State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 62 Spring 1998


‘The Great Patriotic War’: Notes on Russian Photographs in the Argus Collection

In 1942 when the tide was turning on the Eastern Front, Russian photographer, M. Slutskii, made a documentary film entitled A Day of the War.1 The purpose of the film was to document a day in the life of the peoples of the Soviet Union in different parts of the country and along the Front. One hundred and sixty soldier-photographers took part in the production of the documentary on 13 June 1942, and by the end of the day 30 of them were dead.
We are lucky that a number of stills from this film (the title of which is given as The March of Time's One Day of War) survive in the Argus Collection. They were distributed via the International Photo Agency, New York, and were published in papers owned by the Argus during the next two years. A few of these stills are outstanding images in the genre of war photography.
After the Argus ceased publication on 19 January 1957 it was acquired by the Age, which later donated its very large collection of original war photographs to the Picture Collection. We estimate that the collection, which has not yet been fully accessioned, contains about 60,000 photographs, the majority of which are of the Second World War. Only one box relates to the First World War, but there are numerous boxes on the Spanish Civil War and the Korean War. As a newspaper archive, most of the prints in the Argus Collection came through commercial agencies or official sources. Many were transmitted by radio and the resulting images are distorted and on fragile paper.
Of great interest is a series of original photographic prints stamped on the verso: ‘Printed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’. They are gelatin silver photographs printed on firm paper and show some signs of silvering out or chemical degradation. There is usually a typed text pasted on the verso which gives the name of the photographer and sometimes the journalists.
Official war photography will always attempt to present a point of view, whether it is to raise the spirits of the people or to denigrate the enemy. The Russian photographers tend to present their subjects in a romantic or heroic fashion. In addition, the Russian photographs must also be seen as a form of propaganda to the West. As the War on the Eastern Front and in Russia received little coverage at the time, this collection is of great interest. It appears that many of these images were never published in any of the Argus -owned papers.
The following selection of images indicates the richness of the Argus Collection:

The Role of Women

The role of women is vastly changed in the ‘new’ Russia, as evidenced by the numbers of women and girls fighting at the front line or working as nurses. A young girl, Nurse Sacha Sekolova, is shown crouched over the body of a wounded soldier she has just rescued and dragged to the safety of a Russian trench. A remarkably fine image from the front line, it captures the energy of the moment and the concentrated concern on the young girl's face. Her actions are described as ‘the end of a piece of raw heroism’. [H98.101/1029, International News Photo dated 20 April 1943]

The Fate of Nazi Might in Russia

Dead end to ‘Drang Nach Osten’ [Drive to the East] is the caption given to perhaps the most dramatic image we have from The March of Time's One Day of War. The camera focuses on the lower right arm and hand of a dead German soldier hanging over the edge of a tank. On the soldier's fourth finger is a heavy metal ring with the swastika as the central emblem on a black circular background. The body to which the arm belongs is anonymous, but the tank has been named ‘Bruno’. The simple but potent image evokes the bitter fighting on the Eastern Front which resulted in the
humiliating defeat of Hitler's armies. The caption describes it thus: ‘the blood flesh and steel of nazidom stopped cold’. When published in the Australasian two years later in 1944, the symbolic nature of the image is also acknowledged: ‘Once so strong, so sure, so triumphant, this dead hand of a young German soldier symbolises the fate of the Nazi might in Russia.’ Today, its power undiminished, it stands as a most striking anti-war image. [H98.101/1332, International News Photo]
Similar images have been located from The March of Time's One Day of War. In addition, stills from other documentary films have been found. For example, for a film called Moscow Strikes Back we have a poignant image of a Red Army soldier leading a young girl back to her home after the recapture of the village from the Germans.4
Two photographs have been located from the documentary film People's Avengers. This is the story of the Russian partisans who worked behind the German lines. The film was made by 18 Red Army cameramen who parachuted in to join the guerrillas.5 One image shows the body of a partisan sympathiser, Bassily Bezhenov, who was hanged by the Germans as an example to the other villagers.6
We have two stills from the film Leningrad in Struggle; one a view at the railway station showing the evacuation of the inhabitants, the other a view of people coming out after an air raid to clear the streets.7

Heroes of the Soviet Union

One series of photographs is of handsome men and women whose exploits have earned them the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Posed usually against an open sky looking upwards and beyond the camera lens they represent the new Russia in which workers, peasants and ordinary soldiers are idealised. The gelatin silver toned photograph by S. Kafafayon shows Guards Captain Grigory Rechkalov, a Hero of the Soviet Union, with three orders on his tunic and 22 stars on his aeroplane indicating he has shot down 22 fascist machines. Photographed in the sunshine against the sky, Captain Rechkalov is the physical embodiment of heroism. The camera looks upwards and a shadow from his head falls over his right shoulder. Fair haired and smiling he looks into the distance. [H98.101/1227, text by N. Virta, published Australasian, 9 December 1944]
Another example by the same photographer is of Senior Lieutenant Ivan Gorbunov, famous because his group of six fighters forced a hundred German bombers to turn off their course and unload their bombs on their own troop positions. The young Gorbunov stands in front of his aircraft which is covered by lace-like camoflauge netting. The image shows his upper torso and head and he, too, looks beyond the camera into the distance. [H98.101/1236, gelatin silver toned photograph, text by N. Virta, published Argus, 30 November 1944]
Other images, this time of heroic womanhood, are represented. One by photographer Konovalov is of Field Nurse Valentina Mosilkina, who was ‘always to be found with the advance units. She was twice wounded’. Another woman, ‘Field Nurse Voltinova’, rendered first aid under fire.

The Cossacks

The Russian Cossacks have always been seen as exotic and romantic by the west. Although the Imperial Cossacks9 had been stamped out by 1920 by the Bolsheviks, by 1936 the Red Army had set up cavalry divisions which they named Cossacks. The Cossacks in the Red Army had little to do with the true Imperial Cossacks, but the images of these Cossacks continue to have a romantic and heroic appeal.
The Red Army Cossacks fought alongside mechanised artillery and often with air support. Their ability to manoeuvre in the difficult Russian terrain made them an effective force. In January 1942 fifty divisions of Russian cavalry outmanoeuvred the Germans around Rostov. Hiding in the dense Russian forests by day, they concentrated their forces more quickly than the Germans and did the actual fighting dismounted.10
There are a number of wonderful images of the Soviet Cossacks showing them riding into battle across the landscape with swords raised. One such image is from the Crimean sector of the front showing a cavalry charge by the Kuban Cossaks. [Gelatin silver photograph. Printed USSR, no. R-558, dated May 1942. Argus Collection, Box 57B] Another similar image shows a group of unidentified cavalry charging across a flat
plain. Their swords are raised and they are wearing long cloaks and pillbox shaped sheepskin hats.11 This uniform can be seen more clearly in a posed photograph of a scout, Mounted Guardsman Seiseke Tastanov. Described as a Kazakh from the Alma-Ata Region, Guardsman Tastanov is photographed standing by his horse. He is wearing a heavy cloak which could be made of skin or a mohair type fabric and his hat is black sheepskin. [Opposite page: gelatin silver photograph. Printed USSR, no. 16315, dated May 1943. Argus Collection, Box 57A]

The Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad, one of the most outstanding events of the war in Russia, lasted six and a half months and was fought by two million officers and men on both sides. The Germans heavily outnumbered the Soviet forces who staunchly resisted the fierce onslaught. On 28 July Stalin issued his famous order: ‘Not a step backwards! This must be our main call now. Each position, each yard of Soviet territory must be defended stubbornly, to the last drop of blood’…12
A number of photographs document the street fighting in Stalingrad. A group of Russian soldiers march past the ghostly shells of multi-story buildings in October 1942, and in November of that year men of the workers' battalion are shown defending their plant. [Gelatin silver photograph. Printed USSR, numbered respectively, 8300, November 1942 and R-1020, November 1942. Argus Collection, Box 57B]. The battle ended in victory for the Soviets on 2 February 1943. We have a photograph of street fighting on the outskirts of
Stalingrad. It shows Red army men attempting to dislodge Germans from a house. [Gelatin silver photograph. Printed in the USSR, no. 11622, dated January 1943. Argus Collection, Box 57B.]


Many of the photographs are of interest for what they show of the ordinary people and of the villages. Two photographs are joined to make up a kind of panorama showing the destruction of the village of Krutiza. The area is devastated. The right hand image (reproduced here) shows an elderly peasant woman carrying her possessions in a sack as she walks past the tumbled down remains of a wooden building. A veritable Mother Courage, the lines of suffering are deeply etched on her face. [Opposite page: gelatin silver photograph. Printed USSR, no. 8788, dated October 1942. Argus Collection, Box 57B.]
Mary Lewis


Peter Kenez, ‘Black and White: the War on Film’ in Culture and Entertainment in Wartime Russia, ed. Richard Stites, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.


Australasian 15 July 1944, ‘Death on a Russian Battlefield, and so endeth the dreams of the Fuhrer.’


Screened print H98.101/1333.


Gelatin silver photographs H98.101/1066, H98.101/1329, H98.101/1416 and H98.101/1203.


Argus Collection Box 57, International News Photo, release date 13 June 1944.


Gelatin silver photograph. International News Photo, New York. Release date 13 June 1944. Argus Collection, Box 57.


Argus Collection Box 57B, Printed in the USSR Nos. 6240, 6243 July 1942.


Gelatin silver photograph H 98.101/1245 published in Pix 16 September 1944.


Albert Seaton, The Horsemen of the Steppes: The story of the Cossacks, London: The Bodley Head, 1985, pp. 234–35.


Life, vol. 12, no. 2; 12 January 1942, p. 20–21.


Gelatin silver photograph. Printed in the USSR, numbered R-1246, dated April 1943. Argus Collection, Box 57B.


Order No. 227 of People's Defence Commissar Stalin, quoted in The Great Patriotic War by Vasily Chuikov and Vasily Ryabov, Moscow: Planeta Pubs., 1985, p. 143.

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