Grief by Dmitri Baltermants, 1942

The Second World War claimed the lives of at least forty-one million Europeans, more than half of them in the Soviet Union. Between 8-9 million soldiers in the Red Army were killed, and 18 million more were wounded. Between 16-19 million Soviet citizens lost their lives. Estimates of the total Soviet casualties are around 25 million, five times that of the Germans, and even this rough number was estimated by reducing the total population figures at the next census.

Although the Soviet hagiographies conveniently ignored it, there was more than a whiff of self-destruction in these numbers. Employing an insulating jargon that removed them from realities and incomprehensibilities of war, Soviet commanders asked “How many matches were burned?” or “How many pencils were broken?” when they wanted to know about their losses after a battle. Stalin remained, in the words of the acclaimed Soviet historian Dmitri Volkogonov, “an armchair general”, who had “fathomed the secrets of war at the cost of bloody experimentation.” His planning was erratic, and his measures ‘to combat cowardice’ were extreme. In one especially notorious order (Number 227) every army was to organize units which would move along as a second front behind the first wave of attack and shoot down any soldier who hesitated or retreated.

The photo above which would come to symbolize the high toll that the Soviet Union had paid was taken by Dmitri Baltermants. In January 1942, seven months after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Soviet press photographers were sent to Kerch in Crimea, to document the Red Army’s counteroffensive there. Baltermants, who was reculperation after being seriously wounded in Stalingrad, was one of them.

Previous December, before the city was liberated from Nazi occupation, the Gestapo had marched the city’s Jews in the city to an anti-tank ditch on the outskirts of town and shot. The photos depicted their (presumably non-Jewish) family members looking for remains.

Dmitri Baltermants and Israel Ozerskii, “Hitlerite Atrocities in Kerch,” in Ogonyok, 2 March 1942

In March 1942, Ogonyok ran a photo essay of Baltermants’s photos from Kerch. Of the eight published photographs, three are of lone women grieving. Under the biggest photo, the caption read: “Residents of Kerch search for their relatives. In the photo: V. S. Tereshchenko digs under bodies for her husband. On the right (insert): the body of 67-year-old I. Kh. Kogan.” On the same page, the other grieving woman was identified as “P. Ivanova”.

Critics would later note that Baltermants framed his photos as the aftermath of a battle, rather than that of a racially motivated massacre. The victims’ Jewishness was downplayed by Ogonyok as well, which wrote in the paragraph that opened the photo essay:

These photographs were taken at a moment after the German occupiers drove [these people] out to this place. 7,500 residents from the very elderly to breast-feeding babies were shot from just a single city . . . They were killed indiscriminately—Russians and Tatars, Ukrainians and Jews.

The photos were republished during the war in Britain’s Picture Post, but like many other Soviet war photos, they were not republished in the USSR until the early 1960s.

In 1962, for his 50th birthday, there were plans to host a solo exhibition for Baltermants in Moscow, and for that show, Baltermants returned to his archives and found four alternative versions of Ivanova that he took. For the show, he chose a different negative: a shot where Ivanova had her arms with dramatically outstretched arms and her head bowed. Originally, Ogonyok deemed it unsuitable to be published (they preferred photos that could help boost morale and this particular shot was too unsettling) and Baltermants had damaged its negative in the dark room. He repaired the negative by darkening the sky and increasing the contrast.

The show did not take place but the photo appeared one year later in a Czech publication and was exhibited in London in 1964 at “People and Events of the USSR,” titled “Sorrow (Ditch of Kerch).” By then Baltermants was serving as photo editor at Ogonyok, and in January 1965, he published the photo in a full two-page spread titled “We Will Not Forget,” accompanied by a quote from German writer Heinrich Böll: “These women’s cry becomes humanity’s cry.”

The same year, Baltermants exhibited the photo in New York and the New York Times critic Jacob Deschin praised it as “one of the great wartime landscapes of all time.”



Liked it? Take a second to support Iconic Photos on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

3 thoughts on “Grief by Dmitri Baltermants, 1942

  1. Yes, blame Stalin for the famine of the 1920s, for the terror of the 1930s, and for shooting soldiers coming back from Germany capitivity, but not for the Soviet civilian and military casualties in WWII. Also, the war was the period in which Stalin had the least influence, forced by events to take power temporarily away from apparatchiks and give it to non-ideological professional generals.

  2. So first the preamble about self-destructing Russians, then picture of a Nazi massacre. Confusing, to say the least, eh?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *