On 2 May 1945, one of the most famous images of World War II was taken on the ruins of the Reichstag in Berlin. To mark its 75th anniversary, we look at the life of photographer Yevegny Khaldei, and how he took one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century.
Yevgeny Khaldei lived and breathed photography. He was lucky to have had the chance to indulge in it at all.
Khaldei was born into a Jewish family in 1917 in the city of Donetsk (now part of Ukraine) in 1917, just as Russia became embroiled in revolution and civil war. When he was only one year old, his mother was hit by a bullet trying to escape an anti-Jewish pogram, and died with the young Yevgeny in her arms. The bullet lodged in his body.
But Khaldei survived, and in time became obsessed with photography, after seeing a photo in a Soviet magazine. His first camera he built himself, using the glass from his grandmother’s spectacles as the lens. By the age of 19 he was taking pictures for Tass, the official news agency of the Soviet state. One of his pictures of the opening of the Moscow metro system was printed on the front cover of Pravda, the official Soviet news magazine.
Khaldei’s most famous images would come across the entirety of Russia’s war. From 1941, he worked as a military photographer, keeping pace with the Red Army as it resisted the German advance and then forced it into retreat. His most famous image came as the war in Europe was inching to a close, as the Soviet armies conquered Berlin amid bitter street fighting. It would become one of the war’s most famous images, but Khaldei’s part in it would be almost forgotten until the fall of the Soviet Union itself.
Khaldei was the only photographer to have shot the entirety of Russia’s war, from the German invasion in June 1941 to the Russian offensive against the Japanese in Manchuria in August 1945. On 22 June, as the Soviet foreign minister Molotov relayed by radio the news of Germany’s surprise invasion, Khaldei walked into the street to take one of his most famous image – Muscovites standing in shock at the news they were at war.
During the following years, he shot heroic portraits of Red Army heroes – from female snipers to political commissars surrounded by crowds of cheering troops, from the frozen Arctic to the sweltering heat of southern Russia. Incredibly, he was able to choose his assignments and rove where he wanted, shooting whatever presented itself, an incredible freedom given the restrictions of Soviet life. As the Red Army pushed the Germans back over the Soviet border and eventually back into Germany itself, Khaldei travelled with them, documenting broken cities, war crimes, and eerie moments of calm across monumentally ravaged landscapes. His travels took him to city after city as the Red Army swept through them. Bucharest. Belgrade. Budapest. Vienna.
As a Soviet photographer, it’s natural to expect that Khaldei would have used a Soviet camera to Though nothing like the size of the camera industry which emerged post war, the Soviet Union was already building many cameras, including Leica rangefinder copies made by the FED factory in Kharkov (now in Ukraine). Khaldei had indeed used one of these FED Leica copies in his early days as a Tass photographer, but the camera wasn’t as sturdy or reliable as the German Leicas. Despite the fact the USSR was at war with Germany, Tass outfitted its photographers with Leicas; he would spend the war documenting the fall of Nazi Germany on a Leica III.
Beating the Western Allies to Berlin was one of Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s ultimate goals, both for propaganda value and to glean Germany’s advanced atomic research.
Khaldei had already seen a remarkable photograph of US marines raising the Stars and Stripes on the island of Iwo Jima a few months. Joe Rosenthal’s photograph – six marines clambering to raise the flag on the summit of Mt Suribachi while the Battle of Iwo Jima still raged on – had become a powerful propaganda message. It was clear Berlin would have to have its equivalent. Before he travelled to Berlin, Khaldei visited a family friend, a tailor named Israel Kishitser in whose house he’d been living when war had been declared almost four years before. Khaldei asked him to make three Soviet flags out of tablecloths which had been stolen for the occasion from a government office.
Khaldei and his Leica arrived in Berlin as the Russians were delivering a killing blow to Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich. Fierce fighting had devastated much of the city, the streets strewn with knocked-out Soviet tanks and collapsed buildings.
Khaldei’s most famous image was made amid some of the war’s most furious fighting.
Stalin’s generals were told Berlin was the ultimate prize, and many units were forced to storm the reinforced city before they were at full strength. The losses were horrific. The Reichstag, the symbol of German power, was resolutely defended by more than 2,000 German soldiers and one of the key objectives of the Russian operation. Stalin ordered units to capture the building before 1 May, International Workers’ Day, the most important public holiday in the Soviet Union. Aircraft were called in to drop flags on the building’s imposing dome. During the day of 30 April, it’s believed a t least one unit of Russian troops managed to hoist a flag on the building, but when war correspondents were sent to confirm it, they could see no sign of it, and came under heavy German fire.
A young Kazakh lieutenant called Raqymjan Qoshqarbaev later broke into the shattered Reichstag, accompanied by another soldier, Grigory Bulatov. They were carrying a flag given to them by a detachment who’d been ordered to raise it on the Reichstag, and were the first to raise the flag inside the building – at the top of the staircase.
The flag was taken outside so it could be raised in full view of Soviet troops, but fighting was still so fierce they had to seek cover for several hours. Eventually, it died down, and at about 22.40, one of the group – a 23-year-old soldier called Mikhail Minin – raised it over the statue of a horse and a crowned woman representing Germany. “The guys raised me onto the horse’s back which shook from the explosions, and then I fixed the banner right in the crown of the bronze giantess,” Minin recounted later.
There was no trace of it the next day, however – German snipers shot it off. The flag had been raised so late in the day that it was too dark for any photographs to be taken. The moment would have to be recreated.
Khaldei, meanwhile, had arrived in Berlin, along with his three freshly tailored flags. In the book ‘Witness To History: The Photographs of Yevgeny Khaldei’, he described what happened next:
“Before they freed the Reichstag, they liberated the airport at Tempelhof. On the roof of the airport building was a huge eagle. There I put my first flag. At the Brandenburg Gate I took my second picture. And then came the Reichstag.”
It was 2 May. German soldiers were still fighting in the building’s basement. Khaldei, Leica in hand, headed instead up the stairs with a small group of soldiers. The troops who had originally raised the flag were no longer there, so the moment would have to be re-enacted without them. The man who would raise the flag over the ruined, rubble-strewn city was a fellow Ukrainian, Aleksei Kovalev.
(The images left show how the offending extra watch on the wrist of a Soviet soldier was edited out of the image before publication)
“I ran on to the roof together with the soldiers, and looked for a good angle. The soldiers already had the flag, but I couldn’t decide where to take the picture. Then I found my spot, and told the soldier: ‘Alyosha, climb up there.’ And he said, ‘OK, if somebody holds me by the feet.”
Khaldei raised the Leica to his eye. “When I saw that in my viewfinder, I thought: ‘This is what I was waiting for for 1,400 days. It was scary, but I was so euphoric so I didn’t notice.”
The photographer ended up taking a whole roll of film on his Leica III, which had a wide angle 35mm Elmar lens attached. In Khaldei’s obituary in the New York Times, the chosen picture is described as “operatic”. Among the Reichstag statues are two figures, one raising the flag on a plinth and so perfectly positioned that it seems like he’s been sculpted in place, joining the other statues lined behind him. It takes a moment before you see the second figure – as Alyosha asked, his comrade Abdulkhaikim Ismalov is holding on to his ankle. In the background is the cataclysmic backdrop of an almost conquered Berlin.
The picture we are familiar with is not quite the one Khaldei saw in his viewfinder. Images printed in the Soviet Union had to pass official inspection before they could go into the public domain. After Khaldei chose the image and had it printed, an editor at TASS found a problem; Ismalov, the man holding on to Kovalev’s legs, seemed to have two wristwatches. Surely, the brave and resolute Red Army soldiers weren’t looting their way through the German capital? Khaldei scratched away the offending wristwatch with the point of a needle so the image could be printed.
Khaldei himself enhanced the image with a little smoke and mirrors, or at least smoke. The published version of the photo, first seen in the magazine Ogonyok on 13 May 1945, has more smoke added for dramatic effect (some of it is copied over from another photograph).
Khaldei was not the only Soviet photographer in Berlin for the fall, but no other image could match its effect. Khaldei then covered the Nuremberg trials – a portrait of the doomed Nazi grandee Hermann Goering is another of his most well-known images. But by 1947, his career seemed to be over; amid rising ant-Semitism, the Jewish photographer was no longer flavour of the month, and was fired from his job at Tass. He was accused of lacking proper education and sufficient political training. But Khaldei believed there was another simpler reason. “The real reason was because I am a Jew,” he once said. Another reason is thought to have been because of Khaldei having spent time with Yugoslav leader Josef Tito, shortly before Yugoslavia split from the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact.
Khaldei then went to work for the Soviet magazine Pravda (Truth) in the early 1960s, though he did photograph every Russian leader after Stalin until his death in 1997. In 1972 he was dismissed from the magazine, again due to anti-Semitism. His images, famous as they were, earned him little money, partly because they were not officially credited. As a Soviet state photographer, Khaldei was a tool, part of the apparatus of state information.
Khaldei retired in 1976, earning on a modest state pension. He supplemented it by processing films for other photographers. His legacy looked in danger of being forgotten until another of the 20th Century’s most seismic events occurred – the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1991, German artist Ernst Volland came across his work by chance. A retrospective book and exhibition followed. Khaldei, who was by now living modestly in a Moscow flat, made his first appreciable royalties for his photography. On receiving 10,000 German marks, he spent it on a Rolleiflex, Der Spiegel recounted ahead of a German exhibition in 2008. “I never had such a camera in all my life,” Khaldei said.
In 1995, Khaldei travelled to New York’s Jewish Museum for another exhibition, Witness To History, which spawned one of the most important retrospective books of his work. Khaldei gifted the camera to an American during his visit. Two years later, he died in Moscow, aged 80, having latterly finally seen international recognition his work deserved.
The Leica – which Khaldei had always worn around his neck at official gatherings – later went up for sale at auction in Hong Kong in November 2014; it sold for around $155,000.
Khaldei never considered his most famous image any less valid because it had been staged. “It is a good photograph and historically significant,” he once said.