‘I wanted to be the Devil myself’ The forgotten history of how a Soviet photographer glorified the Gulag's White Sea Canal
Photographer Oleg Klimov has traveled to the White Sea Canal three times—in 1995, 2009, and again in 2013. During his last two trips, he worked in the local archives, searching for traces of work by the Soviet photographer Alexander Rodchenko, who—secretly working for the Soviet authorities in 1933—photographed the USSR’s first major construction project to use Gulag prison labor. In a special report for Meduza, Oleg Klimov writes about his trip, his research, and how memories of the people who built the White Sea Canal have faded from Russia.
The White Sea Canal. Karelia. 2009
Yury Dmitriev, a 53-year-old man, is dressed in military camouflage, with a German shepherd next to him. In his chest pocket, a bulge in the shape of a gun is visible. "Why do you need a gun?” I asked. "This gun?” He took it from his pocket and showed it to me in the palm of his hand. “Because the civil war is not over.” I looked at the gun and asked awkwardly, "Why did you arrange to meet me at the cemetery?" The historian smiled and said: “So that you’d be scared. Ashamed and scared.”
The historian Yury Dmitriev—from the Karelian Commission on the rehabilitation of former political prisoners under Stalinism—has arranged to me to meet in the forest, near the canal, near the unknown burial grounds of the 1930s. Along the canal there are scores of them, many of which have not yet been identified. “It's the purpose of my life as a person and as a historian to look for the tortured and executed, but a whole lifetime still isn’t enough. Now, from archival documents I can confirm and point out the pits and ditches where Chekists buried around 86,000 people.”
The historian with a Makarov pistol is drawing up lists of those shot during the Stalin era. Hundreds of thousands of people. "First, the archive,” he says, “then the dark woods and the search for the shootings pits." Local officials don’t like Dmitriev, because for many years already he’s been calling for atonement. Local inhabitants don’t like him either, because this knowledge scares them.
When officials decided to find out how many thousands of people were shot and buried in the area of Sandormokh (the White Sea Canal), they called a construction company and an excavator to dig up the burial pits. It was then that Yury Dmitriev used his gun. He went to the tractor driver, put a gun to the back of his head and said, "if you don’t stop, you’ll be next!" The “excavation" was stopped. Officials and the police arrived. Officials ordered workers to continue excavating, but they refused, remembering the historian and his gun.
"Most people here live with a lack of historical memory,” says Lyubov Pomortseva, a history teacher from the village Nadvoritsy. Those who built the canal were killed during the construction or were shot, and those who survived were sent to build another canal—the Volga-Baltic—to connect the White Sea with the Black, with Moscow becoming a port of five seas. To take the place of the White Sea Canal builders, led by the NKVD, new people came to the "free settlement"—the dispossessed, parolees, and convicts. Many of them also died from overworking and harsh natural conditions, but at least they got graves with crosses and stars on them, and not just the “execution pit." “Popular memory” begins with these many who died, but it often doesn’t coincide with actual history.
Formally, I came to the White Sea Canal to try to find the missing photo archive of the famous artist and photographer Alexander Rodchenko—to be exact, to try and find the negatives of photos taken during the construction of the canal named after Stalin in 1933. Informally, I wanted to know the reasons for the falsification (if not the crime) of history in Soviet photojournalism and the era of visual art during Stalinism. Why? Because I’m a photojournalist, a witness to the collapse of the Soviet empire, the formation of the new Russia, and—now—a witness to Stalin's renaissance in a society that calls him a "good manager" and describes his regime's propaganda as “art.”
"What can I say about Alexander Rodchenko?” Asks Yury Dmitriev, himself replying: “Nothing good, like the hundreds of thousands of people who participated in a crime against humanity ... If they had shot him like a mad dog, I would have found his grave, because he is a man. I respect people. But I don’t care for the ‘art of fascists’ ... I've seen Rodchenko’s name in the OGPU archives in connection with the organization of darkrooms in Belbaltlag [Belomorsky gulag] and do not see anything surprising about the fact that he was a photographer for the OGPU.”
After the conversation in the woods, we went to his car—a rusty and old "Niva." He took out a notebook and copied down for me all the available documents he had from the OGPU foundations, which Russian officials today would never allow me to see.
Stalin's White Sea Canal. 1933.
“My master, head of the administration, lying, sick, still not recovered from pneumonia.” Alexander Rodchenko, in a letter to his wife, the artist Vavara Stepanova. Moscow. Written during the construction of the White Sea Canal. The "Demon of the Archipelago,” as Alexander Solzhenitsyn would later call Naftaly Frenkel, Belomorkanal’s chief manager of construction.
Naftaly Frenkel studied in Germany. He was a businessman in Turkey and an undercover agent for the OGPU. He was arrested for commercial fraud by Dzerzhinsky’s Chekists, sentenced to death, but pardoned and exiled to the Solovetsky Islands.
As a young man with a good education, Naftaly Frenkel wondered why the OGPU (which managed the Gulag) used prison labor so irrationally. One time in the camp, due to the lack of basic sanitation, an outbreak of typhoid lice occurred, and bathhouses for the prisoners were suddenly needed urgently. According to the engineers’ calculations, the construction of even a small bath house would take 10-to-15 days, during which time the epidemic could lead to a catastrophe. Frankel offered to build the bathhouse in one day, if the prison provided him 30 workers (in the documents they appear as “slave labor”). He chose 20 young sailors and 10 frail elderly people from the intelligentsia; then he told the sailors: look at these old men, in 24 hours they’ll shoot them if you do not complete the task. They will shoot you and shoot me.
The work was completed three hours ahead of the deadline.
This event on the Solovetsky Islands was the beginning of a new career for Naftaly Frenkel, and it helped launch the most colossal OGPU project in the entire history of the state security’s existence. Earlier, the OGPU did not know what to do with so many prisoners, or how to feed and clothe them. Nevertheless, with Frenkel’s help, prisoners could not only provide for themselves, but also be of benefit to the state. Stalin soon convened a special session of the Soviet government, which approved a secret decree on the use of prison labor (signed in 1929 by the deputy chairman of the SNK USSR, Jan Rudzutak).
The White Sea Canal became the USSR’s first experimental construction site. It was not a project of the Soviet state, but rather one of the OGPU—“the state within a state.” Deputy chairman of the OGPU Genrikh Yagoda oversaw the project. From across the country, prisoners and "enemies of the people” had been brought here. It’s estimated that around 100,000 people had to go out to work every day (according to the archive of the Medvezhegorsk Municipal Museum). The monthly mortality rate of prisoners reached 14 percent (for the entire period of the canal’s construction, between 100,000 and 200,000 people died or were shot.) “We have to take everything from the prisoner in the first three months. After that, we don’t need him,” Naftaly Frenkel explained in secret directives.
Soon, an ideological justification emerged: "reforging" prisoners—supposedly a form of rehabilitation. "Reforging," or "rehabilitating," could yield medals and honors or even an increase in food. It could raise a prisoner’s position in the Gulag hierarchy or secure his early release. In accordance with these ideas, "slave labor" transformed into "prisoners of the canal army men," abbreviated as Z/K (zeka—the abbreviation for “prisoner”). Later, this abbreviation came to signify any prisoner in the Soviet Union.
On top of that, for the project’s “ideological support,” the OGPU needed "engineers of the human soul"—artists, photographers, writers, and poets. At the White Sea Canal, a special “cultural-educational” department emerged, which comprised a theatre made up of a number of prisoners, and which issued a camp newspaper called Reforging. Finally, six months before the end of the canal’s construction, the camp even started developing its own darkroom.
Photography in those days was one of the newest methods of propaganda; and the founder of "photomontage reality" and advertisements for the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was the constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko.
How was it that Rodchenko turned out to be the "trusted photographer" of the OGPU? Most likely, we’ll never know for sure. But you can trace a definite connection with the security services from his biography. In Moscow, in the early 1920s, there was a place called the "Salon Lili Brik,” which, as it’s become known more recently, was a salon that existed not only because of the charm of the agent Lili Brik (OGPU license number 15073), but also enjoyed the direct support of the deputy chief of a secret department of the OGPU, Jakov Agranov (known as the “Hangman of the NKVD,” who was responsible for dozens of shootings, including the execution of poet Nikolai Gumilyov). The purpose of the salon was to control the creative intelligentsia. The writer Pasternak soon came to call it the “salon of policemen." Brik’s family friend and frequent guest to the “salon GPU” was Alexander Rodchenko.
Rodchenko went to the construction of the White Sea Canal in early 1933. He was the only "civil" photographer at the construction site, and worked there in secret. The OGPU instructed him to photograph the completion of the construction and the opening of the canal. Rodchenko was given a fee and meals, and was provided with fairly comfortable living conditions, according to documents and his letters to his wife: “I didn’t write because I didn’t know what was going on, or where anything is, and I didn’t have a pass to do anything. Now, everything is all right. I am healthy and doing well. I’m eating, drinking, and sleeping. I’m not working yet, but I'll start tomorrow. All is wonderfully interesting. As of now I’m just resting. Conditions are excellent…Don’t tell anyone you don’t have to that I'm at the White Sea Canal…"
Needless to say, the construction of the White Sea Canal was carried out in circumstances of high security. Neither journalists nor photographers were allowed even close to the White Sea Canal, and only official government reports were published in magazines and newspapers. Apparently, Rodchenko’s task was not only the creation of promotional photographs of the completion of the canal’s construction, but also to open a photo lab. "The laboratory is ready and I’ve started to work," he says in his letters. In the OGPU documents, officials also refer to workshops for artists that had paints, canvases, and other necessities. In any case, according to historians, a photo lab in the Gulag couldn’t have been opened without the support of the Moscow OGPU.
The resulting negatives in all likelihood remained in the archives of the OGPU. We have only heard about the prints that were used in propaganda. Curiously, the famous public pictures taken by Rodchenko of the White Sea Canal feature in the history of Russian photography under his name, while exactly the same pictures from the archives of the NKVD are anonymous and credited simply to an “author unknown.” All in all, three photographers worked at the White Sea Canal—all official OGPU employees—though prisoners without permission to go beyond the confines of the Gulag also practiced technical photography.
Reaching out to Rodchenko at the White Sea Canal, his wife—the artist Varvara Stepanova—wrote: "They [colleagues] were stunned that you didn’t enter into a contract with anyone else for the canal, that you’ve been sitting there for three months, that you don’t sell photos, that you don’t serve in the GPU, and that they don’t pay you anything…” But Rodchenko did receive money (the exact sum is unknown), and ate and lived together with the leaders of the White Sea Canal in Medvezhyegorsk. He had a pass and could walk around without protection on the Gulag’s territory and around the area surrounding the canal. It’s not only the documents but also the photos themselves that demonstrate this: starting from the image of Naftaly Frenkel (although photographing management of the OGPU BBK was forbidden), and ending with the enlisted “canal army men,” as well as a group of writers led by Maxim Gorky, who under the protection of the OGPU arrived on the ship "Karl Marx” to mark the end of the great construction.
Alexander Rodchenko, together with all the OGPU managers of the canal and Naftaly Frenkel, personally met the steamer. Rodchenko says as much in a message to his wife: "I'll photograph their arrival and their passage on the ship, but right now I’m going to develop and print [in the Gulag darkroom, while press photographers who came with the writers didn’t have such access]. Before you know it, you’re selling photos to the newspapers [in Moscow]… It’ll be great, right?”
And it was great. According to Rodchenko, on the White Sea Canal he took more than 2,000 photographs (no more than 30 of which are known today). He drafted the design of the propaganda illustrated magazine USSR in Construction in December 1933, fully developed with his own images. He was also the painter and photographer of the “monograph of writers" of the White Sea Canal, which is simply called Stalin's White Sea Canal.
Such were the successes of the photographer and artist Rodchenko in the propaganda of Stalinism. Here's what he writes, for example, in the professional journal Soviet Photo about the “restructuring of the artist,” as exemplified by the "re-education" of murderers and "enemies of the people": "I was shocked by the sensitivity and wisdom with which the re-education of people was carried out. They were able to find an individual approach to each person. We [photographers] still don’t have such a sensitive relationship to the creative man…”
The White Sea Canal. 2009.
The dark forest—so dark, in fact, that the road wasn’t visible. Dozens of burial pits. In them between 100 and 200 people who were shot—in the back of the head. Here and there, there’s a cross, a Star of David, a crescent moon. One stone is engraved, “People: do not kill each other." On another: “Forgive us." Someone wrote poems about the White Sea Canal and stuck them on the tree trunk. Another did a pencil sketch of a missing relative. Someone else put a framed photograph next to a plastic flower and lit a candle.
Not far from here, in the city of Medvezhyegorsk, there’s a small museum, organized not by the government, or the president of Russia, but the NGO "Memorial" with the support of the Soros Foundation in the mid-1990s. The museum’s funds and archives are almost gone today. Digging into the materials, I asked, "Where did you get the original printed photographs from the 1930s?" "From the former archives of the White Sea Canal’s OGPU,” said a museum employee. “Back in the 1990s, they let one of our employees access the archives, and he managed to get permission to take them to the museum. Since then, we’ve no longer been allowed there.”
I thought it would be naive to look for the Rodchenko photo archive, or any documents, in such a small and insignificant museum, which is barely over a decade old. But suddenly I saw a picture with a view of a construction site, under which was written, "the White Sea Canal. 1930. Artist unknown." “My goodness! Where did you get this picture?” I asked again. An employee of the museum calmly replied: "From the same place. From the GPU archives.”
What was it that was so shocking about this picture, captured in black and white by an unknown artist? The fact that it was almost a perfect copy of a photo by Alexander Rodchenko taken on the White Sea Canal. Nobody ever paid any attention to it, and very few people would have thought to undertake a study of the picture. But it was clearly the same image—taken in the Gulag. And indeed the photos in the White Sea Canal’s archives (including those obviously made Rodchenko), are listed as anonymous. It almost seems as if there’s no reason to investigate them.
Back at the hotel, I compared the image in the picture with the image in the photograph, which was on my computer. The similarity in the composition was undeniable. Silhouettes of figures of the “canal army men” were replicated in the same way. But a few details were missing and some of the figures were truncated in the photograph, skewing the composition. Also, a few of the figures were slightly shifted out of position by brass band musicians. Also, on the walls of the gateway, several posters glorifying Stalin and the construction of the White Sea Canal were doctored in. On the reverse side of the picture, there was a relatively old and slightly spoiled canvas, and a painting without a canvas stretcher, attached directly to the frame.
The next morning, I went back to the museum. "Most likely, it hung in the management’s office of the BBK in Stalin's time,” said a museum employee. Of course, the management, I thought, because Rodchenko worked and lived there, and there wasn’t just a lab, but a whole workshop for artists. And Rodchenko was not only a photographer, but an artist. True, he wasn’t a very good “graphic artist.” The reality is that he didn’t know how to draw, but rather just painted constructions with a "ruler and compass," though he received his education from an art school in Kazan. Who, apart from Rodchenko, could draw from a proper photo in the Gulag? The imprisoned canal workers? It is unlikely that they would have access to Rodchenko’s photos. And anyway, what would be the point? Propagandistic images are far more effective. Therefore it’s logical to assume that he did it himself. There was enough time. And the circumstances also correspond. Yes, and there are references in the diaries that Rodchenko used photos for the painting of pictures.
"You know what?” I said to the museum employee. “Take care of that picture—it might turn out to be worth an incredible amount of money, and then you’ll be able to pay the salaries of museum staff for several years. That’s fair, in my opinion."
Is it possible today to prove the authorship of the picture? I'm no expert, but the chances are that you can—albeit with some uncertainty.
In the December 1933 issue of the illustrated magazine USSR in Construction, which came out in three languages and was distributed, in particular, among the Soviet elite, Rodchenko wrote about this brass band from the picture and photograph: "For 20 months, [the camp] has trained around 20,000 skilled workers in 40 specialties. These are all former thieves, kulaks, vermin, and murderers. For the first time they come to learn about the poetry of labor, and the romance of construction. They worked to the music of their own orchestras." The same magazine features photos using “concealed wiring,” the aim of which was to show work as pleasurable during the construction of the White Sea Canal. Perhaps it can be called creativity, art even, if you don’t know or don’t want to know what a lie this all is—the propaganda and the crime against humanity, elevated to the rank of art. If you don’t see or don’t want to see the burial pit, where between 100 and 200 people were shot in the head.
If you compare the photographs of the former OGPU archives, which are listed as "anonymous" with all of Alexander Rodchenko’s publications about the White Sea Canal in the media, it turns out that the GPU archive contains a more honest reality than one presented in the montages and propaganda Rodchenko released to the public.
The myth of White Sea Canal’s construction and the "re-education of man" was hellish work. Created in Rodchenko’s photography and photojournalism, the myth began to crumble, many years later, following the publication of a book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn called The Gulag Archipelago.
Rodchenko’s abstract designs, etched onto icons from ruined churches looted by the Bolsheviks, as well as his photomontages and falsifications of reality in the 1930s, no longer have the propagandistic value they did during the Great Terror, but they have gained new currency as art, which the layman has always preferred to see as independent of political regimes. Rodchenko himself is now presented as the victim of the Soviet state’s “leftist art of formalism.” But, unfortunately, the reality is that he was not only a staunch supporter of the government itself, but its very servant in its most odious branch: the Main Political Department.
Why is that? I haven't found a precise explanation, except banal comments from historians. "They were all security officers and commissars." Or the opposite: "They feared for their lives." I haven’t found an adequate explanation, because I do not understand what kind of fear or social idea could make society or the state talk once again about Stalinism respectfully. How is this possible in our time? Can the beauty of such art be absolute at the cost of hundreds of thousands of people tortured and killed?
Moscow. Pushkin Museum. 2009.
Alexander Rodchenko’s private collection. Biography: born, son of a property man and a laundress, he studied in Kazan, he lived in Moscow, an artist, a photographer. Now we go on to the exhibition: photography, paintings, icons. On the wooden panel, where there ought to be the face of Christian saints, there is an abstract composition of the number 100. Barbarism or blasphemy? No. The "new icon" is for the proletariat. It’s the art of the working masses. "Art—it is a deity, a deity that is cruel, dark, vengeful, and insidious, with the devil holding power over him... But I have to defeat the devil, since I have the strength not to give in to him…” (from a letter to Rodchenko’s wife, 1915).
I asked the curator of Rodchenko’s private collection, "Do you think the Bolsheviks had the right to destroy the church, and have its artists write their revolutionary slogans on Christian icons?" The art critic replied, "I am not interested in Rodchenko’s political views. I'm interested in Rodchenko’s art.”
The historian Yury Dmitriev is not interested in "the art of fascists," but he is ready to seek out the places where so many people were executed by the Soviet state. "I knew there was a Devil, an almighty devil—the master of beauty... And I wanted to sell my soul to him... my black soul. And I've done a lot for the Devil, and he did even more for me. But the time has come, and I wanted to be the Devil myself and declare my divinity... I myself can now buy souls, to mock and to love them …" (from a letter to Rodchenko’s wife, 1915).
Did these people feel like they were artists? They thought of themselves more as demiurges, it seems. Was it art? Maybe, but it was not created for man but for God, who ought to have been controlled by the human body. “We are the proletarians of the paint-brush,” “the commissars of art." Rodchenko, 1919.
"Non-objectivity in paintings amazes you now because of the fact that paintings are drawn from life, not divorced from it, as people think. It just predicts the future. All of you will exist like these non-objective forms do—the tone, the weight, the composition." The artist Rodchenko called this "experiences for the future." This immediate future was the era of Stalinism, where people really did transform into a non-objective form, where society came to have one weight and tone, one substance, and where the “main artist" used in his work not a brush or paint, not a camera and photographic film, but the human being and society in his designs for the future.
The White Sea Canal. 2013.
Traveling along the White Sea Canal, those days, I often asked myself: did I go to photograph one of the crimes of Stalinism under the protection of the criminals themselves? And I have to answer—I went because I've done it many times in one war or another, in our time. But the main question is: did I side with the criminals, insofar as I used the photos I took of them? The answer doesn’t lie in art or time; it’s a matter of conscience, which you’ve either got or don’t.
Even today, the gateway to Number 10 White Sea Canal is near a maximum security prison. Seeing the ship "Mamin Sibiryak," I started to take pictures and immediately heard: "Hey!!! Hey!!!” By strength of will I didn’t turn towards the security guard who was brandishing a gun, and I continued to take pictures. The guard began to shout again, “Hey!” and once more my camera clicked away. I didn’t want to stop.
Then came the sound of the guard cocking his rifle—the sound of which I’ll always remember from war. I lowered camera and turned to face the guard. The barrel was aimed in my direction, and another guard ran quickly toward me. I raised my hands up and said, “I’m a journalist!" I always did this in war, when weapons were pointed at me.
The armed guard took away my documents and told me to come with him. I wasn’t going to go anywhere, and I didn’t know what would happen next, but the man in charge soon approached in his epaulets, and I immediately asked the guard, “Well, so? Did you catch a spy?”
As a result, I was allowed to take pictures only at the nearby waterfall, but—along the way—I stumbled across a huge profile of Stalin, lined with white marble on the grey rocks near the shore by the canal. I was told later that it is particularly visible from a high-up vantage point.
Needless to say, while completing this report, I wasn’t at war with the system. My enemy was my own fear.
The author of this text would like to thank Yekaterina Bogachevskaya for her help with preparing this essay.
Translation by Nadia Beard