David King's The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia (Henry Holt and Company) traces how communist leaders airbrushed, manipulated, and retrofitted photographs, drawings, and even whole buildings to serve ever-changing political needs. As suggested by the photos to the left, in which one-time secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov disappears, the results are simultaneously terrifying and darkly comic.
King's book is far more than just a memorial to the late, unlamented Soviet total state. In our own hyper-mediated age, in which we are bombarded by an endless procession of seamless, self-serving images and possess unprecedented power to create the same, The Commissar Vanishes is a reminder that seeing and believing are in no way identical. Its pages are a study in the significance–and vulnerability–of our critical faculties.
As important, by explicating how the Soviets relentlessly doctored their history, King also reminds us that the past, like the present and the future, is never quite a settled matter. Rather, it is a struggle that is renewed daily–and one in which truth remains but one of many possible outcomes.