Behind the camera: Red Army photographer Yevgeny Khaldei
Where: On top of the German Reichstag building in Berlin
Photo Summary: The Soviet flag being raised over the German Reichstag building by Red Army soldiers
Picture Taken: May 2, 1945
In the closing days of World War II, the Communist Russian Red Army smashed its way into Berlin. In the Nazi capital, the German army was overwhelmed into pockets of resistance that either surrendered or fought fanatically to the last man. On the front lines with the Red Army was Yevgeny Khaldei, a Soviet war photographer. In the future, he would say that he spent every 1,481 days of the Russian-German war covering the Soviet battle for the motherland, but in Nazi Berlin, he was looking for one thing, his Iwo Jima shot. Khaldei had seen the pictures of American GI’s raising the flag over the Japanese volcano and before the war ended he wanted to snap a similar scene in Berlin.
Creating his Iwo Jima
Choosing the German Parliament building, The Reichstag, as his Iwo Jima, Khaldei moved to create his Soviet Propaganda masterpiece. With frustration he discovered, he had a place to raise the USSR colors but no Soviet flag. Jumping on a plane back to Moscow he was able to convince employees of his news agency to give him three red tablecloths normally used for official functions. With his uncle, they spent the night sewing on stars, hammers, and sickles before Khaldei returned to Berlin. Even though the Reichstag had been abandoned since the fire of February 1933, which allowed Hitler to take power, it was still heavily defended.
Who raised the flag?
As Berlin fell in the closing days of the War, Red Army photographer Yevgeny Khaldei gathered some soldiers and had them pose a shot of them hoisting the flag (called the Victory Banner) on the roof of the Reichstag building. The photo represented a historic moment, the defeat of Germany in a war that cost the Soviet Union tens of millions of lives. The photo was published on May 13, 1945, in Ogonyok magazine. Out of the 36 Images that Khaldei took and of all the other photographers who took pictures of the flag on the roof it was Khaldei’s images that became iconic.
Celebrated as the image is, it was a reconstruction of a moment that had happened earlier but had been missed by the cameras. The events surrounding the flag raising are murky due to the infamous, “fog of war” caused by the confusion of battle. On April 30th there was great pressure from the Soviet leadership to take the building seen as the “den of the fascist beast” before Mayday celebrations. First, two planes dropped several large red banners on the roof that appeared to have caught on the girders of the bombed-out dome. Also, a number of reports had reached Red Army headquarters that two parties, M.M. Bondar from the 380th Rifle Regiment and Captain V.N. Makov with the 756th might have been able to hoist a flag on the afternoon of April 30th. These reports made it back to Marshal G.K. Zhukov who issued an announcement stating that troops had captured the Reichstag and hoisted a flag. However, when correspondents arrived they found no Soviets in the building and in fact they were pinned down outside the Reichstag by Nazi fire. Zhukov’s announcement that the building had been taken was already broadcast to the world. When the local commander found out that the Nazis still controlled the building contrary to the official Soviet version of events he was frantic to get a flag up and ordered a push to get one somewhere, anywhere on the building.
Soviet soldiers were able to use mortar rounds, fired horizontally, to punch through one of the bricked-up doorways. Splitting up into small teams to hide their purpose the Soviets slowly gained more and more control of the Reichstag interior. Even with the hold-out defenders a small Soviet five-man strike team was able to find a stairway and make their way to the top. At one point they had to use a tree to ram down a door. Making their way to the roof, they chose the mounted statue of Germania, a woman representing Germany, on the roof of the Reichstag to attach their banner. At first, they were going to use their belts to hold it in place but then noticed that the crown on the statue had holes where a flag pole would fit. So at 10:40 PM on April 30, 1945, a 27 years old Mikhail Petrovich Minin climbed the statue and inserted the flag in Germania’s crown. But this first-night flag-raising wasn’t captured on film.
The next day the German troops attacked when they saw the Soviet Victory Flag flying above. Only with Soviet reinforcements was the Red Army able to beat off the counter-attack. While the Nazis didn’t force the Soviets from the building they did manage to bring down the flag. Two days later the Germans that remained trapped in the basement finally surrendered and on the morning of May 2, 1945, they left the building under a white flag.
Finally, Khaldei was able to scale the now pacified Reichstag to take his picture. The official story was that two soldiers: Georgian Meliton Kantaria (to please Stalin who was also Georgian) and the Russian Mikhail Yegorov had raised the flag on April 30. Further conflicting events made things even more confusing when reports emerged that a group of men led by Sergei E. Sorokin made it to the roof and also planted another flag.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it emerged that due to political factors the subjects of the photo were changed and the actual man to hoist the flag, in the picture, was Alyosha Kovalyov. Accounts would emerge that Kovalyov, a Ukrainian, was told by the NKVD to keep quiet about his role in the flag-raising. The other man supporting Kovalyov was revealed in 1996 to be Abdulkhakim Ismailov. In addition to officially naming him as the man in the photo, the Russian government gave him a Hero of Russia medal. Ismailov died on February 16, 2010, in his native village of Chagar-Otar, in the restive southern Russian province of Dagestan.
Yevgeny Khaldei was born into a Ukrainian Jewish family on March 23, 1917, in Donbass, a Ukrainian steel town. He was still an infant when his mother was killed in an anti-Jewish pogrom in 1918. A true survivor, during the Soviet-designed famines that killed millions in Ukraine, Khaldei learned to eat grass to stay alive. Despite Stalin setting in motion the events that led to millions of his Ukrainian countrymen dying in the Famine, he was still loyal to the state.
From a young age, Khaldei was fascinated by photography. As a young teenager, he built his first camera from a lens of his grandmother’s glasses. Soon his pictures started to appear in a local paper the, Socialist Donbass. A few years later he would join the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) as a press photographer. On assignment, photographing children reciting poetry, as part of the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the famous poet Mikhail Lermontov, he first heard the news that Germany had invaded. One of his most famous pieces, “War is announced” was taken on that day on June 22, 1941.
Photographer of the Soviet Army
Commissioned into the Soviet army as a lieutenant he was sent out to photograph the war. Sent into the field with just 160 feet of film because his editor thought that Hitler would be defeated within two weeks. Khaldei was first stationed in the Arctic city of Murmansk with a squadron of British pilots sent to protect the Soviet Union’s lifeline to the West, the Arctic convoys. As the war progressed he shot the liberation of major Soviet cities including Kerch and Sevastopol. At Yalta, he captured the Allies leaders planning post-Nazi Europe. He was part of the red wave that swept across Europe and crushed Berlin. His shot of the Soviet Hammer and Sickle flag over the Reichstag is one of the most significant of World War II. Symbolizing Soviet victory and revenge; not only did Khaldei immortalize the moment: he created it.
In his heroic Soviet propaganda style, he is probably the only journalist to arrange, choreograph and then capture such a symbolic event. He defended posing most of his pictures by insisting that the shot taken should match the importance of the event. As was the case with many Soviet and other journalists during the war, once the picture was taken and developed, that did not mean it was finished. Censors at the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) noticed that on the wrists of the solider in the picture there was not one but two watches indicating a common practice by all parties during World War II, looting. The officials thought the sight of looting members of the Red Army would look badly and told Khaldei to edit them out. Not stopping with the watches, Khaldei also added smoke to the background to add to the drama of a wartime shot. In a recent Art show commemorating his work, only one of his shots was actually taken during combat and not posed. In defence of Mr. Khaldei, he might have been too busy to actually take pictures during combat. Unlike their fellow Allied journalists, Soviet reporters carried arms and were soldiers first, journalists second.
After the War
After the surrender of Germany, Khaldei covered many events including the Nazi war-crimes tribunals, the Nuremberg trials. In 1947 Robert Capa travelled to the Soviet Union with his friend, John Steinbeck. When he was leaving the country Soviet officials wanted to look through his undeveloped images. Capa refused to give them access unless Yevgeny Khaldei developed them. Capa had befriended the photographer while the two covered the Potsdam Conference and the Nuremberg Trials together and photographed one another there. Both men were hard-drinkers and recognized as playboy lady killers.
Khaldei worked with TASS until 1948, when increased Stalin sanctioned antisemitism of the time or his support of Tito, who went against Stalin, forced him from the job. He struggled to find work as a lot of Jews did during that period, until Stalin died in 1953. After Stalin’s death, the antisemitism was brushed under the Soviet carpet and he was able to find work again at the Russian Newspaper giant, Pravda. While it was official state doctrine that everyone in the USSR was equal and there was no race problem like America, Khaldei still felt the ever-present antisemitism that has dogged Russian culture for centuries. He was allowed to take pictures of Russian musicians but forbidden to give coverage to Jewish artists. These double standards continued until finally in 1972 when he was again, because of his background, forced from his job at Pravda. Even though Russian antisemitism caused the death of his mother and Soviet antisemitism forced him from two jobs he still supports the Soviet communist dream:
I was a son of Communists, and we were pioneers by the time I was 8. I was invited to Albania and flown there in President Enver Hodja’s plane at age 9. I militated for almost everything possible until I was 17. From then on, my conscience has been drawn inward and as a result, I can’t stand groups, organizations, and dominating ideologies anymore. This doesn’t mean that I don’t deeply respect the socialist ideal, and I’m a far cry from wanting to harp along with everyone else about the curse of communism. At least the respect for values and ideas exists in this ideal, which is terribly lacking nowadays. It’s no coincidence that most members of the Resistance movement were communists if they weren’t Jewish communists.
Credit he deserved
Antisemitism almost buried Khaldei into oblivion as his photos including his shot of the Soviet Flag over the bombed-out ruins of Berlin were published without credit. It was only till after the cold war and the collapse of communism that professors Alexander and Alice Nakhimovsky came across his name in the Russian archives and created a book showcasing his work, WITNESS TO HISTORY: The Photographs of Yevgeny Khaldei. Now the Khaldei Exhibition has a retrospective in major cities all over the world. The book even led to a movie about his life, Evgueni Khaldei: Photographer Under Stalin. Before he was discovered, Khaldei was surviving on a $35 monthly pension from the State. Just after the film was finished on Oct 6, 1997, at the age of 80 he died. He never made any money from royalties of his work but his son-in-law Yuri Bibichev said Khaldei didn’t care, “He was glad that what he had done over 80 years was of use to someone”.
This image used to be copyright free but in 2006 the Russian State changed its copyright laws. So now images:
- taken after 1943 (Image was taken in 1945)
- images whose author wasn’t discovered before 1995 (Khaldei’s role was discovered in 1991)
- the author died 70-years-ago (Khaldei past away in 1997)
- the image was published 70-years-ago (This photo was published May 13, 1945, in the Ogonyok magazine.)
Pictures that fit one of these conditions, like this picture, are all covered by copyright laws and not public domain images.