Step into the Soviet past with the Manhoff Archives

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Douglas Smith is a historian and translator, author of seven books on Russia. In the 1980s, he was a Russian-speaking guide for the US State Department’s “Information USA” exhibit that traveled through the Soviet Union and served as an interpreter for the late President Reagan.

In 2016, he found an extraordinary cache of color photographs and film taken by Major Martin J. Manhoff, military attaché at the United States Embassy in Moscow in the 1950s. The Moscow Times asked him to talk about the discovery, the archives and their importance to understanding the Soviet Union then – and perhaps to understanding Russia today.

From a glance to discovery

In Seattle, a couple died childless. They had a very close friend – the executor. After they died, they left a house full of Russian art and artifacts they had collected.

The executor did not speak Russian. She didn’t know what to make of it all. She had a friend of a friend I had worked with in the Soviet Union in the 1980s for the State Department. And this friend of mine said, “There’s a house with Russian stuff. I don’t really know what’s there. Would you be interested in coming with me and we’ll take a look?

I went with her once and saw nothing. I went back a second time. There were many Soviet posters and books and a few tchotchkes. I literally thought there was nothing interesting. I said, “Well, before I go, there’s another room.” There were a lot of boxes, and I thought it was more of the same, but as a historian, I like to think I’m, at least, thorough. You must return each stone. And I did. I took the lid off this box and saw boxes of slides and I’ll never forget – I opened a box and saw glass slides, not plastic.

The first thing that struck me was, “These are old, but they are in color.” And then I take a closer look. ” Wait a minute. It’s in Cyrillic. Why is it in Cyrillic? And then I realized very quickly, “Oh, my God. These are from the Soviet Union when he was there and they’re in color and there are thousands of them.”

And then I start pulling out another box with film canisters, and I pick up one that says “Top Secret.” And then in pencil, it says, “Stalin’s funeral.”

At that time, I was shaking. But I didn’t have a 16 millimeter cinema projector to see what was on the films. I found a place in Seattle that would digitize everything for me, but it took them two months. I was on pins and needles waiting to get them back. They digitized everything beautifully. When I was able to watch it all, I saw that it was incredible material.

First of all, the photographs are in brilliant color, and we just don’t have many color photographs of Stalin’s Russia. And then, secondly, it was done unofficially without any propaganda purpose. He was literally just an employee of the American embassy, ​​a military attachée, walking around and taking pictures all over Moscow and other parts of the Soviet Union. And for them to disappear for more than 50 years – closer to 60 years before I miraculously stumbled upon them you can’t make this up. This is a truly, truly remarkable find.

Martin Manhoff and his hobby

Major Martin J. Manhoff was attached to the embassy. It was his job to notice things and register things, and try to guess what life was like in the Soviet Union at the time. He had studied art history at the University of Washington. He was born in Seattle in 1917 into a Jewish family. His family owned a framing store and he bought a camera when he was young. He was always taking pictures. He bought a camera before coming to the Soviet Union and was shooting 16mm film across the United States. So he was a photography lover, a cinema lover. His wife, Jan, was an art student and she was an artist. They were more like people of art.

Did he take the photos for official purposes? I think a lot of the motivation that led him to take all those pictures was for his personal enjoyment. There was, however, at least one 16 millimeter film cartridge on which was written “top secret” – the film he took of Stalin’s funeral.

Making the Soviet past accessible to everyone

The executor gave me legal control over these, since Martin and his wife had no children and they made no stipulation for them in a will. My intention from the start was to digitize the collection, preserve it, and then donate it to the University of Washington Library.

Martin and Jan went to college there, they’re from the area, and so the whole collection is now there at the University of Washington and is safely housed. Anyone can use it.

But first I had to find people – mostly online – who could look at Martin’s photographs and say, “Oh, that’s Taganka. “Oh, it’s Prospekt Mira heading north.” I collected some of this to help me determine, as much as possible, exactly where each of these photographs was taken.

I digitized everything and worked with a web design company here in Seattle to create a website. I did a lot of research to write the story. And then I put in about 300 of the best photographs. And I put all the images of the film. I think it’s over two hours of film.

I encourage people to go to the website and check it out. It’s visually stunning, and it often leaves you with a lot of questions too: what was he thinking when he took that photo? Where exactly were they when they filmed this from the train? It takes you back to that time and place.

There are so many little details in each of the photographs that you can choose from – the clothes, the appearance of the streets, the automobiles or the buses or the trucks and all that. That’s really my only goal, and to know that the collection is preserved now. Someone could come later and write a book about it. I feel really good about it.

I showed it to friends of mine who have no connection with Russia or Russian historians. And it’s intriguing for them, because they think: “Stalinism. It’s interesting – if you were to go back to Hitler’s Germany, people were still laughing in the streets. This strange mix of police state, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and you would still see everyday life going on. You see people smiling and you see little children queuing for ice cream and you see women walking arm in arm with smiles on their faces. It complicates what for some of us would be an overly simplistic idea of ​​what it means to live in a police state.

You can read more about the Manhoffs and the collection and see all the photographs and films on the site here.

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