Yevgeny Khaldei and the Soviet Flag in Berlin

By Fernando Morales

Sometimes, heroism happens in the most unusual way; sometimes it involves thoughtful, observant photographers and editors. One example is the story of Yevgeny Khaldei, a Soviet Red Army naval officer and photographer among the troops occupying Berlin at the end of World War II. He took the iconic image above, known as Raising a flag over the Reichstag, which has been described as the Soviet version of American marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. 

Operation Bagration

The story behind this iconic image takes us back to June 1944 when Western Allied forces were crossing the English Channel to invade Normandy. At the same time, on the Eastern front, the Soviet army was handing the Germans the biggest defeat in their military history. The Soviets shattered the Nazi front lines in Operation Bagration. 

Operation Bagration was the fifth deadliest military campaign in Europe, resulting in approximately 450,000 casualties. It began on June 23, 1944 and ended on August 19. The Germans were never able to recover the losses they suffered in this campaign. As a result of this defeat as well as defeats on the Western front, it became clear that Germany was in serious jeopardy of losing the war. 

Taking the Reichstag

With German defeats on both the Western and Eastern fronts, the race was on to see who among the Western Allies could capture the German capital by taking the Reichstag building. The Reichstag building was the German Parliament, and it was arguably the most important symbolic target to capture for showing Germany’s defeat in the war. 

In May of 1945, the Soviet army won that race. On April 30, Stalin was under pressure to capture the building for the International Workers’ Day on May 1. There was some confusion regarding how the events proceeded, but on April 30, 1945, after fierce fighting inside and outside the building, the Soviets captured the Reichstag and raised their flag at 10:40 PM. 

Since it happened so late in the evening, it was too dark to take a photograph, and the next day the flag was removed by the Germans. On May 2, the Soviet army finally gained control of the entire building, and with the Reichstag pacified, it was now possible to take the iconic photograph. 

Yevgeny Khaldei and his Iconic Photograph

On May 2, 1945, Yevgeny Khaldei scaled the building carrying a large Soviet flag sewn together by his uncle using three tablecloths. Soviet accounts of the photograph stated that Khaldei handpicked two soldiers to help stage the photo, but Khaldei himself said he simply asked soldiers passing by to help with the photoshoot. There were four soldiers, including Khaldei, who climbed to the roof. 

The soldier attaching the flag was identified as Aleksei Kovalev, and the other two were Abdulkhakim Ismailov and Leonid Gorychev. Ismailov is the soldier who was supporting Kovalev. You can see his right hand reaching up to stabilize him as he plants the flag. The photograph itself was taken with a Leica III rangefinder camera using a 35 mm f3.5 lens. 

Photoshop Before Photoshop

After taking the photograph, Khaldei returned to Moscow to publish the iconic photo. Upon seeing the image, the editor-in-chief of the Ogonyok, one of the oldest weekly illustrated magazines in Russia, noticed that Ismailov was apparently wearing two watches. That might imply he had looted one of them, and that was something that was punishable by death in the Soviet Union. Khaldei and the editor agreed that they needed to remove the watch from his right wrist in order to prevent any problems for the heroic soldier. 

Khaldei used a needle to alter the photograph, and he also added some smoke to the background in order to make the entire scene more dramatic. He did that by copying the smoke from another photograph and transferring it to this image. This may be one of the earliest examples of post-production of an iconic photograph. It may also have been unnecessary given that it was later claimed the additional watch was an Adrianov compass rather than a watch. 

Whether necessary or not, Khaldei and the editor believed the soldier could be in trouble, and they put themselves at risk to protect his life. Obedience to the Soviet leadership was fundamental, and the army was run with an iron fist. Had they been discovered, the soldier could have lost his life, and Khaldei and the editor could have faced jail time or even worse. Their heroism is a testament to the brotherhood of soldiers that forms in the heat of battle, and it gives us an iconic story to go with an iconic image. 

About the author: 

Fernando Morales is a photography researcher, lecturer and retired photojournalist with 25 years of experience working in the newspaper industry. He is the Head Curator for IMS Vintage Photos. 

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