segment in the Soviet Union. Publishers were told by Stalin’s minions to erase the enemy from upcoming photographs and they followed the orders from the powers that be. As per the art historian named Peter King, this was not done in one place or even via an official ministry.

King wrote, “Photographic manipulation worked very much on an ad hoc basis. Orders were followed, quietly. A word in an editor’s ear or a discreet telephone conversation from a ‘higher authority’ was sufficient to eliminate all further reference—visual or literal—to a victim, no matter how famous she or he had been.”

Interestingly, Stalin was not the only tyrant who loved to alter photographs. Adolf Hitler eliminated his Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, from a photograph of him and film director Leni Riefenstahl, but the German dictator’s motivation behind this is still not known. Benito Mussolini, on the other hand, circulated a famous photo of himself purportedly riding a horse; the handler who held the horse was cropped out of it. In the world of professional Photoshop services, these facts may also seem fascinating to say the least.