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Denis Skopin, La photographie de groupe et la politique de la disparition dans la Russie de Staline

Cathy A. Frierson
p. 952-955
Notice bibliographique

Denis Skopin, La photographie de groupe et la politique de la disparition dans la Russie de Staline, Paris : L’Harmattan (Coll. : Esthétiques), 2015, 236 p.

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1Denis Skopin, a philosopher in St. Petersburg, Russia, earned his doctorate in aesthetics at l’Université Paris VIII. Theoretically informed by the French philosopher Gilbert Simondin (1924‑1989), Skopin offers a meditation in La photographie de groupe on the meaning of altered photographs dating to the late 1930s, held in the archives of the St. Petersburg branch of Memorial. He focuses on two aspects of the photographic record of Stalin’s terror: photographs of groups rather than of individuals, and the erasure of members within those groups by someone who inked out their visages, cut them out entirely, or scratched them to mar the prints. The resulting marks can suffuse a viewer seventy or more years later with the defacer’s focused violence against the physical object of a photograph.

2Skopin asks what political power such group photographs held in Stalin’s “totalitarian regime and its Terror” (p. 15). He explores why elements in the damaged photographs were intolerable to the point of eliciting erasure of the taboo person, even when the group photograph itself remained as testimony to its political meaning for the person who kept it. The puzzle is not so much the destruction of visages of persons deemed enemies of the regime (surviving relatives often recount their precautionary destruction of all photographs of an arrested “enemy” or “traitor” relative in a family’s possession), but the retention of the damaged photograph of a group from which the pariah’s face has been “disappeared.” To understand why it was imperative to destroy a group member’s face, yet keep the photograph, one must understand the importance of the group itself in Stalinist society.

3Gilbert Simondin’s concept of transindividuation opened the way for Skopin’s exploration. Skopin’s discussion of Soviet identities rooted in Soviet‑defined groups is familiar territory, covered by Irina Paperno and Jochen Hellbech. Drawing on Simondin’s argument that individuation results from transindividuation, he illuminates two dialectics. First is the background society in the Stalin era, a product of individuation through transindividuation resulting in a synthetic Soviet identity. Second is the dialectic between viewer and photographic image, between the person gazing at Soviet‑style transindividuation in a sanctioned, recorded group of faces, which sanction embraced the viewer in an official visual language of identity. The person viewing the image read the language of transindividuation therein, and may himself or herself have been a member of the group or affiliated in some way with the erased person or the group as a whole.

4The first dialectic exposes the full degree of destruction embodied in the act of cutting a face‑identity from a group photograph. Recognizing the membership of the erased persons in the twentieth‑century’s variously “disappeared,” Skopin demonstrates that the erasure of a face from a group photograph most evidently constitutes hypostatized deracination. His second dialectic delineates how the person who defaced the photograph extirpated the individual person who existed exclusively via Soviet transindividuation; yet, the defacer also retained the sanctioned group identity of those who remained. The Stalinist system of Soviet identity remained intact. The defacer’s membership in the larger group of sanctioned Soviet society also remained intact via his or her act of aggressive erasure.

5These damaged photographs in archives ironically preserved traces of both defacer and defaced. However much the person damaging the image hoped to destroy all traces of a pariah and thereby to ensure the defacer’s own immunity from the pariah’s status, the scratches, holes, and ink marks remain as indelible records of violence against the individual in a system which granted personhood only through sanctioned transindividuation. Skopin’s philosophical inquiry deepens our comprehension of the brutality of Stalinist violence against the person.

6For the less philosophically inclined, Skopin’s discussion of traces is most accessible in his concluding chapter on Levashovo, the mass grave site in St. Petersburg, where Soviet Leningrad’s terror victims landed after their executions as enemies of the people in 1937‑1938. Here his interests align most closely with mine as a historian of children of enemies of the people. Valentin Muravsky, one such child survivor, launched the search for the graves of executed parents through his organization, “The Search.” The discovery of scattered mounds across a forest floor, and the eventual confirmation that these were remains of those executed during the Terror in Leningrad, drew surviving relatives and other visitors to the site to reintegrate the dead in a community of the relatives’ or unrelated visitors’ choosing. Because the individual remains and mounds had no denoted identities, families, faith communities, nations, and other groups have given them back what identity they can. Thus there is a monument to the deaf‑mute victims of Stalin’s terror, another to the Ukrainian victims of Stalin’s terror, one to the Jewish victims of Stalin’s terror, and so on. Furthermore, all around this wooded space, mourners have created altars to their dead by nailing a photograph and a plaque with name and dates of birth and death onto a tree trunk. The faces in those photographs refute their erasure as the “disappeared” in Soviet culture. Skopin’s interrogation of the meaning of their disappearance from group photographs enables us to recognize the profundity of the reappearance of these faces in post‑Soviet space.

7Beyond Simondin, Skopin frequently cites Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jean‑Louis Deotte, and Hannah Arendt. The range of his empirical evidence is much narrower. He draws almost exclusively on Orlando Figes, The Whisperers to place the photographs in their historical context. He does not draw directly on the documents, letters, and memoirs available at Memorial, often in the very files from which he selected his group photographs. This shortcut deprived his analysis of empirical confirmation. For example, Skopin draws on Figes to discuss the case of Vasilii Dmitrievich Dudarev, yet he fails to mention key lines in one of Dudarev’s wife’s letters, which directly support his discussion of the “disappeared” and traces. Addressed to the Procuracy for the Rostov Region, Irina Dudareva’s Zaiavlenie included these lines:

  • 1 I read the original of this letter in Galina Vasilievna Dudareva’s personal archive in her home. Sh (...)

This request is from the wife of Vasilii Dmitrievich Dudarev, the former secretary of the regional committee of the Russian Communist Party/Bolshevik for the Rostov Region, […] arrested on August 28, 1937 […] For all these 18 years, neither I nor my daughters have known anything about our husband and father, except that he was sent to the department of special regime camps for ten years. And we firmly believed and do believe that we will find traces of him that will remind us of a person who disappeared without a trace.1

8Had Skopin read more deeply in the transcripts of the interviews conducted by Memorial staff for Figes, rather than reading Figes’s selections and interpretations, his philosophical essay would hold more weight with historians. The primary value of Skopin’s La photographie de groupe is its capacity to provoke new ways of thinking about actions Soviet citizens took to locate themselves in Stalin’s categories of inclusion, exclusion, and identity.

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1 I read the original of this letter in Galina Vasilievna Dudareva’s personal archive in her home. She has donated copies of the files to Memorial.

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Référence électronique

Cathy A. Frierson, « Denis Skopin, La photographie de groupe et la politique de la disparition dans la Russie de Staline », Cahiers du monde russe [En ligne], 57/4 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2016, Consulté le 12 décembre 2017. URL :

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Cathy A. Frierson

University of New Hampshire, Durham (NH)

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