Big Brother's Photoshop

IT'S HARD NOT TO ENJOY PAGING through The Commissar Vanishes (192 pages. Metropolitan. $35), photo historian David King's compilation of crudely doctored photographs and kitschy art from Stalinist Russia. These goony-looking officials have all the desperate self-importance of the Three Stooges. And they're deliciously oblivious as guys around them disappear with a snip of the scissors or a spritz of the airbrush. (Remember the Kilroy-was-here scenes in ""Zelig'' and ""Forrest Gump''? This is just the opposite.) But it's also hard not to feel guilt for enjoying it: these vanishing commissars also disappeared for real, in the murderous purges that peaked in the show trials of the '30s. As Princeton historian Stephen F. Cohen notes in his preface, ""the greater the Stalinist calamity inflicted on the nation, the more its architect needed to be extolled''; Stalin's increasing grandiosity was an index of his nation's increasing misery. This insight doesn't make the sublimely sappy portraits and monumentally stupid statues of Stalin less hilarious--it just makes you feel like a dog for getting any fun out of them.

Yet this double response--horror at atrocity, amused contempt for stupidity and Dickensian rascality--is appropriate. Orwell, still the sanest observer of the totalitarian mind, would have relished this book; his nightmare regime in ""1984'' knew ""day-to-day falsification of the past . . . is as necessary . . . as the work of repression and espionage.'' And he would have understood why these faked photos look so shamelessly bogus: they express contempt for the ignorant masses while warning sophisticates that the regime will stop at nothing. Today any duffer with Photoshop software can create more convincing frauds. Digital technology may be more pernicious in the wrong hands, but it's neither as theatrically sinister nor as funny as the ham-fisted forgeries in ""The Commissar Vanishes.'' These images could almost make you nostalgic for old-time, in-your-face totalitarianism. But behind the weirdly fun fakery, it was all real.