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An interview with David King: Why Trotsky’s picture lay hidden for 70 years

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Issue 1938
Pichugin’s portrait of Trotsky was hidden in his studio for 75 years
Pichugin’s portrait of Trotsky was hidden in his studio for 75 years

David King, art historian of the truth about the Russian revolution, sadly died last week.

As part of his work, David salvaged photographs of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. His aim was to stop Trotsky being erased from the history of the revolution, as he explained to Socialist Worker in this interview in 2005.

I trained as a graphic designer but was also very interested in left wing politics. I made what some people thought was a terrible mistake and put my two interests together.

My specific interest in the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky came about when I was the art editor of the Sunday Times magazine. In 1970 I worked on an article marking the centenary of Lenin’s birth. To give you an idea of what the magazine was like in those days, they ran the article over 34 pages. Now you wouldn’t get 34 lines.

I was in Russia for three weeks researching photographs. While I was there, I kept asking people where I could get pictures of Trotsky. Of course, they would reply, “Why do you want to bother with Trotsky? Trotsky is not important in the revolution. Stalin is important.”

I got back to London with a huge amount of material — a lot of it had been doctored or falsified. So I decided to do some detective work and put together a collection of images of Trotsky. I travelled to Mexico, New York and all over Europe to find the few people who had known Trotsky and were still alive.

I came back with thousands of photographs of Trotsky. The oldest was taken when he was nine and the last was taken as he was being cremated.

In my book The Commissar Vanishes, I show the extent of the doctoring that happened after Stalin took power — and of course, many similar things happen today. I think of the Ford advert a few years ago, where the black guy was painted out.

But there is a crucial difference. No matter how racist some advertising agency might be, the black guy doesn’t get killed. When people were taken out of photographs in Stalin’s Russia, it was like a second death.

I was attracted to Trotsky because I felt the need for an alternative to Stalinism — an alternative that retained the tradition of international revolution. But what led me to produce a photographic biography of Trotsky was the need for a visual history which large numbers of people would find more accessible than text alone.

In Russia in the 1970s you couldn’t even talk about Trotsky. Today, I go back to Russia three or four times a year to collect new materials for different projects

It is amazing the amount of stuff about Trotsky that people kept during those years and that has come to light recently. People kept his writings and pictures of him under their floorboards and in their lofts. They kept them on pain of going to the gulag.

Among the pictures from my collection displayed at the Tate Modern, there is a large drawing made in 1923 by an artist called Pichugin. It’s an amazing portrait of Trotsky. A couple of years after Pichugin completed it, Trotsky was deeply out of favour. Pichugin covered the drawing up with a piece of white board and hid it in his studio, where it remained for 70 years.

After Pichugin’s death, his family found the drawing in perfect condition — I bought it and now it’s in the Tate Modern in London. You can see the portrait there as part of collection of Russian posters from the revolution through to the end of the Stalin period.

It’s like a fast-forward through Russian history. So many people go to see the posters and they stay there for such a long time, reading all the captions. As they go round, they discuss and compare the early revolutionary stuff with the Stalinist stuff — that makes me optimistic about the future.

You can see part of David King’s collection in London at the Tate Modern, and at The Photographers’ Gallery, 5 Newport Street, London WC1, until 27 February. His most recent book, Ordinary Citizens, is available from Bookmarks — phone 020 7637 1848.

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