Todd Kunkler (b. 1992)

How To Vanish A Commissar (PHOTOSHOP TUTORIAL), 2016, single-channel video with sound


Over the course of the two decades following The October Revolution, Nikolai Yezhov worked his way up the ranks of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from a position as a minor regional secretary to that of Commissar of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). As the head of the NKVD, Yezhov oversaw the activities of the Soviet Union's emergency services, prisons, law enforcement, and secret police, effectively making him the disciplinary hand of Joseph Stalin and the Politburo.

Despite his humble origins and small stature—he stood only five feet tall—Yezhov quickly became an imposing figure within the Soviet Union, having inherited the responsibility of enacting the Great Purge, Stalin's campaign of political repression against perceived political adversaries, which had begun just months prior. Under Yezhov, at Stalin's behest, the NKVD purged—arrested, imprisoned, subjected to hard labor, executed—hundreds of thousands of Communist Party functionaries, Red Army soldiers, and civilians on the pretext of various "counter-revolutionary" offenses, such as harboring fascist leanings or engaging in bureaucratic sabotage. Among those executed were a number of Old Bolshevik revolutionaries, who Stalin feared might challenge his authority as General Secretary. Yezhov's predecessor at the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, was one such casualty.

The Great Purge reached its greatest intensity between the years 1937 and 1938, during which an estimated 680,000 officials and citizens were arrested and summarily executed. This period came to be known as Yezhovshchina—"the days of Yezhov." The gulags filled, the body count rose, and Stalin gradually became wary of the efficacy of the purges at maintaining order as the threat of Nazi Germany loomed ominously on the horizon. Confident in his consolidation of power and intent of prioritizing industrial production and national defense, Stalin determined that the purges needed to cease, and that Yezhov, their chief executor, needed disposed of.

Yezhov was assigned the additional position of People's Commissar of Water Transport in 1938 as a strategic compounding of responsibilities intended to weaken his influence within the NKVD. That same year, Laventry Beria, a Georgian functionary in Stalin's favor, was installed as Yezhov's deputy and hastily began seizing power within the Commissariat. By February of 1940, Yezhov had been successfully ousted by Beria and other political rivals, renounced by the Soviet Presidium, stripped of his positions, arrested, and indicted on a litany of offenses from bureaucratic incompetence and embezzlement to homosexuality and treason—all entirely hidden from the public eye. Within two days of being convicted in a secret trial, he was dead.

Ironically, the once infamous Yezhov is perhaps most often recognized in the 21st century as "the vanishing commissar," a textbook example of the USSR's program of pictorial censorship. In a widely disseminated photograph taken during his tenure as Commissar of Water Transport, Yezhov appears next to Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov at the bank of the Moskva-Volga Canal. In later editions of the image released after his execution, Yezhov is absent, airbrushed into oblivion.


In the era of digital spectacle, "fake news" and Photoshop, the deliberate, manual processes of Soviet pictorial censorship directed at the level of the state seem quaint. Visual editing software has advanced to the extent that both images and videos can be fabricated with microscopic precision, perceptually indistinguishable from reality down to the pixel. Whereas Soviet censorship methods required extensive cropping and the irrevocable loss of true photographic texture to the airbrush, contemporary fabrication techniques are capable of creating entirely new simulated worlds interlaced with the real via chroma key compositing. The prevalence of digitally generated artifice in advertising and blockbuster filmmaking instills in contemporary society a casual paranoia towards visual media; embedded in every photograph and every video is the possibility of it having been manipulated.

Censorship is part and parcel of the very platforms that disseminate digital information. This censorship can be that of the familiar, top-down, terms-of-service variety which regularly generates minor outrage when this or that provocation is removed from public view on Twitter or Facebook, or of another more self-directed, unconscious variety. This latter variety occurs as the algorithmic structure of the Internet collides with the cognitive dissonance that haunts spectatorial politics.

Algorithms curate the visibility of information within digital networks. The filter bubble effect of personalized search results and social media feeds, oft-proposed as a contributing factor in the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the 2016 presidential election in the United States, might be considered a pathology of this process of algorithmic curation.

In its original conception, the theory of the filter bubble assumed that the sea change of news consumption from television to online news aggregators and social media threatened democracy by subjecting users to a feedback loop of partisan media sources algorithmically-determined to be of interest to them by past online behavior, thus insulating them from contradictory viewpoints and making them susceptible to fraudulent propaganda that confirmed their worldview—i.e. "fake news." While it stands to reason that social grouping around shared political orientation will strengthen ideological conviction and insularity, the premise that an intensity of ideological conviction neuters one's interest in seeking out the argumentation of the opposition is dubious as the economic stakes of online punditry reach new heights within the attention economy.

The sheer volume of stimuli available via the Internet demands that users allocate their limited time for consumption accordingly. Attention becomes a scarce resource in the chaotic digital landscape, and an extremity of reaction eases its extraction. This deluge of information that characterizes digital communications—trivial and horrific, commercial and deeply personal, presented without hierarchy in the palm of a hand—recasts our experience of history in the here-and-now as a trainwreck, streamed live to those within, who can neither stop the collision nor look away. Burnout and ironic detachment dominate the psychic landscape. Images and videos of abuses of state power are widely circulated across social media, instantly becoming grist for clickbait think pieces, pithy 280 character hot takes, and Instagram memes, before being lost in the digital ether as the next outrage begins generating click traffic—and the ad revenue that accompanies it.

Content monetization becomes the new frontier of production as automation makes existing industrial modes of production obsolete, sector by sector. In the economic gauntlet created by post-industrialism and neoliberal austerity measures the temptation to intermingle personal and productive time is nigh irresistible, and a host of digital platforms have propped themselves up to mediate the process. While the ridesharing platforms Uber and Lyft have been widely criticized for classifying their employees as independent contractors to avoid having to provide them with benefits or expense reimbursements, platforms like Twitter and Instagram generate growth through the wholly unwaged, immaterial digital labor of their users to comparably little critique.

The direct monetization of informal knowledge production and punditry via Twitter and lifestyle influencing via Instagram tends to require advertiser collaboration or the mediation of a third party subscription service such as Patreon, which grants users the solitary, alienating position of "content creator," a pathetic simulation of small business ownership, and leaves their ability to earn a living in the hands of fickle subscribers, from whose pledges Patreon skims a modest five percent. In turn, one's subjectivity becomes their labor-power within a marketplace of identities—the more attention-grabbing the subjectivity, the better—and their competition within that marketplace becomes, more or less, everyone else. Beliefs become brands.

Meanwhile, old measures of resistance to capitalist alienation and enfeeblement are folded neatly into the hegemony of neoliberalism. Social progressivist politics are, at the apex of their political effectiveness, co-opted by establishment politicians and everything from fast food restaurants to detention centers as a means of rehabilitating their public face in an amnesiac, attention-deficit society.

Critical negativity, subsumed by the joint ventures of the media and culture industries, is often reduced to shallow analyses of the new pastoral—the perpetually record-shattering superhero film genre—amounting to little more than free PR for The Walt Disney Company. Anarchists sell handmade, anti-statist kitsch on Etsy and neo-fascist pundits release subscriber-only podcast episodes on Patreon knock-off websites because omnidirectionally extreme political signaling is just as amenable to market subsumption as anything else. Because partisanship has become a branding strategy, all political engagement, sincere or cynical, runs the risk of being interpreted as little more than posturing for social capital.

The semiotic Guernica of the digitally-mediated life is persistently illustrated by the online discourses surrounding the ongoing Syrian Civil War. False flag accusations abound as video documentation of chemical weapon attack victims are scrutinized for evidence of fabrication or digital manipulation. The reactions of Twitter pundits following every new event in the timeline of the conflict are like Rorschach tests of ideological association: advocates of liberal democratic capitalism condemn the Syrian government and Russia, its strategic ally, advocating for sanctions and humanitarian intervention; sectors of the ultra-left praise Bashar al-Assad as the new "Lion of Damascus," for opposing both the Islamo-fascism of ISIS and the imperialist interests of western powers; social anarchists swoon over the Kurdish nationalists of the YPG, finding commonality in democratic confederalism and their intersectional approach to armed revolution. Every conceivable disposition towards the conflict is articulated, retweeted, subtweeted, screenshotted, transfigured into memes, and hurled into the void as the conflict rages on and refugees pour into spectating countries for asylum. This grotesque spectacle of endless warfare instantaneously transmitted to a global audience via handheld screens and subjected to every form of monetized subjective critique is an intractable Baudrillardian nightmare, a cruel encapsulation of the state of history unfolding in ultra high definition—so detailed it almost feels real.


Uber Health is liquidated. Amazon monopolizes the global healthcare market. Private security contractors replace in-house police and military forces in the majority of the developed world. The ubiquity of fully automated production necessitates a dramatic expansion of the service sector, so sex work is legitimized in the eyes of the state via communion at the altar of neoliberalization. Disruptive, progressive tech innovation abolishes the private prison industry by making the world an open-air prison via neural death chips installed at birth and provisionally leased to regional governments. Techno-fascist necromancers resurrect Evola as a cyborg. Lithium hot war.

The market value of virtue approaches nil as the search for the most ontologically pure victim exits the stratosphere. The Walt Disney Company buys California. The glaciers melt. AirBnB begins leasing properties on Mars for SpaceX settlers. Linear time collapses to accommodate a healthier work-life balance for the global conglomerated mTurk-Lyft-MyFreeCams workforce. Guerrilla eco-terrorism has one last gasp of popularity before being extinguished by a psychic wave of brutal ironic detachment towards the survival of the planet. Synthetic meat.

Peter Thiel, Emperor Of Europa, and Elon Musk, President-For-Life of the United Nations of North America, fight to the death with cyber swords amidst the ruins of NASDAQ MarketSite. France goes dark as the Hoxhaist-Maoist-Tumblrist exilarchy embraces anti-digital Juche in response to the cross-dimensional hegemony of cybernetic, liberal democratic capitalism. Somebody presses the big red button and the lunar consciousness modules activate as nuclear holocaust bookends history. Google expands Streetview to Alpha Centauri. Crystal Pepsi makes another comeback.