Retoucher of Kremlin class

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS Leonid Brezhnev's career flourished, the medals on his chest multiplied. Miraculously, the wrinkles on his face did not. Instead of taking new portraits of the ageing leader of the Soviet Union, Ilya Filatov would photograph the medals and carefully superimpose pictures of them on a more flattering portrait taken several years earlier.

Filatov, now 81, has been the official Kremlin photographer for 40 years. His skill at retouching made Mikhail Gorbachev's birthmark 'disappear', made Brezhnev's eyebrows darker and even thicker, and gave Nikita Khrushchev's teeth a snow-white gleam.

The retirement of Filatov this month marks the end of an era when the public images of the country's leaders were meticulously controlled. The Kremlin photographers who follow him may remove the bags from beneath Boris Yeltsin's tired eyes and shave a few years off the faces of other leaders, but they will not experience the monopoly and freedom he enjoyed.

Unlike today, when Mr Yeltsin smiles for the cameras while eating hamburgers at a newly opened McDonald's in Moscow, or poses in tennis shorts, Soviet leaders rarely made themselves available for pictures. Even the government newspaper Izvestia obtained most of its photographs of the leaders from Filatov.

Reminiscing in his apartment in the prestigious Tsarskoye Selo area of Moscow, where many who had served the party still have their homes, he explained why photographs had to be approved and signed by the leaders themselves. It came about as the result of a vacation taken by Brezhnev in the Crimea.

'He was in a shop in Yalta before he was made general secretary,' Filatov said. 'On the wall of the shop were pictures of all the Politburo members. After some time, Brezhnev finally found a portrait that was supposed to depict him.

'I obviously didn't take that picture. Brezhnev was so amazed that the photo had been allowed to be made public that, from that day forward, all portraits had to be officially approved.'

Although he admits to having been showered with gifts and to enjoying privileges reserved for a select few, Filatov maintains that he lived humbly, like any other Soviet citizen.

'My salary was only 280 roubles a month,' he recalled, 'although there were times when I received large sums for a special picture, like the first photograph that was to be made public of Khrushchev. I was paid 2,000 rubles for that portrait. Considering that the picture was reprinted worldwide, however, it really wasn't that much money.'

When speaking about the current leaders in the Kremlin, the twinkle in Filatov's eyes disappears and his enchantment with his work seems to fade.

'Here is His Highness,' he said, a touch of sarcasm in his voice as he shows a recent portrait of President Yeltsin. 'It's a nice shot, isn't it?'

He does not see anything unusual, or dishonest, about making the leaders look younger and more handsome than they were. A specialist at photo-retouching since the age of 13, it was Filatov who first suggested removing the birthmark from official portraits of Gorbachev. 'I showed it to Gorbachev and he just shrugged his shoulders and said that it was fine. He complimented me on my craftsmanship.'

(Photograph omitted)