By the end of April 1945, Nazi Germany was losing the battle against the Allies. One of history’s most severe fighting took place on the outskirts of Berlin during these days. Russians were approaching Berlin at the speed of 30-40 km a day and the final victory over Hitler seemed very near.
Stalin’s secret mission
Yevgeny Khaldei was the official Red Army photographer who had a special mission to accomplish. Stalin had expressed his desire to see victory photographs with Red Army soldiers hoisting the Soviet flag on top of the symbolic Reichstag building. Returning from Berlin without these photos was not an option.
Khaldei had his friend, a tailor named Israil Solomovich, make him three hammer and sickle flags out of the three red tablecloths that he had stolen from the government office. He took the flags and his Leica camera with him and, as a lieutenant in the Red Army, left for Berlin. By April 25th Soviet troops had successfully encircled Berlin.
Khaldei was looking for the perfect shot and tried several places. The first photo was taken on top of the captured Templehof Airport, the second flag was hoisted over the Brandenburg Gate.
The Reichstag photo
The third photo was captured on 2 May 1945 on top of the Reichstag building and it was a staged act, a recreation of the events that had taken place two days earlier.
There is much controversy over who was really the first to reach the roof of Reichstag with a flag. It was probably Rakhimzhan Qoshqarbaev, a Red Army soldier of Kazakh origin on 30 April. But there were many others who tried.
On the next day, 1 May 1945 two scouts scaled the roof and attached the Victory banner to the roof. The two were ethnic Russian Mikhail A. Yegorov (1923-75) and a Georgian Meliton Kantaria (1920-93). The Reichstag building was still under fire and it took a lot of courage to climb up there. There is no photo of the event as it was too dark.
When the fighting was finally over, Yevgeny Khaldei invited two random soldiers, scaled the Reichstag roof and staged his perfect shots. He made altogether 36 shots, the best of which was published in the Ogonek magazine and became the most iconic photo of the World War II victory.
The third officer
Kantaria and Yegorov were given the highest possible awards and proclaimed Heroes of the Soviet Union. But it is little known that there was also a third hero Oleksiy Berest (1921-70), a political officer of the Red Army, a Ukrainian. His role was hushed down obviously for ideological reasons. It was best to glorify Yegorov as ethnic Russian and Kantaria as Georgian because Stalin was also Georgian.
Oleksiy Berest was quiet about the whole thing until 1995 when he revealed that the NKVD had asked him just to keep his mouth shut.
Note the two wristwatches on the wrists of the supporting officer in the photo. These prove that the men had actually been looting their way to Berlin. The watches were quickly scratched out by the author and some dramatic smoke was added to the background.