Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Commissar Vanishes Far Faster But Less Completely Now

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 16 – Until yesterday’s arrest of Aleksey Ulyukayev, the last time an incumbent minister was arrested and charged with crimes in Moscow was in 1953 when Stalin’s successors moved quickly to detain and ultimately execute the late dictator’s secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria (

            Beria’s demise was followed, as had been the case with his predecessors, by efforts to transform him into a non-person, most infamously by distributing a story about the Bering Sea that subscribers to the publication of the Bolshaya Sovetskaya Entsiklopedia were supposed to insert in place of article about Stalin’s secret policeman.

            That case and the many others like it are brilliantly described in detail in David King’s 1997 book, The Commissar Vanishes: Falsification of Photographs and Art in the Soviet Union.  But in the age of the Internet, this process of whiting out those who fall afoul of Kremlin leaders has simultaneously become far more rapid and far less effective than the Soviet-era one.

            In a post on the portal today, commentator Svetlana Gavrilova notes that this process of excising people from the record is far more rapid than it used to be.  Stories about them can simply be deleted from the Internet rather than having to cut out articles from books and newspapers (

            She gives as an example what happened following the detention of the vice governor of St. Petersburg, Marat Oganesyan.  Just before that happened, he was described as scheduled to participate in an event, but within a half an hour of his arrest, all references to him in a local online resource had disappeared.  (See

                Stalin infamously that if there was no person, there was no problem. Now, in the age of the Internet, “there was a person, and [now] there isn’t.”

            But there is another aspect to the making of non-persons in the Internet age that Gavrilova does not discuss but that may become even more important in Putin’s Russia. Almost everything on the Internet is reposted somewhere else or cached in one way or another.  Consequently, deleting a story may make the deleters happy for a time but perhaps not for long.

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