North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un purged his powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, during a high-level meeting of the Political Bureau, part of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party. Footage of the meeting on Monday displayed all the classic setpieces of a totalitarian purge: a bizarre litany of charges, tearful denunciations by former comrades and the forcible removal of the renegade. Jang then disappeared, and North Korea said Friday that he had been executed after being convicted on charges he tried to organize a military coup.
It appears that despite his youth, Kim is pretty old-school: the shaming, purging and dispatch of Jang borrows classic tactics from any number of totalitarian dictators faced with threats to their power. But what made Kim’s purge especially retro was the news that Jang has been airbrushed out of existing photos and videos.
In this regard, Kim was taking a cue from Josef Stalin, who pioneered this kind of perverse manipulation of history as part of the "Great Purge" in the 1930s, in which much of the nation’s revolutionary leadership was sent to the grave, victims of horrific torture, ludicrous show trials and ultimately, bullets to the back of the head. The accused family members and associates often suffered the same fate.
But that wasn’t enough. Stalin and his censors simultaneously launched an attack on the memory of the deceased — a second death of sorts. Any mention of once-prominent revolutionaries who had fallen afoul of Stalin — Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev and others — was ruthlessly scrubbed from printed material, photographs and other evidence of the past.
The zeal with which this was undertaken remains, even today, difficult to comprehend. The full extent of the Soviet obsession with erasure came to light in a now-famous exhibit and book known as "The Commissar Vanishes," small excerpts of which are available online. Compiled by David King, the book published images at different stages of doctoring. It took King many years to compile these, largely because censors had done such a good job of destroying the older, unaltered images.
These provide a glimpse of the dictator’s mentality, as photographs featuring large groups of the revolutionary leaders undergo a curious metamorphosis. The same photograph appears with five men, then four, and so on, until only Stalin is left standing. The rest have been rubbed out — quite literally.
The assault on the past led to bizarre complications for Stalin’s propaganda machine. The History of the Civil War in the U.S.S.R., an illustrated volume designed to celebrate the revolution, had to be revised in 1938 because many of the revolutionaries exalted in the first edition had been purged, and more often than not, killed. It was revised again in 1943 because additional "heroes" had fallen from favour. As his rivals disappeared from history, Stalin’s role grew more exaggerated and larger than life.
Similarly, owners of encyclopedias or other historical reference works would be instructed to excise any mention of those who fell into disfavour. The practice continued after Stalin’s death. When Nikita Khrushchev came to power, he eliminated Lavrentiy Beria, the former head of the NKVD who had been instrumental in the purges. The man who had consigned upward of one million people to an Orwellian memory hole himself disappeared, shot through the forehead by one of Khrushchev’s allies. Shortly thereafter, owners of a standard reference work were instructed to replace the entry on "Beria, Lavrentiy" with an article on the "Bering Strait."
But Stalin still holds the crown for manipulation of memory. A photograph taken in 1919 showed 18 revolutionaries surrounding Stalin and Lenin. Over time, Stalin murdered 11 of the men and three committed suicide. They each gradually disappeared from the picture, leaving only Stalin and Lenin. In the final version, even Lenin has vanished, leaving only one leader, past and present.
Stalin probably did more to eliminate vestiges of Leon Trotsky than any other rival. After Trotsky went into exile, Stalin’s censors systematically eliminated the once-famous revolutionary from countless pictures. This was no mean feat: Trotsky had been ubiquitous in the imagery of the Russian Revolution. Still, it was not enough to banish him from history. He had to die, too. In 1940, a Soviet agent assassinated the aging revolutionary in Mexico using an ice pick.
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg View’s Ticker