Memory Whole


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.