The camera never lies

This photograph, of the raising of the flag of the USSR over the Reichstag in Berlin after the Red Army took the building on 2nd May 1945, was shot by the soviet photo-journalist Yevgeny Khaldei. He used his Leica camera to capture the moment of triumph. Stalin himself had urged a flag to be mounted on the building, seen as a key symbol at the heart of the fascist beast, to indicate the victory of the Red Army in the Battle of Berlin.

The legendary Leica camera was German made. It had been launched in Leipzig in 1925 and was compact, unobtrusive and fitted into a coat pocket. The company specialised in high quality optics and the superb lens and flexible shutter speeds made it perfect to work in outdoor available light. It was instantly ready to capture life and revolutionised photo-journalism. Among others Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Lee Miller, Diane Arbus and Robert Doisneau used a Leica. This camera shaped the way we perceive the twentieth century. Khaldei used a Leica III that had been manufactured, between 1933 and 1939, in a factory during the Nazi period.

The man raising the flag is Alexei Kovalyov an eighteen year old from Kiev, Ukraine, who happened to be passing when Khaldei was ready to shoot. Khaldei, a member of TASS the soviet press agency, flew straight back to his handlers in Moscow and the image was examined. The censors saw that the man holding Kovalyov had a watch on each hand suggesting looting had occurred. Given that “a true Soviet solider does not loot” Khaldei scratched out, on the negative, the watch on his right hand with a needle. Smoke was added in the background to invoke drama and the flag was made to appear to billow a little more. Mikhail Yegorov (a Russian) and Meliton Kantania (a Georgian, like Stalin) were falsely declared to be the brave men flying the flag. Kovalyov was ordered by the KGB to keep quiet about his involvement. The doctored photograph was printed in the Ogonyok magazine on 13th May 1945 and became instantly popular and was reprinted in thousands of publications. Kantania and Yegorov was each made a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ by Stalin, the highest decoration possible, and given a ‘Victory’ car each to recognise their bravery and heroism. Kantania died after crashing his car a few months later, in drink.

Stalin had not perhaps fully thought his symbolism through. On 9th November 1918 Philipp Scheidemann had proclaimed the Weimar Republic from one of the balconies of the Reichstag and it became the seat of the Republic until 1933. The Reichstag had been empty since 1933 when it had been damaged by fire. As the Parliament of the Weimar Republic, seat of democracy, of freedom it was hated by the Nazis. They had left it abandoned and unused for the twelve years since the fire. Even the Enabling Act passed on 23rd March 1933, in which the Republic disposed of its powers in favour of the Nazi Government had taken place in a former opera house opposite the building. This doctored photograph is of Stalin’s impostors flying their flag over a burnt out symbol of political freedom and religious tolerance.

Khaldei, a Ukrainian Jew, lost his job in Stalin’s anti-semitic purges in the late 1940s and drifted into obscurity. His name was resurrected in the 1990s when his photographs were discovered in Moscow and exhibitions of his work put on. He then donated his famous Leica III to the Jewish Museum in New York. It is for sale in Hong Kong next month, in November 2014, according to the British auction house Bonhams. Marx said that revolutions are the locomotion of history. Can I propose that the buyer re-uses this Leica to photograph Hong Kong pro-democracy students being assaulted by authoritarian police? But given it’s guide price is £230,000 – £340,000, I fear it has already become that nugget of capitalism: a commodity.


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