Monday 1 January 2018

Picture Post #32 The Family Snapshot

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Archive image: Stalin with his children

Ah, what could be more innocent than a fond family portrait of a parent seated, relaxing with their children.

Indeed, we all have such snaps and maybe there is a little bit of a story lurking untold behind the smiles. But here, with Josef Stalin, ‘Uncle Joe’ to a nation, there is rather too much of a story. Should Stalin be denied the right to be considered a fond parent? And his children: what role do they play in this picture? Are they participating in a fraud, or are they wholly innocent particpants caught up in a story they never asked for nor could influence?

According to the author, Jay Nordinger, conservative commentator and author of a book on the sons and daughters of dictators, Stalin had one daughter and two sons, Yakov and Vasily, one from each of his wives. The young woman in the image is Svetlana, who died compratively recently, in 2011, aged 85. And she died not in Russia, but in the United States.

The story of Svanidze’s mother is rather tragic. She was, or so Mr. Nordinger tells us, Stalin’s great love. They wed in 1906 and had been married only 16 months when she died of typhus – while her son was still only nine months old. Her death greatly affected the future dictator. Revolutionary comrades, worried for his sanity, took away his revolver for fear he might put the gun to his temple. At her funeral, a grief-stricken Stalin told a friend, ‘This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity’.

Colley notes that, deprived of his father’s affections and upset by a failed romance, Yakov once tried to shoot himself, and that even as he lay bleeding, his father scathingly remarked, ‘He can’t even shoot straight’.

Dzhugashvili, by the way, was Stalin’s real name. ‘Stalin’ was his revolutionary non de plume, meaning ‘Man of Steel’.

Yakov fought in the Red Army in the Second Wolrd War, but was captured by the Germans, which Stalin considered (like the Japanese) to be a disgrace. Indeed, under Stalin the families of captured prisoners where shamed. ‘There are no prisoners of war,’ he once said, ‘only traitors to their homeland’. When Stalin was offered his son’s release in return for a senior German officer, he refused the swap saying ‘I will not trade a Marshal for a Lieutenant’.

Yakov had married a Jewish woman, called Julia, and she was arrested, and sent to the gulag. She was perhaps allowed the small privilege of release two years later.

But it is Vasily who is in the picture. He was the son of Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda, who bore  his daughter five years later.  In November 1932, Nadezhda, suffering from depression, shot herself.

Vasily seems to have been shallow and vain. He continually used his father’sname to further his career, to obtain perks and seduce women - much to Stalin’s anger. He had no sense of responsibility and Stalin once had to intervene by sacking his colonel son for ‘debauchery and corrupting the regiment’. Despite all this, Vasily rose to the lofty heights of Major-General in 1946, a rank far beyond his ability but his drinking and temper made him both unpopular.

Rarely have facts so coloured an image...  and yet there is a certain family intimacy there, or should we say, a shared complicity.


Keith said...

The seemingly pleasant family gathering points to the stark incompleteness of photos that have been 'staged' in contrast to the (more interesting) photorealism of everyday affairs. Photorealism challenges the photographer either to anticipate and capture dramatic yet fleeting moments — or, conversely, to capture the routine, prosaic, and persistent. Either way, the results of photorealism can be startling. The staging in this particular image means there are no obvious ‘tells’ as to true character or sentiments — or any apparent interplay among the subjects. Indeed, there’s a disquieting ordinariness about the image — ‘disquieting’ because of what history has graphically laid bare about Stalin. There’s a surprising casualness and nonchalance in the image — under which we know lurks danger. The image’s incompleteness is made unambiguous in light of accounts of Stalin’s ignoble ‘governing style’, as well as the less-than-stellar behaviors of his family going about their often-dysfunctional lives in Stalin’s long shadow.

The absence of ‘tells’ further makes it unclear whether there’s witting complicity among the subjects of this image — the photographer perhaps simply acting as impartial, even naïve or disinterested, chronicler engaged in ‘doing his job’. I would venture, however, that the children’s complicity isn’t of the nefarious variety, and certainly isn’t fully informed, given their immaturity — their being inescapably affected by, but not fully comprehending at this point, the magnitude of their father’s authoritarian comportment. The grounds were set by the oddly confessional remark by Stalin, upon his wife’s death, that ‘with her died my last warm feelings for humanity’ (see the post). Was Stalin being disingenuous? That is, was that really the last time Stalin had ‘warm feelings for humanity’, an authentic toggling between emotions? Or did he never have such feelings — the comment simply being when he first openly shared this otherwise life-long absence of 'warm feelings'?

docmartincohen said...

There's something rather fanatical in Stalin's gaze to me, even if as you say, Keith, there's also "a disquieting ordinariness about the image". I suppose the photographer was not exactly disinterested though. If he/ she had not managed the shot to Stalin's satisfaction, I think it's fair to say the consequences would have been rather nasty.

But to me the interesting thing in the image is how they do form a family group. Stalin was indeed, a human being first, and a political fanatic later.

Chengde Chen said...

It wouldn’t take long for the innocent look at the left to grow into the one at the right. We tend to think of 'angels' and 'devils', but human beings are of one 'kind' after all. The fact that mankind can produce an Adolf Hitler shows we can’t be too good; while that it can produce a Mother Teresa shows we can’t be too evil.

docmartincohen said...

The one in the middle REALLY does look innocent, though... or am I just an old sentimentalist?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The first adjective in this piece is ‘innocent’. And when one views things in isolation, there is so much that seems to be innocent, or merely factual. There is a Scripture verse about a certain kind of woman: ‘she eats and wipes her mouth and says, I have done no wrong.’ Yes, and so it is, if one views her behaviour in isolation, or as being merely factual. It is the banality of evil -- a term which caused a storm at the time. I should think one becomes more moral the more one looks beyond the isolated and the factual. A photo which is a small frame in space and a mere blink in time may indeed look homely and appealing.

Chengde Chen said...

Yes, she looks more innocent than her brother. Actually the right one looks rather innocent as well if we don't know who he is.

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