Three Flags of Khaldei

Yesterday I posted about Khaldei and three tableclothes-cum-flags he took from Moscow to Berlin. Here’s how they went up in Berlin:

The first flag was raised next to the Nazi Eagle at the Templehof Airport. The Eagle was dismantled at the end of the war and taken to West Point in 1960. It was quietly returned to Templehof in 1985, and has since been serving as the Berlin Airlift memorial on the airport grounds.


The second flag was hoisted next to the destroyed Quadriga on the Brandenburg Gate. The series of photos above suggest that there was some confusion as to which side of the Quadriga should the flag go. In the third picture, we see the flag already flying (on northside), and Khaldei himself poses before the Quadriga. The gate, which was badly damaged, but miraculously still standing by the end of the war, was restored by the governments of two Berlins — although at the Communists’ insistence, stood without Iron Cross and Prussian Eagle until 1991.


The raising of the third flag became the iconic image of Nazi Germany’s final defeat. Note two watches on the soldier supporting the flag-bearer. Despite being the primary scene of the Soviet airstrikes and the symbolic flag raising, the Reichstag was a mere symbol. It had remained unused since the Fire of 1933.

The photo here suggests that Meliton Kantaria and Mikhail Yegorov raised that flag. It remains a mystery whether the duo (along with a third man, Alexei Berest) were the first soldiers who raised the original flag 2 days earlier, or whether propaganda was given to them just because they were a Georgian and a Russian respectively, two of Stalin’s favored nationalities. (And as I noted yesterday, Yegorov died in 1946, from drunk-driving).

Raising Flag Over the Reichstag

Oganjok reprinted the photo on its cover in 1965, 1970 and 1975.

After seeing Joe Rosenthal’s photo of raising the flag on Iwo Jima, Stalin ordered the Ukrainian photographer Yevgeny Khaldei to take a similar photo that would symbolize the Soviet victory over Germany. Before flying to Berlin to capture the Nazi defeat, Yevgeni Khaldei asked a friend to create three hammer and sickle flags together from three tablecloths. Khaldei photographed the first flag being raised on a Nazi eagle at the Templehof airport, and the second flag being raised at the Brandenburg gate.

As for the third flag, he recruited three privates, Aleksei Kovalyev, Aleksei Goryachev and Abdulkhakim Ismailov, to hoist it atop the Reichstag on May 2nd — three days after the Soviets had captured the key seat of Nazi power. On April 30th 1945, a group of Soviet soldiers had previously  raised a Soviet flag over Reichstag, but it had been brought down by German snipers before any record had been made.

On close examination, the censors noticed that one of the soldiers had a wristwatch on each arm, indicating he had been looting. Khaldei not only removed the watches from the photo, but also darkened the smoke in the background (right) to make his picture more dramatic. The resulting picture was published soon after in the magazine Ogonjok to achieved worldwide fame.

As for the flag-hoister, they didn’t achieve fame and glory they deserved. The state propaganda machine took over and the KGB quietly replaced them (Ismailov was from marginalized Dagestan) with more appropriate substitutes, with a new flag-hoister hailing from Georgia, like Stalin himself. The real participants were told to keep quiet, and the impostors were awarded medals by Stalin; they were even given a new “Victory” car each, although Khaldei relished in the fact that one of them had died just a few months later from drink-driving. Ismailov didn’t received his due credits until the Soviet Union collapsed and truth came out.

Friend of the Little Children

In the Soviet Union, the 1930s unfolded dismally. Collectivisation was not going very well, and rumors of plots and coups permeated. Instead of remedying the underlying ills of collectivisation, Stalin’s response to step up the propaganda. In his blatant lies, Stalin had an unwitting help from America; Fordson tractors, which were widely imported by the Soviet Union, represented everything that was modern and efficient — the very monikers that Stalin wanted to attach onto collectivisation.

Wider Soviet propaganda was becoming more pervasive too. While Lenin hated the personality cult that sprung up about him, Stalin seemed very conformable with it. In a sense, the Stalin cult overgrew the Lenin cult — metaphorically and literally. In early Soviet posters, Lenin was the dominating figure over Stalin, but as time went on, the two became first equal. Then Lenin became smaller and fainter. On November 7th 1939, Pravda’s front page showed a banner above the gathered dignitaries at the Bolshoi Theatre, which depicted a huge head of Stalin and a minute one of Lenin. Eventually, Lenin would be reduced to the byline on the book Stalin was depicted reading. Stalin’s insignificant role in the early Revolution and the Russian civil war was exaggerated. Stalingrad was renamed for him for he had “single-handedly, heroically and against orders” saved it during the civil war. On the other hand, inconvenient facts, such as his desire to cooperate with the tsarist government on his return from exile, were promptly forgotten.

Another major shift in Soviet propaganda was that by the 1930s, it was actively cultivating a feminized image of Russia as “Motherland”, opposed to its portrayal as “Fatherland” in the Tsarist Russia. Through this transformation, Mother Russia was now effectively in union with Father Leader, personified by Stalin. The press images of the mid-1930s showed Stalin in familial poses with women and children. On December 30th 1936, the trade union paper even portrayed him as Grandfather Frost, the Russian Santa Claus.

The first example of now ubiquitous “politician with non-related small child”, was an invention of ever-busy Soviet sycophantic propaganda machine. On July 1, 1935, in Pravda was an illustrated story of a girl Nina Zdrogova, who gave a bouquet to Stalin, and was rewarded with a bag of chocolates and cherries. Almost a year later, on June 29, 1936, Pravda printed what was to become a famous and ubiquitous image instantly, the above photo (by one M. Kalashnikov) showing Stalin with a small girl from the Buryat-Mongol Republic, Gelia Markizova.

In many respects, Gelia was an archetypical Stalinist icon. Firstly, she was a girl. Stalin told Sergei Eisenstein, “We cannot allow any small boy to behave as though he were Soviet power itself,” for the latter’s heroic depiction of a young Soviet martyr in Bezhin Meadow. Then, as befitting an unthreatening girl, Gelia was non-Russian. Stalin depicted himself not only as a father wedded to Mother Russia, but also as a stern paterfamilias of the Soviet Empire, an ironic sight in a country where newspapers reported trials of children as young as ten for counterrevolutionary behavior.

As for young Gelia too, the future held nasty surprises. The very next year, her father, Ardan Markizov, the Second Secretary of Buryat-Mongolia, would be arrested and later shot, together with other leaders of the autonomous republic, as a Japanese spy. Her mother was arrested and sent to Southern Kazakhstan, where she died under mysterious circumstances in November, 1940. Gelia’s transformation from a symbol to the daughter of an “enemy of the people” was complete when she moved in with an aunt in Moscow and changed her family name. Also among those who were purged was First secretary of Buryat-Mongolia, M.I. Erbanov, who was grinning in the background in the original photo; he was deleted from the photograph.

The photo, however, was widely circulated in postcards, posters and pioneer camps. A sculpture was made, but when rumors about the murder of Gelia’s parents circulated, the propaganda value of the image fell, causing the sculptor to be denounced.