Ordinary mugshots

Posted by Tory Historian Sunday, May 10, 2009 ,

Tory Historian decided that the best way of celebrating Victory Day is to have a good look at one of David King’s books: “Ordinary Citizens – The Victims of Stalin”. As the Bard said: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now” (from Julius Caesar, as it happens).

Most of the book consists of the last mugshots taken in the Lubyanka, the Moscow prison that was (and is) the headquarters of the Soviet (Russian) secret police in its various manifestations from Cheka to KGB (and now the FSB), though the book goes up to the death of Stalin only. These are the people who were executed very soon after the pictures were taken.

Mr King, who used to be Art Editor at the Sunday Times, explains in the Introduction that the Soviet method of police photography was different from western in that it used natural light. Therefore, the shutter time was longer and the people in those pictures look more human; they have different reactions – fear, hatred, sadness, panache, resignation; the police photographers unintentionally created a series of tragic and sensitive pictures.

There they are, a tiny proportion of all those shot in the years between 1918 and 1953: men and women, young and old, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Jews; most employed in various positions, others not; some Communist party members, others not; some showing signs of torture, others merely fear and duress.

One or two worked for the NKVD themselves, others were related to important officials. One senior NKVD officer’s son was shot at the ripe old age of 17. There are women who may have simply complained about food shortages; there are students who presumably shot their mouths off as young people do; there are workers and engineers who were executed as wreckers and saboteurs because they could not fulfil the hair-raising plans Stalin insisted on. One cannot list them all, and, as mentioned above, this is a very small proportion of those murdered in the various prisons.

David King is an interesting person. He appears to be a somewhat old-fashioned leftie and in this interview he even manages to look like the man he clearly admires, Leon Trotsky. (Though to be fair, he shows no signs of agreeing with the sub-Marxist rubbish that the interviewer spouts.) His fascination with the pictorial falsehood that is Soviet history has produced three books so far, all of them fascinating, as well as his own personal collection that he clearly opens up to historians and researchers as asked. (Tory Historian is meditating an approach.)

“The Commissar Vanishes” deals with the fascinating story of the altered historic photographs from which people disappeared as they had been purged or their memory expurgated. Some photos started with five or six people and were eventually reduced to two, the only remaining ones being Lenin or Stalin and a. n. other, who was safely dead or, less safely, still in good odour.

Now that the original photographs have been traced the story has become even more fascinating. The picture above shows the disappearance of Yezhov from Stalin's side after his own arrest, torture and execution in 1939.

In 2002 Mr King followed this up with “Ordinary Citizens”, the book under discussion here and this year he produced “Red Star Over Russia”, published amazingly enough by Tate Publications, that traces some iconic Soviet images, the photographs on which they are based but also the changes in those photographs and the images. Again, we have a number of those last mugshots, this time of leading Communists like Zinoviev and Kamenev or important cultural figures like Isaac Babel and Vsevolod Meyerhold (the last two pictures are particularly harrowing - readers can see Meyerhold above).

Given David King’s apparent political stance it is natural for him to try to present the view that it was Stalin who destroyed the great hope of socialism and plunged the country into a bloodbath; given his honesty he cannot avoid making it clear that Stalin inherited the bloodbath, merely making it more intense.

In the Introduction to “Ordinary Citizens” David King is a little too kind to Trotsky, describing him as the “only political figure with a viable alternative to Stalinism”. World Revolution and the continuation of war communism were not only not viable, as Lenin had realized, they were potentially fully as brutal as Stalin’s rule.

As Richard Armour said in his brilliant “It All Started with Marx”: “Some people say that if Trotsky had won, things would have been different. They would, for Trotsky.” Actually, they may have been different for others as well – Trotsky was so brutal and so stubborn that he would not have been able to keep in power and the country and system together as long as Stalin did.

Interestingly, David King never mentions Nikolai Bukharin who really did have somewhat different political and economic ideas, which have fascinated historians ever since. He did not have the basic stamina or cunning to outwit Stalin either.

Nor is the author correct in saying that the Red terror, which he describes accurately as a destruction of all human decency, began with the failed attempt on Lenin’s life in 1918. From the moment the Cheka was formed it was dedicated to revolutionary terror against all and sundry.

But these are political quibbles. David King provides some interesting information and, above all, there are the pictures – those tragic haunting photographs. Tory Historian considers that all those who are convinced that there is no difference between Gordon Brown’s Britain and Communist totalitarianism should spend time studying this book of mugshots.


  1. k Says:
  2. This is heavy going to look at but fascinating. I wonder how David King got access to all these photos.

  3. King says that the photographs and related documents are now in the possession of Memorial, the organization set up in the last years of Gorbachev's rule to uncover and inform people about Soviet crimes. They would have got hold of it all in the nineties when many of the KGB archives were briefly opened.

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