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On April 21, 1937, Ukrainians leafing through the newspaper Communist may not have noticed anything remarkable. That day the state paper printed reports from the Spanish Civil War, an update on the construction of Kyiv’s parliament building, and the latest speech from Soviet ruler Josef Stalin.

But one unknown reader noticed — or thought they noticed — something suspicious in a photograph on Page 3. Amid a tangle of branches above a heating plant lurked what someone took to be the sharply featured profile of Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky had been a prominent political leader during the early days of the Soviet Union, but soon won the undying hatred of Stalin. By 1937, Trotsky was living in exile in Mexico under the constant threat of murder by Stalin’s agents, one of whom would eventually kill him with an ice pick in 1940.

In the atheist Soviet Union, Trotsky became a kind of stand-in for the devil and was blamed by Stalin’s state media for failures — great and small — of the Soviet system.

Leon Trotsky in the 1930s

An investigation into the photograph was soon escalated to the Soviet secret police (NKVD) in Moscow. The NKVD at the time was headed by Nikolai Yezhov, one of the U.S.S.R’s most bloodstained political operatives. The report that arrived on Yezhov’s desk noted: “In the picture among the trees above the roof of the building, the face of counterrevolutionary fascist Trotsky is clearly visible on the left side.”

Two weeks after the publication of the image, photographer Vsevolod Skamandr and photo retoucher Vladimir Tsetnarovsky were arrested.

The “evidence” collected by the authorities included the negative film from Skamandr’s camera and a print that had been altered by Tsetnarovsky before publication. The media outlets publishing Soviet propaganda commonly employed retouchers to sharpen the contours of images before printing on low-quality newsprint. They were also required to erase inconvenient details and, sometimes, inconvenient people from photos.

As the newspapermen languished in prison, experts at the Kyiv Institute of Forensic Science studied the negatives and prints to see whether either of the men were to blame for the face of Trotsky that some saw in the photo.

Although the situation seems comically absurd today, for the imprisoned Skamandr and Tsetnarovsky it could not have been more grave. Soviet society at the time was being terrorized by a wave of political murders carried out — sometimes personally — by Yezhov, the same top communist official who was following the strange case of the “Trotsky in the trees.”

Samples of retouching done by Vladimir Tsetnarovsky from the investigation file into the photograph. The file is now in the Soviet SBU secret police archives in Kyiv.
The investigation found that the photo negative was unaltered, but on the print made from the negative a “likeness” of Trotsky “was exacerbated by retouching.
A close-up of the original print retouched by Tsetnarovsky.
In a close-up of the print that RFE/RL photographed in Kyiv’s SBU archives, white retouching ink can clearly be seen in the area of the “face,” but both white and black paint was also used on surrounding branches, patches of sky, and the edges of the building.
The photograph retouched by Tsetnarovsky
From May until August, Tsetnarovsky was hauled out of his cell to be interrogated three times. Transcripts of the interviews record variations of the same back and forth between the prisoner and his captors:

— “Do you acknowledge that you intentionally used retouching to enhance a likeness of Trotsky, the enemy of the Soviet people?”

— “I declare that I never saw any likeness of Trotsky; therefore, I could not retouch with such an intent.”

Then the investigation widened to Tsetnarovsky’s wife and colleagues, some of whom reported his vaguely “anti-Soviet” faux pas in the past, including the time he was handed a photo of celebrated Soviet workers that Tsetnarovsky said “look like idiots.”

Then, a miracle.

In February 1938, Tsetnarovsky’s case was allowed to go to trial — an extreme rarity for political cases at the time.

The retoucher and his lawyer were able to offer a compelling defense that included a Polish-language, Soviet newspaper that had run the same photograph without Tsetnarovsky’s brushstrokes. Tsetnarovsky’s lawyer noted that the “face” in the trees was virtually identical, yet no one at the Polish-language newspaper had been investigated.

The Polish-language newspaper that ran the same photo without Tsetnarovsky’s retouching.
Finally, after nearly a year of imprisonment and interrogations, Tsetnarovsky was allowed to return home to his wife. But there was no Hollywood ending for this Soviet story.

Although freed without charges by the communist authorities, the management of the Communist newspaper was less forgiving and he was fired. In 1939, he was registered as a “freelance artist.”

Red Army soldiers in battle in 1943
In 1942, after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Tsetnarovsky was drafted into the army and sent to the front line. His wife once again waited at home in Kyiv for his return. Since 1944, Junior Sergeant Tsetnarovsky has been listed as missing and is presumed dead.

The epilogue for the 38-year-old Vsevolod Skamandr, the photographer of the image, was perhaps even more tragic. Although he was cleared over the “Trotsky” image, while under interrogation he admitted he had changed his surname after the Bolshevik Revolution. This was a red flag for the NKVD, which dug further and discovered that Skamandr, whose real name was Mazyukevich, had a brother who had been arrested by the Soviet authorities for being a “Czechoslovak spy.”

On May 9, the photographer “confessed” in shaky handwriting that he was also a spy. He was executed in November 1937, leaving behind a wife and 8-year-old daughter.

Written by Amos Chapple based on reporting by Eduard Andryushchenko