Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov 1907-1970: More Things on Heaven and Earth

That’s him on the left.

You will have seen those documentaries or serious crime shows where experts put layers of clay directly onto human skulls and show us how they looked in real life.  Most recently/interestingly this was done with Richard III, which proves if nothing else that Olivier was right to play the part.*

Among the early practitioners of this art/science was Gerasimov.

He came by it honestly enough.  He was the son of a doctor and an artist and managed to bring the two strains together in Stalinist Russia – no mean feat at all.  He started out on pre-historic men and other bi-peds, and somehow managed to work his way up to real people.  Famous people.   Starting with Dostoevsky’s mother, which seems a bit of an odd choice.

It seems more than a little odd that he was given the chance. Still, when you live under a dictatorship and the dictator is behind you, well,  knock yourself out.   Not so easy to exhume, say,  Whistler’s mother.  Not that one would want to, for that matter.

Some other big names he got were Yaroslav I the Wise, Abu Abdollah Jafar ibn Mohammad Rudaki,   among others.

His career highlight was a case of having gone perhaps a bit too far.  In 1940 he was part of the team that unearthed Tamurlane.   (For a refresher – Tamurlane was the Turko-Mongol horseman who is said to have knocked off about five percent of the then world population.   He destroyed Baghdad,  one of the jewels of Islam, even though he was  Muslim himself.  Never his fault, he said, other people always started it. The best that can be said was that the worst of his rule died with him.)

The tomb had a curse on it.  Anyone who opened the damn thing, it was said, would unleash a terror even worse than Tamurlane himself.

They opened it up anyway.  In June 1941.  Later that month, Hitler invaded Russia.

You would think that this would be a hint to throw the body back and cover it right back up, but no, Scientific Communism scoffs at superstition so they let Gerasimov do his thing, which took him until November 1942

Which was about the time the Soviet Army launched the counter-offensive in the  battle for Stalingrad, and so turned the war around.

No one seems to have held any of this against him, and in 1953 gave him the task of seeing what Ivan the Terrible looked like.  Seems to have worked out better than Tamurlane.

*(Did it make a difference that they had a portrait to work with?  Who knows?  In general, how good a job they do is something we the uninitiated must take on trust, like the existence of atoms, or the efficacy of ‘flu shots, or Keynesian economics.  Back off. They’re scientists.)

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