Obituary: Yevgeny Khaldei

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Yevgeny Khaldei, photographer: born Donbass, Ukraine 10 March 1917; married (one daughter); died Moscow 6 October 1997.

If the name of the Russian photographer Yevgeny Khaldei is unfamiliar, the iconic imagery he created is not.

For many his most lasting image is of the Soviet flag being raised over the Reichstag during the fall of Berlin in May 1945. The tale of how it was achieved has become a photographic legend: as Berlin began to fall Khaldei returned to Moscow - with rolls of film he had taken - where he searched in vain for Soviet flags to take back to Berlin with him. He finally borrowed three red tablecloths from the news agency Tass, and his uncle sewed on the yellow stars, hammers and sickles.

Khaldei then caught a plane to Berlin and took pictures of the first flag being held next to a statue of the Nazi eagle at Templehof airport. The second he placed on top of the Brandenberg Gate. The third he photographed in the midst of the fighting in and around the Reichstag; he and a group of soldiers climbed to the roof where he took the photograph of his comrades hanging the flag out over the burning streets.

This image became a symbol of Russia's strength and victory over Germany, and it was sent around the world, but only after being slightly doctored; one of the soldiers was clearly wearing two wrist watches, a sign of looting. One watch was removed in the final copy that was distributed. Later, as the state propaganda machine took over, the KGB quietly replaced the pictured soldiers (one of whom was from Dagestan), with two more appropriate substitutes, the new flag- bearer being a Georgian like Stalin. The real participants were told to keep quiet, and the impostors were ceremoniously awarded medals by Stalin and credited for the heroic deed. They were even given a new "Victory" car each at the end of the war, although Khaldei had a smile on his face when he told me that one of them had died just a few months later from drink-driving. He thought it poetic justice.

Yevgeny Khaldei was born in 1917 into a Jewish family in Donbass, in Ukraine. It was the year of the Russian Revolution and anti-Semitism was rife. Yevgeny was just one year old when his mother was killed by a bullet that first passed through his side as she held him. Later his father also perished, and he was raised by his grandmother. At the age of 13, inspired by photographs in magazines, he made a simple camera using card and a lens from his grandmother's spectacles. His subsequent portraits of miners and steelworkers began to appear in his local paper. At 18 he joined the Tass news agency and continued photographing portraits of Soviet workers, and Communist Party officials. It was here that he met his wife Svetlana.

When the Soviet Union joined the Second World War in 1941, the newly promoted Lt Khaldei was sent with his camera, a limited amount of film and his trademark black leather coat to accompany the Russian military on their struggle across Europe. His lens captured the people's heroes, portraying the Soviet war machine the way Stalin wanted the world to see it. Khaldei took photographs every day Russia was at war and was eyewitness to some of the most historic events of the time including the liberation of Sevastopol, Sofia, Belgrade, Bucharest and Vienna, and eventually the fall of Berlin. His images appeared all over the world, but often uncredited. During this period he first met his Western counterparts including Margaret Bourke-White and Robert Capa, who, appalled at the standard of Khaldei's equipment, gave him a new camera.

In the final chapter of the war Khaldei travelled to the Potsdam conference to photograph the Allied leaders. After the leaders had left, the photographers took pictures of each other sitting in the chairs of their favourite leader. Khaldei said he didn't dare have his picture taken in Stalin's chair, who he described as "a great, but terrible leader"; he chose Churchill's instead. In 1946 he covered the trials in Nuremberg, where Goering objected to being photographed by a Jew. With the help of an American MP and his baton, Goering was forced to face Khaldei's lens, and even to have his picture taken with him.

After the war Khaldei continued to present the state's point of view for Russian publications such as Pravda, and many of his images remain superb frozen glimpses of life under Communism, illustrating economic, military and social "successes" of the Soviet Union. Stalin, Molotov, Khrushchev, Gagarin, and Shostokovitch are amongst his many portraits. In 1948 Khaldei was fired from Tass during an anti-Semitic purge, and forced to find work in film laboratories to support his family. In 1959 he joined the newspaper Pravda, where he remained on staff untill 1976.

Most recently this summer I worked with Khaldei organising and editing his entire archive for Corbis, who digitally scanned and captioned his most famous and his previously unpublished works so that they could then be marketed via digital technology and the internet. Together we discovered lost treasures and he relived his incredible life. We worked by what he jokingly called "the Khaldei technique": first edit one strip of original negatives, then drink a toast of vodka, then edit one strip of negatives and drink one more vodka and so on. Khaldei's main wish from licensing his work was not just that it would be preserved, but that millions would have easy access to his pictures and that he would finally see his name credited alongside.

- Graham Cross