Smolny Beyond Borders

A Liberal Arts Initiative

Dissecting 'Defacing the Enemy': Stalinist Era Identity

‘Russian review’ has published a text by Tomas Sniegon about Denis Skopin’s book ‘Defacing the enemy’ (Routledge, 2022). “There are a number of ways to explore how Soviet citizens in the dramatic interwar period sought to craft a relationship between their individual selves and the collective Soviet project. Finding an innovative approach among them is not easy. Denis Skopin did it. His study focuses on how people in the era of Stalinist terror shaped their identities through their relationship to photographs depicting those declared “enemies of the people” by the terror-based communist regime. He is mainly interested in group portraits. These were significant for the Stalinist period in that they supported forced collectivism and a break with bourgeois individualism, did not express a clear social hierarchy, and thus symbolized a certain egalitarianism. However, precisely such “equality” posed a significant threat when possession of a photograph was interpreted as having a positive relationship with a portrayed “enemy of the people,” to “traitors who left their country,” or to the accursed “agents of imperialism.” The most sensitive among the photographs examined are family pictures. Take, for example, a trio of female faces, two young and the third obviously maternal, surrounding a head with a scratched-off face: a missing young soldier, of whose visage only the right ear remained intact as a souvenir for the women. His image was erased as the “time requested”—leaving the photo of the “offender” intact could lead to severe punishment. Yet even such mutilated photos were retained, rather than destroyed, by some people (although the destruction of personal archives was common at the time). As the author reminds us, those who removed the faces of the “enemies” often were attempting to hold on to a part of their personal and emotional connection after fulfilling their “political duty.”…”