Cannibalized Images

The Biopolitics of Photography in the Soviet Famine, 1920–22

By Kathleen Tahk

The following text is excerpted from FUSE Magazine 36-3 (Summer 2013). In order to read the full text, purchase the article below.

This is, in essence, the story of a single photograph. The image, a group portrait of six individuals accused of cannibalism during the brutal Soviet famine of 1920–22, has been used by historians as a mute testament to the horrors of the Russian Civil War and the period of War Communism. [1] A closer look at the photograph, however, reveals that it is hardly a transparent document. The photograph takes on radically different meanings when considered in three different moments within its history of production and circulation: the photographing of the scene in the winter of 1921–22; the publication of the photograph in the French newspaper L’Illustration in July 1922; and the exhibition of famine photographs in the Kremlin in May 1922. Instead of a direct testimony to the horrors of the 1920–22 famine, the additive structure and adaptability of the photograph’s signification made it a potent instrument of biopolitical power, facilitating the control and manipulation of subject bodies. Despite the seeming visibility of these six survivors, they have never been allowed to give their own testimony.

Within the historical archive, only traces of these three moments remain. When the photograph appeared in L’Illustration, for instance, all but the most rudimentary facts about the identities of its subjects and its photographer had disappeared. While meticulous archival work might reveal a more complete history of the image, that is not the objective of the present essay. In a sense, the appearance of this article in FUSE adds a fourth moment to the history of the image, yet it is a moment radically unlike the previous three. While the three earlier presentations sought to assign identities to the photographed peasants and in essence to speak for them, this return to the photograph ninety years later insists on the opacity of the six survivors’ identities within the photographic frame.

I. Buzuluk, Winter 1921–1922

It is winter in Buzuluk, a town at the very edge of Soviet Russia’s southeastern frontier. Like the rest of the Samara and Orenburg provinces, Buzuluk is, by this point, in a sustained state of emergency. The failure of the 1921 harvest in the heavily agricultural Volga region has left most of its residents without sufficient food stores to survive the winter. Though resources were already dangerously short in 1920, the famine crisis reaches its devastating climax in January and February 1922. [2]

During this brutal winter, agents of the new Soviet police, the Cheka, have been dispatched to the famine zone to investigate reports of cannibalism brought on by the conditions of mass starvation. One of the more vivid documents produced in their investigations is a photograph, a group portrait of six unidentified peasants arrested in Buzuluk under suspicion of cannibalistic acts. In the photograph, the mounds of snow and the hard, barren ground hint at the severity of the famine at this moment. Other contemporary images of the cracked surface of the earth testify even more dramatically to the impoverished soil. The Buzuluk photograph, however, shows not the fields, but rather a town. [3] Here the frozen ground stands as a metaphor for the infertility of the countryside, which drove large numbers of desperate farmers to seek relief in the urban centres. Across the Volga region, railway stations in the cities have transformed into impromptu refugee camps, in which desperate peasants wait in the hope of escaping the famine zone. [4] Given the massive scale of migration during the famine, these six individuals, too, may be newcomers to the streets in which they stand.

The famine represented in the photograph is only one part of the chaos of the early twenties. Though Lenin and the Bolshevik Party had seized power in the Communist revolution of 1917, their consolidation of power remained a work in progress. Between 1917 and 1921, the new Red Army clashed with counterrevolutionary White forces still loyal to the old imperial order in a protracted civil war. [5] At the same time, the growth of rebellious peasant armies inhibited efforts by the Bolshevik government to secure the countryside. In the midst of the chaos of war, rebellion and counterrevolution, the great famine of 1920–22 had by far the largest death toll. In the short span of three years, this catastrophic event claimed the lives of nine million Soviet citizens. [6] The mass starvation, banditry and violence engendered by the famine posed a difficult challenge to a state still struggling to maintain its stability.

The group has not assembled here voluntarily. The photographer, a Cheka official, has arranged them in a line before his lens not simply to document the conditions of the famine, but rather to generate evidence for a criminal investigation of cannibalistic acts in Samara. [7] In this encounter on the streets of Buzuluk, the camera functions as a technology of power, which contains and controls bodies through their representation. With the force and the authority of his position, the officer has physically arrested these individuals and ordered them to stand before the camera lens. The composition of the resulting image follows an additive logic: one body after another is joined together with the indeterminate conjunction “and.” Thus, the picture itself becomes the sole bond between these six persons; they are a group because they are here, in the print, together. In the photograph, the awkward and detached relationships between the figures testify to this additive character. Though their bodies press up against one another, the six peasants do not quite cohere into a group. Instead, they stare forward blankly, as though unaware of one another’s presence. Their rigid frontal poses reveal no legible gestures of intimacy between them; their hands do not extend to one another but turn in towards themselves. Any connections between these men and women outside of the picture frame remain indecipherable within it. If the relationship between the figures rests on their occupation of the shared space of the photograph, then their relationship to the pile of cannibalized body parts in front of them relies on it even more. No criminal act is taking place here; indeed, the figures are drained of any markers of activity. It is important to note that this is not a photograph of the act of cannibalism, though it may (or may not) be a photograph of cannibals.

In binding the individuals together, the photograph holds and confines their bodies within the delimited space of its borders. Here the medium of photography acts as more than a means of representation. In this encounter between state authority and peasant, photography becomes specifically an instrument of biopolitical power. Though photographic theorists have rightly interrogated claims of the medium’s objective reproduction of the real, the perception that a photograph is a direct imprint of the physical world retains a significant power. In the case of these famine images, the state not only observes and documents the bodies of its citizens, but also inscribes itself on them. As soon as they enter the photographic frame, the Buzuluk peasant bodies become purported cannibal bodies, and the permanency of the image ensures that they will remain so. The bodies of the peasants in the Buzuluk photo become cannibal bodies — that is to say, bodies excluded from the social and political order, within the image. The photograph, which has constructed their cannibal identity, becomes subsequently a document proving this very identity. This paradoxical loop, rooted in the truth claims of photography, collapses representation and presentation.


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[1] Orlando Figes, Peasant Russia, Civil  War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), plate 12;  T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 240.

[2] For further readings on the histories of the 1920–22 famine, see Figes, Peasant Russia; E.H. Carr, A History of Soviet Russia, vol. 1–2 (New York: Macmillan, 1950); Cormac Ó Grada, Famine: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)

[3] The setting can be recognized as relatively urban based on the brick building behind them. Peasant residences in small villages or on farm plots were generally small, wooden structures.

[4] An eyewitness account by a Russian observer in Simbirsk paints a vivid picture of the squalor in the railway stations: “Imagine a compact mass of sordid rags, among which are visible here and there, lean, naked arms, faces already stamped with the seal of death. Above all one is conscious of a poisonous odor. It is impossible to pass. The waiting room, the corridor, every foot thickly covered with people, sprawling, seated, crouched in every imaginable position. If one looks closely he sees that these filthy rags are swarming with vermin. The typhus stricken grovel and shiver in their fever, their babies with them. Nursing babies have lost their voices and are no longer able to cry. Every day more than twenty dead are carried away, but it is not possible to remove all of them. Sometimes corpses remain among the living for more than five days… It is impossible to close the railway station. There is no way to stop this great wave of starving peasants who come to the city to die.” Cited in H. H. Fisher, The Famine in Soviet Russia (New York: Macmillan, 1927), 90.

[5] For general historical accounts of these years, see Carr, 1950 and Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR: 1917–1991 (London: Penguin, 1992). For specific studies of the rural experience of this period, which is of special concern for this paper, see Figes, 1989 and Aaron B. Retish, Russia’s Peasants in Revolution and Civil  War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[6] An exact death toll of the famine is extremely challenging to calculate due to incomplete documentation of all death. Additionally, the effects of the Civil War and those of the failed harvest both fed into the famine, making it difficult to distinguish those who died in the conflict from those who died in the famine. Drawing on the calculations of different historians, Ó Grada gives nine million deaths as a moderate estimate. Ó Grada, 2009, 23.

[7] Harry L. Gilchriese, an American relief worker in Russia, stated in L’Illustration that he received the Buzuluk photograph and other similar images from a Cheka official, who also informed him that the Soviet police had taken the pictures in their investigations of incidents of cannibalism. According to Gilchriese, the photographs came from the archives of the Cheka. L’Illustration (22 July 1922), 82.

Kathleen Tahk, currently a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the Northwestern University, also holds an MA in Design History from the Bard Graduate Center. Her work focuses on art in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc and its conflicted role within broader histories of modernity and modernism. Her dissertation project, A Revolution Beyond Borders: The Soviet Art of the Latvian Riflemen, 1917–1937, examines the collective project of five Soviet artists and their imagining of a mode of dislocated, mobile socialist experience as a counter to capitalist globalization.

Image Credit: Image reproduced from Éric Baschet, Russie 1904–1924 (Paris: Éric Baschet Editions, 1978). Original photograph from 1922 is in the public domain.

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