The Soviet Capa

Poet and war correspondent Yevgeny Dolmatovsky near the Brandenburg Gate on 2 May 1945

At the same time with the London exhibition of early 20th-century Hungarian photography, in June opened and in October closed in the Crimean Sevastopol the exhibition of the photos made seventy years ago by Yevgeny Khaldei. Beyond the accidental coincidence, there are also several common points between the material of these two exhibitions. Born in 1917, Khaldei was the heir of Russian avant-garde photo and film just as the Hungarians of Western European avant-garde. And Khaldei’s war photos are considered just as iconic as those by Capa, Kertész and the other Hungarian photographers of the period: not by chance was he often called “the Soviet Capa”. The most famous among them is probably the Знамя Победы над Рейхстагом, “the Flag of Victory over the Reichstag” on 2 May 1945.

Of course, this picture, as recent research has pointed out, in many ways characterizes Khaldei’s relationship to photography, as he had no scruples to manipulate his photos for enhancing the artistic message. The hoisting of the flag on the Reichstag – on which by that time a dozen red flags were waving – was a reenactment of the final assault scene of the previous night. The original heroic feat by the Ukrainian Mikhail Minin was represented here by Meliton Kantaria, who was chosen for this scene by Khaldei because of his Georgian origin to favor Stalin. Until 1990 Kantaria was celebrated all over the Soviet Union as the person who had set up the flag. Only then it turned out that even the soldier playing the role of Minin was not Kantaria, but another Ukrainian, Alyosha Kovalyov, who was however cautioned by the NKVD against talking to anyone about his role. And it was discovered even later, in 1994 by Khaldei’s monographer Ernst Volland, that the soldier supporting Kantaria on the original negative had a watch on each wrist, a typical treasure hunted for by Soviet soldiers on their way to Berlin. (In Hungarian the Russian idiom давай часы, “give us the watches” is still a living colloquial term.) After the publication of his pioneering summary on Khaldei’s art – Von Moskau nach Berlin: Bilder des Fotografen Jewgeni Chaldej – several Russian experts frantically hurried to point out that the watch on the left hand was in fact a compass. In any case, Khaldei knew what he was doing when on the published photo he scratched out the watch on the right hand.

On the above detail of the original photo you can also see that the dark background smoke was also added subsequently for a stronger effect. But after all, these manipulations just show him to be a true heir of avant-garde photography, which considered not only permissible, but even desirable any subsequent manipulation of the photo for a better expression of the photographer’s intention. When much later Khaldei was asked during a lecture about these manipulations, he simply replied: “It is a good and historically significant photograph. Next question please.”

But the war provided any avant-garde eye with enough unusual spectacles so that his photos become impressive without any manipulation. Such as this scene with a small German plane which landed into a building on Attila street in Budapest.

The same scene on the picture of a Hungarian photographer, from the book Budapest 1945 by Miklós Tamási and Krisztián Ungváry. See our post on the photos of Budapest ruined by the siege of 1944-45.

The Sevastopol exhibition, understandably, selected mostly from Khaldei’s photos made in Sevastopol, fifty ones from the several thousands. In the 1418 days from the invasion of the Soviet Union until the German capitulation Khaldei incessantly photographed the war, and continued to do so in the Potsdam peace conference and the Nuremberg trial, where he also worked together and came on good terms with the real Capa.

The inhabitants of Moscow listening to Molotov’s announcement on the outbreak of the war, 22 June 1941

A bust of Lenin temporarily set up and decorated with flowers in celebration of the victory on the place of a statue destroyed by the Germans, Sevastopol, May 1944

Khaldei was fired from the state news agency TASS by the all-Soviet “campaign against cosmopolitanism” launched in 1948 – and he was still lucky with it. His name was deleted from the captions of his photos: it turned out only in 1990 how many of the Soviet era’s iconic images had been made by him. In 1990 they organized his first major exhibition in Berlin, for whose royalty, ten thousand German marks he immediately brought a Rolleiflex. “I never had such a camera in all my life”, he said. He had seven more years to enjoy the pleasure of the new camera.

Reindeer Yasha beyond the Arctic circle, 1941

Children playing in the destroyed Sevastopol

Yevgeny Khaldei taking photos on the Moscow victory parade on 24 June 1945