Using Stalin’s playbook
Many of us grew up receiving history lessons that included a section on the Josef Stalin era and the Soviet Union. Among the examples used to teach us about the horrors of that time was the altering of photos to better serve Stalin’s agenda.
As Erin Blakemore, a writer for history.com, put it, “Stalin’s commitment to censorship and photo doctoring was so strong that, at the height of the Soviet Union’s international power, he rewrote history using photo alteration.”
Given the resources available to them at the time, those who doctored photos for Stalin make today’s Photoshop professionals look like amateurs. But that kind of skill becomes less impressive when one realizes that, in Stalin’s case, those who were removed from photos were often also killed and other evidence of their existence wiped out.
My point is tyrants understand a picture really does say a thousand words, and sometimes it suits their needs to make those photos say less. Again, we were all taught about the evil nature of using such tactics — back when history and social studies classes were a valued part of public education. It was something that happened elsewhere, and it was evidence of how dangerous the governments of those countries were.
That is why an admission from the Archives of the United States of America is so shocking to me.
Last month the museum apologized for altering photos of the 2017 Women’s March — they blurred out marchers’ signs that were critical of President Donald Trump.
This is the National Archive we’re talking about, here, allegedly “completely committed to preserving our archival holdings, without alteration.”
On its own website, the National Archives includes in its mission statement: “Public access to government records strengthens democracy by allowing Americans to claim their rights of citizenship, hold their government accountable, and understand their history so they can participate more effectively in their government.”
It’s difficult to understand history that is not accurately preserved.
Among the changes made was a sign that said “God Hates Trump,” but with “Trump” blotted out so it said “God Hates.” Another sign said “Trump & GOP — Hands Off Women,” but with the word “Trump” removed.
Shame on those working for a government agency dedicated to preserving our history so future generations can learn from it, who instead decided to make changes that would give those future generations an incomplete idea of what happened on that day.
Officials at the archives understood the gravity of the offense and apologized, while having the altered photos removed from the promotional material for which they were being used. In a tweet, the museum said “we were wrong to alter the image.”
Now the museum says it will “start a thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures so that this does not happen again.”
They might want to review items acquired in recent years to ensure there have been no other alterations, too.
History is messy. With enough information, students of history can make their own decisions about where those messes led us, and how to avoid them in the future.
Those who take it upon themselves to try to rewrite history are doing a disservice to their country — not just now, but for generations to come.
Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org