Shooting dictators is a great fun

- wrote James Abbe in his memoirs, and he just had to know: he shot them all, from Franco through Mussolini and Hitler to Stalin.

Abbe was born in 1883 in the USA, and since a young age he specialized in photographing actors in Hollywood. In the 20’s he moved to Paris where he continued to photograph the world of the theater. The purpose of his first trip to Moscow was to present the Russian theater life in American journals.

Meanwhile he more and more tried to assert himself as a documentary photographer: in the 30’s he would produce some good series on the rise of the Nazis and on the Spanish Civil War as well. “Photograph me Hitler as he is coming out from the synagogue”, joked with him the chief of one of the great Berlin newspapers, “then go to Moscow and snap Stalin in the Kremlin, and well, then I will believe that you’re a great photographer”. “Okay”, said Abbe, “then if you permit, I will begin with Stalin.”

The window of the hotel in Moscow offered a good view over the Kremlin on the other side of the river, only a few hundred meters away, nevertheless it seemed an enormous distance. Walter Duranty, director of the Moscow office of The New York Times – an American mouthpiece of the Stalinist policy, who would later become famous for denying the Ukrainian famine – accepted him reluctantly. “What did you for a living, before you wanted to earn money by photographing Stalin?” Abbe briefly outlined his career to date. “Could not you return to your earlier work?” closed short Duranty the brief conversation.

Abbe probably would have returned, and empty-handed, if the Berliner Tageblatt did not publish a hoax just at that time on a serious illness and near death of Stalin. Abbe, with the newspaper in the hand, hurried to the Soviet Foreign Ministry. “You can publish a hundred Soviet photos on Stalin to refute the news, and everyone will regard it as a Bolshevik trick. But if he would be photographed by an American…”

The Kremlin welcomed the idea. On 13 April 1932 Abbe, accompanied by the Foreign Office colleague Heinz Neumann, after a large number of cordons, guards and body searches, finally stood there in the office of the vozhd. “Come on, come on”, growled Stalin. “I’ve got five minutes for you.” Abbe, offended in his professional self-esteem, breezily replied: “Only five minutes on a man who during a five-year plan gave industrialized his country?” Stalin liked the answer and raised the limit to ten minutes, which finally become twenty-five.

The unique result made a name to Abbe not only in the West, but also in the Soviet Union. A year later he was elected in the committee of the “friendly foreigners” who were invited to the Don to witness: they have seen no forced labor. “And we have not seen any, indeed”, confirmed Abbe many years later. “As soon as we got near to anything like that, we firmly shut our eyes.” But this loyalty was not enough. Abbe was expelled from the country for taking photos on prohibited places. He published his pictures a year later in New York, entitled I Photographed Russia. Sixty-three of the eighty photos have just been published on the Russian net. We publish them together with the captions they gave with them. These are certainly Abbe’s own captions, translated from English to Russian, and now translated back by us from Russian to English. If you have the original captions, please help us.

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