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May 31, 2017

The Story Behind the Iconic Photograph "Raising a Flag over the Reichstag" in 1945

Raising a flag over the Reichstag is a historic World War II photograph, taken during the Battle of Berlin on 2 May 1945. It shows Meliton Kantaria and Mikhail Yegorov raising the flag of the Soviet Union atop the Reichstag building.

Soldiers raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag, 1945.

The photograph was reprinted in thousands of publications and came to be regarded around the world as one of the most significant and recognizable images of World War II. Owing to the secrecy of Soviet media, the identities of the men in the picture were often disputed, as was that of the photographer, Yevgeny Khaldei, who was identified only after the fall of the Soviet Union. It became a symbol of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

When Khaldei arrived in Berlin, he considered a number of settings for the photo, including the Brandenburg Gate and Tempelhof Airport, but he decided on the Reichstag, even though Soviet soldiers had already succeeded in raising a flag over this building a few days earlier.

Khaldei took a Soviet flag with him in his luggage.

On 2 May 1945, Khaldei scaled the now pacified Reichstag to take his picture. He was carrying with him a large flag, sewn from three tablecloths for this very purpose, by his uncle. The official story would later be that two hand-picked soldiers, Meliton Kantaria (Georgian) and Mikhail Yegorov (Russian), raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag, and the photograph would often be used as depicting the event. Some authors state that for political reasons the subjects of the photograph were changed and the actual man to hoist the flag was Alyosha Kovalyov, a Ukrainian, who was told by the NKVD to keep quiet about it.
“This is what I was waiting for for 1,400 days,” he said. “I was euphoric.”
However, according to Khaldei himself, when he arrived at the Reichstag, he simply asked the soldiers who happened to be passing by to help with the staging of the photoshoot; there were only four of them, including Khaldei, on the roof: the one who was attaching the flag was 18-year-old Private Alexei Kovalyov from Kiev, the two others were Abdulkhakim Ismailov from Dagestan and Leonid Gorychev (also mentioned as Aleksei Goryachev) from Minsk.

Soviet censors who examined the photo noticed that one of the soldiers had a wristwatch on each arm, indicating he had been looting.

Back in Moscow, Soviet censors who examined the photo noticed that one of the soldiers had a wristwatch on each arm, indicating he had been looting. They did not want to impose that image on their country. They asked Khaldei to remove one of the watches. Khaldei not only did so, but also darkened the smoke in the background. The resulting picture was published soon after in the magazine Ogonjok. It became the version that achieved worldwide fame.

Khaldei's edited picture on the Ogonjok magazine.

Later some Soviet sources claimed that the extra wrist watches were actually Adrianov compasses and that the Soviet Army touched out of the picture because they knew that this would be mistaken as a watch acquired by looting corpse rather than a piece of standard equipment. The Adrianov compass was a military compass designed by Russian Imperial Army topographist Vladimir Adrianov in 1907. Wrist-worn versions of the compass were then adopted and widely used by the Red and Soviet Army.

The original photo (left) was altered (right) by editing the watch on the soldier’s right wrist.

Subsequently, the photo continued to be altered. The flag was made to appear to be billowing more dramatically in the wind. The photo was also colorized. Throughout his life, Khaldei remained unrepentant about having manipulated his most famous photograph. Whenever asked about it, he responded: “It is a good photograph and historically significant. Next question please”.

Colorized version of the iconic photograph.

German magazine Der Spiegel wrote: “Khaldei saw himself as a propagandist for a just cause, the war against Hitler and the German invaders of his homeland. In the years before his death in October 1997 he liked to say: ‘I forgive the Germans, but I cannot forget’. His father and three of his four sisters were murdered by the Germans”.

(via Wikipedia and Rare Historical Photos)


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