To be asked to pick the best book that you have read in the past year is usually an invitation to equivocation, but that was not the case on one evening in the late 1990s when my interrogator—and that’s the word—was the Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.

“Well,” I replied, “The Commissar Vanishes.”

She hadn’t heard of it. Good. Liked the book’s concept. Better. Told an aide to write down the title. Better still. Didn’t know that it was written by an unreconstructed lefty. Ah, just as well.

David King’s The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia (1997) remains one of the finest and most unusual pieces of Sovietology ever produced. To start with, it is based on photographs, posters, and illustrations drawn from its author’s massive...


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