The great Russian photographer YEVGENY KHALDEI has lived and worked through some of the most cataclysmic events of our terrible century. BRIAN MOYNAHAN introduces the man and his work, and on the following pages Khaldei himself provides a commentary for some of the most memorable images from his pr ivate archive

Russia's cruel century has tossed all its violence at the photographer Yevgeny Khaldei: pogroms, civil war, Stalin and, above all, Hitler's war, which he recorded with such brilliance. He is a survivor. He lives alone now, a baby of the 1917 Revolution, still fending for himself in a tiny apartment in Moscow.

Portraits of Constantin Simonov, the poet and Khaldei's close friend, and Marshal Zhukov, his hero, hang on the walls. So does Stalin, who nearly did for him. Moments of the history of the war - brutal, sentimental, triumphant - cascade in photographs from roughly made drawers, along with medals and decorations from countries - the USSR, the GDR - that no longer exist. It is an archive of a lost world.

Khaldei was born as the Revolution began, on 10 March, 1917, in a steel town in the Ukraine. He was the youngest of six children of a bookbinder. The family was Jewish. In the civil war that followed the Bolshevik coup in October 1917, the Whites whipped up an anti-Jewish mob which torched his quarter. His father was away. His mother was shot by a gunman. She was holding the infant Yevgeny to protect him, and the bullet passed through his side before killing her. "It was on 13 March, 1918," he says. "The day before Easter Sunday." Despite his years at the front, it is the only scar he bears.

He falsified his age to leave school at 12 and start work in a steelworks. He always wanted to be a photographer, making himself a crude box camera and experimenting with portraits of his sisters. He did well: at 15 he was a photo-grapher on his local paper, Socialist Donbass. The miners, steelmen and Young Pioneers who were building Stalin's "Second America" were Khaldei's material. He had a flair for heroic composition, and national newspapers started running his pictures. At 18, he landed a plum job as a staff photographer with Tass, the big news agency in Moscow.

The European war to the west seemed far distant until Khaldei noticed a small crowd outside the Tass building on a June morning in 1941. They were listening to a radio broadcast. In a flat, dry voice made tinny by the loudspeaker, Molotov, Stalin's foreign minister, announced that Nazi troops had crossed the border. The listeners were in shock. Khaldei had his first image of the new war.

He covered it from its first day to the last, with the rank of lieutenant, and most of his work was published in Pravda. He worked on his own with a backpack and some chemicals for developing, and a black leather coat he still has. It looked SS issue, although it had been given to him by the widow of a pilot friend.

Khaldei began the war at Murmansk in the Arctic, where he met British pilots who had come to fly Hurricanes to protect the Arctic convoys. He liked them. It amused him to see them playing football in the snow, and they introduced him to an enduring love of whisky.

Having recorded the desperate struggle against the Nazi invasion, Khaldei was at the liberation of Kerch and of Sebastapol in May 1944. "Then", he says, "I was ready for my tour of European capitals. It was wine, fruit and kisses all the way." He always stayed at the best hotel in town. "That was one of the perks of war - no reservations or visas necessary, and no bills."

"Bucharest was the first capitalist city any of us had seen. The propaganda boys had to do some quick explaining of why everything was so beautiful, why the women were so chic and the peasants so plump. So they said, 'These people are only rich because they've been robbing Russia.'

"And, you know, there was one thing that made us very angry in the War: when we entered Austria and Germany, and saw how well our enemies had lived. Why should these people, who already had so much, have invaded our poor Russia, which had so little?"

Khaldei used pre-War Baedeker guides to bone up on the landmarks of cities about to fall to the Red Army. Berlin was the real prize, and he wanted a red flag to symbolise its fall. There were none at the front. He flew to Moscow with film on 22 April, 1945; no flags there, either. The man in charge of stores at Tass was called Grisha Lubinsky. He had red tablecloths used for editorial meetings. "I asked him for three," says Khaldei. "He asked why. I said it was a military secret. He said I could only have them for a few days and he made me sign for them." Khaldei was staying with his uncle, a tailor, who sat up all night sewing stars and hammers and sickles on to the tablecloths.

Back in Berlin, Khaldei flew the first table cloth beside the great German eagle at Tempelhof airport, which fell to the Russians on 28 April. His dies mirabilis came on 2 May. He had spent a sleepless night in the cellar of a ruined house with a group of infantrymen, exhausted from constant street fighting. At 5am, he began making his way towards the burning centre.

In the early morning light, he noticed a crowd of Russian troops at the Brandenburg Gate being addressed by the poet and war correspondent Yevgenny Dolmatovsky, who told them that Hitler was dead - "The troops were cursing, shouting 'son of a bitch', because they'd hoped to catch him." Khaldei knew from his Baedeker that a circular staircase led to the bronze horses on the top of the gate. He began to climb. The horses and chariots were bullet-scarred. Khaldei unwrapped the second tablecloth, attached it to a statue and photographed it.

"I thought that was probably as good as I was going to get," he says. By then it was 7.30am. Khaldei came briefly across his friend Simonov. "Constantin was interested in going to the zoo, where he came across two dead SS men next to a cage of shellshocked chimpanzees," he says. "That might have made a picture, but I was after something bigger. I wanted the Reichstag."

Red Army men were lapping round the Reichstag: some were already drinking vodka and dancing. There was sill fighting in the basement. Khaldei had one cloth left. "I said to the guys who were following me, let's go to the top and do it," he says. "So we went up the main staircase, letting off a burst at each floor to make sure the Nazis kept their heads down." There was blood on the roof, which made it dangerously slippery. Soviet history would say that the flag was held by Mikhail Kantaria, assisted by Mikhail Yegorov and Constantin Samsonov. Stalin was gratified that Kantaria, a fellow Georgian, was the hero. "But it wasn't true," says Khaldei. "The actual soldier holding the flag was called Alexei Kovalyov. The soldier hanging on to his legs to stop him falling off was a guy from Daghestan whose name I never got."

Khaldei returned to the Brandenburg Gate. He met up with Domatovsky and with Roman Carmen, a cameraman famous for sequences of the Spanish Civil War. All three were Jews, and Khaldei got an officer to take a photograph of them. "We called the picture The Three Yids who Liberated Berlin," says Khaldei. "We thought that would get seriously up Hitler's nose."

The Germans were surrendering wholesale by now. "I felt for them," says Khaldei. "It was so tragic, a special shame, to be captured in your own capital city." He entered Hitler's bunker. "I went into what was said to be Hitler's room. It was full of people grabbing whatever they could find. But I didn't have any flash."

He moved on to the Reich Chancellery, where he remembers several suicides lying, and boxes of Nazi decorations strewn over the steps. "It was extraordinary, as if the place had been a medal factory," he says. "I thought, well, we've swept away the Nazis and now we'd better sweep up their medals. There was a soldier with me, a guy called Gorogulya from a collective farm in Dnieperpetrovsk. He found a broom and I got a roll of him tidying the place up."

Back in Moscow, he went to the Tass office, where Lubinsky caught up with him. "Where are the tablecloths?" he demanded. "You signed for them. I want them back. Now." Khaldei told him, with modest pride, that one was flying over the Reichstag and another over the Brandenburg Gate. "I don't care where you left them," Lubinsky exploded. "Just get them back here at once!"

Khaldei was at the Potsdam conference of victors, in the Far East for the last actions of the War as the Red Army chased the Japanese from Manchuria, and at the Nuremberg trials.

Then he became a non-person. He had photographed Marshal Tito in Belgrade, and they got on well, swapping stories and jokes. An NKVD informer made a note. In 1947, Tito fell out with Stalin. A friend of Tito became an enemy of the Soviet Union. The note was resurrected; Tass fired Khaldei. He survived by working in film labs. When Stalin died, he "cried like a baby. He was a terrible man, but he was also a great man." Khaldei was able to work as a photographer again - though not to travel abroad, and not to win plum assignments. He retired in the late Seventies. ARCTIC FRONT Khaldei writes: This is Boris Safonov (above). He was the chief fighter pilot of the squadron that flew with the British. He was killed on convoy escort... These British troops, typical Tommies (below), were with a reindeer herdsman and it was too good to miss... I was out with this patrol (right), slogging along, and the men put on their rain capes and transformed their silhouettes

women at war Life came back to Sebastopol (left) after its liberation. These are officers sunbathing with their girlfriends. You can tell they were officers, because men weren't allowed girlfriends. This is a girl sniper (above) on the front at Novorossisk. She was so pretty, such a tomboy, but she was the best sniper on the front. She was killed later, I never found out where. This was May Day, almost in the centre of Berlin in 1945 (below). A girl called Maria Schalinova was on traffic duty. It was very dangerous for these girls. They were very close to the front and the Germans could catch them in counter-attacks

the unbeliever The woman holding the shoes came out of a subway in Berlin on 28 April, 1945. She'd spent a fortnight underground. She thought I was SS because of my black coat. She said, 'What sort of tanks are those?' I said, 'They're Russian.' She said, 'They can't be. Goebbels said they'd never get to Berlin.' I said, 'What do you think I am?' And then she understood

surrender or suicide I was at Marshal Chuikov's combat headquarters on 1 May, 1945 when this German general, Krebs (left), turned up. He told us that Hitler had committed suicide and that he was authorised by Goebbels to negotiate a surrender. Chuikov told him that any surrender would be unconditional. So Krebs went away. The next day he shot himself

BEGINNING AND END I went into this ruined street (above) in Budapest in January 1945 and there was this Jewish couple wearing their Stars of David. They were afraid of me. There was still fighting going on in the city and they thought I might be SS. So I said 'Shalom' to them, and the woman began to cry and then calmed down. After I'd taken the picture, I pulled their stars off. It's terrible to be marked like that... Three months later I was in Vienna. We were closing on the square in front of the parliament. This senior Nazi had come with his family, all in their Sunday best. He shot his wife and his son, but his daughter didn't want to die. So he pinned her on the bench and shot her. Then he killed himself as we arrived. One of our officers who'd been at Stalingrad said he'd never seen anything so terrible, so wasteful...

tablecloths over berlin I wanted a symbol that Berlin had fallen to us. A red flag meant Reds; otherwise it would just be men among ruins. I went back to Moscow with film. The trouble was, they were out of red flags. I remembered that Tass used red tablecloths in conference rooms. So I went to stores and said I needed them for military purposes and got three of them. My uncle, who was a tailor, sat up all night sewing stars and hammers and sickles on them. I used the first one next to the German eagle at Tempelhof airport (above) when that fell to us. I flew the next one on the top of the Brandenburg Gate (below) early on 2 May 1945. Then I took the last one to the top of the Reichstag (right). When I flew back to Moscow with the pictures, they wanted the tablecloths back...

I was back in Moscow for the victory parade on 22 June, 1945. These soldiers (left) were about to carry the captured German standards across Red Square and fling them down in front of Lenin's mausoleum. The sergeant nearest the camera was the tallest and was given the Adolf Hitler standard. He wouldn't carry it at first, said it was an insult. I said, 'You ass, it's the greatest honour you could have.' He was OK then... Marshal Zhukov was my hero. He became my friend. This was his favourite picture (above), because he'd been a young Red cavalryman in the civil war, and I caught his horse at the moment of canter... I took this picture (right) with a Speed Graphic that Robert Capa gave me. You had to get absolutely the right moment. I hung on at this parade at the Dynamo stadium while Stalin held the boy, until Molotov pushed forward the girl

the VICTORs I was at the Potsdam conference in June 1945. It was the first time I'd come across Western photographers. Here's the mob (above) waiting for action... I had my first taste of democracy too. There was Churchill one minute, in all his glory with Truman and Stalin (left) - and the next moment, he was replaced by this anonymous little man called Attlee, who hardly filled his chair, all because of an election... We were fooling about after taking the pictures of the great men - and I made sure I bagged Churchill's chair. The waiter in the background is a Georgian, like Stalin; he's waiting to have his picture taken in Stalin's chair

The vanquished I went to the war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg in 1946. Goering hated Russians. One time he was sitting having a meal in the canteen on the second floor of the courtroom (above, Goering left). He saw me start taking his picture. He went wild and started shouting. An American lieutenant asked him what he was up to. He said he wasn't going to have any damn Russian take his picture. God knows what he'd have done if he'd known I was a Jew to boot. The American slapped him, and turned to me and said, 'Now, sir, you can take his photograph...' It was bitterly cold in the court, in a ruined city without heat (left). They said Goering's drug addiction made him vulnerable to the cold. He asked for a blanket, and then Hess did the same...

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