By David Michael Newstead.

Made famous by George Orwell’s novel 1984, the slogan 2+2=5 is used to represent the absurdity of political falsehoods and lying propaganda. But it wasn’t a figment of Orwell’s imagination. In fact, the author was referencing an actual propaganda campaign from Stalin’s Russia, which Orwell was highly critical of.

For Stalin, 2+2=5 was a rallying cry, boasting that the goals of the first five-year plan had been achieved ahead of schedule in only four years. Meant to rapidly modernize the Soviet economy between 1928 and 1932, the first five-plan had indeed collectivized farmland and created heavy industry throughout the country. But like most things Stalin related, there was a sizable body count. The collectivization of agriculture, for example, triggered a famine in which millions died, while industrial workers were harshly punished for failing to reach an ever-increasing set of quotas associated with the plan. Still, propaganda posters were churned out just the same, proclaiming success regardless of the numbers.

Today, circumstances may have changed, but political falsehoods live on. Orwell’s work is being re-read like never before and Stalin is once again admired by the Russian state. As for 2+2=5, it feels like the slogan is only one press conference, one tweet, or TV interview away from resurfacing – from being proudly shouted at anyone within earshot. It’s something George Orwell understood very well and a phenomenon that we’ll have plenty of time to think about.


Russia Past & Present with Peter Kenez

By David Michael Newstead.

Next year marks the centennial of the Russian Revolution and to reflect on the significance of those events I reached out to historian Peter Kenez. Kenez is a professor emeritus at the University of California Santa Cruz where he specializes in Russian history and the history of Eastern Europe. His books include The Birth of the Propaganda State, Varieties of Fear: Growing up Jewish under Nazism and Communism, and A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Recently, Professor Kenez joined me for an in-depth discussion on Russian history, politics, and propaganda.

David Newstead: There’s a new edition of one of your books coming out entitled The Soviet Union and Its Legacy. What are some of the main points of that legacy?

Peter Kenez: As far as the world is concerned, it’s one thing. And as far as the Russian people are concerned, it’s another thing. That is, the Russian people remember Stalin. A large number of them remember him very fondly, because Russia was propelled to be one of the two great powers. However silly it is, people do derive pleasure from being citizens of a major power. And that is what the Russian people today recall as the legacy of the Soviet Union. Namely, that “We were respected!” And people want to be respected. As far as the world is concerned, it was a great blow against Marxist ideology. People identify the Soviet experiment quite wrongly with Socialism of any kind. And that obviously is false on the face of it.

David Newstead: So, the Socialism of the British, the Swedish, and Bernie Sanders doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Socialism of the Soviet Union?

Peter Kenez: Certainly not!

David Newstead: One thing I did want to ask concerns your book The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization. Do you see any similarities between the propaganda techniques pioneered by the Bolsheviks a hundred years ago and the techniques of modern Russian?

Peter Kenez: No, I don’t. There are two kinds of historians: those who see patterns all the time and those to whom every event seems as something new. Now, obviously the similarities are always there. But how much stress are we going to put on it? My sense is that looking for the similarities is likely to confuse us, because our task is to look at the work as is. We should understand how effective propaganda can be and what are effective propaganda means.

Yes, obviously the Soviets were pathbreakers inasmuch as they believed that they were in possession of a blueprint for a perfect society. Consequently, for them to try to advocate for that blueprint seemed like a noble undertaking. So in their understanding, propaganda was not a dirty word.

Now, I think the power of propaganda goes only so far. What I mean by this is, it depends on your target audience. There is an audience that finds an appeal in what Donald Trump says. That doesn’t mean that he’s a superb propagandist. It means that he stands for something which resonates in the soul of many. So to ask “Who is the better propagandist?” it is pretty much an impossible question to me, because it does matter on your target audience.

In the Soviet case, this was not an issue. Because the success of Soviet propaganda was their ability to suppress every opposing point of view. This kind of approach to propaganda in the modern United States does not exist. And as far as I can tell in the foreseeable future, it could not exist. In Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Russia, it was easy to be a propagandist, because anybody who wanted to shout “What you are saying is silly. It’s not true!” was hit over the head. And that was that. It’s not that they were such clever propagandists. They had the means to suppress every opposing point of view. You know, it’s not that they hit on some brilliant ways to influence the human soul.

By the way, the Soviets were always convinced that the Americans in particular were much better than they were at spreading their message. But everybody thinks that the other side is the better propagandist. The reason for that is because as we live we find that people see the world differently and how can that be? How can that be that people don’t see what I see? The answer to this is, “Because they have been misled by propaganda!” And everybody always thinks that the other side is better at propaganda than their own side. The Russians were convinced that the Americans were very clever.

David Newstead: How does the Putin regime fit that description?

Peter Kenez: To be sure, the current Russian state has the means to achieve not complete uniformity and not a complete monopoly when expressing their views. But at the same time, what Putin has to say is that “We have been humiliated by the West!” This finds an echo in the current Russian soul. It’s not that they’ve been so clever as propagandists, but what Putin has to sell means something to the Russian people.

What is striking to me is how great a rebellion there is in the modern world against liberalism and Putin is not standing alone. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the regime in Poland, Erdoğan in Turkey, Netanyahu in Israel, the close results of elections in Austria. And Trump seems to be a parody of all that. But nonetheless, it’s a parody of something which is an international phenomenon. What I am saying is that Putin is not standing alone. It’s not that there is something called Putinism that is so extraordinary. It’s not attractive mind you. I mean, I’m no fan. But there is so much that is unattractive in much the same way: nativism, suspicion of foreigners, rebellion against liberalism, craving for identity. Brexit is another example. And Trump fits into this as a parody, but a parody of something that is genuine. I just saw the polls today as I was coming in here and Trump has something to sell. It’s not that he’s so clever as a propagandist. He represents something that reverberates in the soul of man.

David Newstead: Probably not our better angels.

Peter Kenez: We agree.

David Newstead: What’s the historical significance of a former agent of the KGB leading Russia? Recently, a harsh anti-terrorism law was passed there. And, of course, there’s the alleged hacking of the Democratic Party in America. Do these things relate to his background in your view?

Peter Kenez: I think that Putin was an ordinary Soviet man and his work for the KGB matters little.

David Newstead: Because a lot of your research has focused on Southern Russia and Ukraine, have you been paying attention to the current conflict there?

Peter Kenez: Very much so. I just wrote for the new edition new chapters on Putin and there, of course, Crimea comes up. What gave Russians today trouble was not the Ukrainians in Crimea, because there’s a rather small Ukrainian minority in Crimea. But in the Donbass region! The main reason that Putin found it necessary to take Crimea was that he assumed for good reasons that the lease for Sevastopol would not be renewed in 2017, which is the only base for the Russian Navy on the Black Sea. So, it had far reaching consequences.

David Newstead: Shifting gears some, I’m curious. Is the world still feeling the impacts of the Russian Revolution? And if so, how?

Peter Kenez: Every great historical event changes the world. The French Revolution changed the world. Hitler coming to power changed the world. In that sense, the Russian Revolution changed the world. There are continuities and there are abrupt changes. In the case of Russian history, the continuities are striking. But so are the changes followed by the Russian Revolution of 1917.

I do think that the 1917 Revolution was surely one of the great events of the 20th century. I cannot imagine Hitler coming to power without the Russian Revolution. I think that the German’s fear of Marxism and Communism was a major source of Hitler’s strength. This more than anything else enabled Hitler to come to power. And anti-Bolshevism was, of course, a main plank in his ideology. Without the Russian Revolution, that’s difficult to conceive.

This is not to blame Lenin for Hitler, but things are connected. You know, the famous Butterfly Effect of a butterfly flaps its wings in Asia and from this such and such things follow… The Russian Revolution was more than a butterfly. So, I don’t think that anybody would dispute that Nazism and Communism fed on one another, which is not to say that Nazism is like Communism or that there’s nothing to distinguish them. But the great communist appeal in the 1930s and, indeed during the Second World War, was precisely that the Soviet Union was the main bulwark against Nazism.

Let us just say, yes. The Russian Revolution was enormously significant. And even though after seventy years the Soviet Union disappeared, that does not mean it has not changed the world.

David Newstead: You’re well-known for writing several histories of the White Army in the Russian Civil War. And I wanted to ask your view on the legacy of the Whites and their relevance today?

Peter Kenez: Well, the interesting thing is those people who want to highlight the Whites in Russian history also look favorably on Stalin. The logic being, they wanted to make us great, they stood for Russia, and Stalin stood for Russia. So, you can have the White leader Denikin as a hero and Stalin as a hero at the same time. Obviously, what the Whites stood for has no future and they are really a throwback to a previous era anachronistic in the modern world. But inasmuch as they were passionate nationalists, they have an appeal. I mean, Denikin fought a war against Georgia, which was absurd. It was absurd given the fact that he also had to fight the Red Army!

David Newstead: One book I read said that the Reds outnumbered the Whites ten-to-one or something to that effect.

Peter Kenez: The Reds mobilized more people, it is true. They occupied more territory. The White Armies were much better led and much better organized. If a White Army and a Red Army met on the battlefield and they were the same size, the Whites were likely to win. And a large number of Red Army soldiers never ever saw combat.

Obviously, the Reds won. But it was not pre-determined. The Whites had things going for them, but they had more things against them since they lost. They were divided geographically. Their policy concerning the peasants was very stupid. If the peasants occupied land, the Whites took it back and returned to the landlords. Therefore, the peasants liked the Whites less than the liked the Reds and that’s very important. Anti-Semitism was also a great force for the Whites. Hatred of Jews and communists was a very powerful propaganda message for the Whites. And for Hitler, for that matter.

David Newstead: Tying the two together, I’ve heard the White Army loosely described as a proto-fascist movement.

Peter Kenez: Again, I shy away from comparisons. We have such a tendency to describe anything that we don’t like as fascist and that’s not very helpful for understanding the nature of that group. They were royalists. They wanted to bring back the old regime. And that’s not what fascism stood for. I mean, that they were anti-Semitic… Well, most people were anti-Semitic then. That’s not enough to make them fascists. To be sure, there is a continuity. Some of these White leaders ended up in Nazi Germany and contributed to their cause during the Second World War and they had a role to play. But in my mind, it’s not helpful to describe them as fascists. Resisting the modern age? Yes. Anti-Bolsheviks? Of course.

David Newstead: Do you have any closing thoughts?

Peter Kenez: You know, many people have made the point that the 20th century was from 1917 to 1991 in accordance with the existence of the Soviet Union. That is, the 19th century ended with the First World War and a new era started with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States becoming the only superpower. This century included the two world wars, included Nazism, included Communism, included all sorts of exciting moments.

Read Part Two

The Commissar Vanishes

By David Michael Newstead.

David King died last month. He was a British graphic designer famous for his collection of Soviet photographs and posters. King spent years amassing his collection, building a visual portrait of history like a jigsaw puzzle.

The only reason I know about David King’s work though is because I was wandering around a bookstore while I was in high school. I found myself immediately drawn to his book, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, and it’s been on my bookshelf ever since.

On one level, The Commissar Vanishes is about Photoshop before there was Photoshop – where enemies of the state were airbrushed out of existence so often that an original photograph looked nothing like the multiple reproductions churned out after each purge. In many cases, Stalin was a constant presence, while the other people in the photo were at risk of being killed and then erased from history.

As if that weren’t Orwellian enough, the book also included defaced portraits of officials whose terrified friends and loved ones suddenly found themselves in possession of something illegal, something that had to be destroyed. The result being that victims’ photos were expunged both in public and in private.

But through his years of digging, David King was able to piece together the truth and show each iteration of the fabrications and the system that manufactured a cult of personality through statues, books, posters, photos, and paintings. Because of that work, his legacy is well-earned. David King was 73.


The Secret Speech – Vlad Men Companion Piece

By David Michael Newstead.

In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin, criticizing his predecessor’s brutal legacy of repression and his Cult of Personality. Although no recordings were made during this closed-door presentation, it would later be deemed to be one of the most important speeches of the 20th Century.

Read the Secret Speech 

Stalin’s Barber: An Interview with the Author

By David Michael Newstead.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Paul M. Levitt, author of the novel Stalin’s Barber. Our conversation is below and check out my review of Stalin’s Barber.

David Newstead: When did you first get the idea for the book? How did you think of it?

Paul M. Levitt: I guess you might say it’s been ruminating for a long time. My father was born in Ukraine. During my childhood, I often heard stories about Russia. The topic of Russia was always in the house with friends and family. The one story I never heard was why people were willing to confess to crimes they never committed, even without being tortured. Answer: for the greater good, namely, Socialism. I think my father and others like him found it difficult to think badly of the Russian Revolution, because it overthrew the despotic Czar. He could still remember pogroms against Jews committed by the Romanovs, so even though he knew Stalin was a monster, it was just different.

Then, the idea for the Turkish haircut and barbering came from a friend who had recently returned from Istanbul. Having had such a haircut, he described it to me. The moment he did, I knew that I had solved a major problem: how to get close to Stalin.

David: When did your father leave Ukraine? And what was his profession?

Paul: He left right before the Russian Revolution in 1917. He was a business man. Eventually, he started a cosmetics company that went under during the Great Depression. Later, he found success with other businesses. My father was a very generous man. Very kind man. I suspect that the memory of his experiences in Russia framed that kindness towards other people.

David: Can you describe the research you did to create the in-depth atmosphere of the story?

Paul: I actually spent seven years reading the fiction and non-fiction of the Soviet period, as well as numerous histories.

David: Have you visited Russia or conducted any interviews there in preparation for your book?

Paul: Yes, I have been to the Soviet Union, and yes, I spoke to friends in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.

David: What challenges did you face while writing?

Paul: Getting information is always a challenge. There are still archives in Moscow that aren’t open to the public. I asked Soviet scholars various questions, but I knew their information was limited as well. To bridge that gap, I did things like read every memoir that’s ever been written about Solovki prison camp. I’ve never been there, but again, it’s about getting at the accurate information that does exist.

David: Did you learn more about your own family history in the process?

Paul: Shortly before my father died, I conducted a series of interviews with him that I taped. I did the same with my mother who came from a Polish family, so I got a lot of information from that. I often tell my students to interview their parents and older relatives and ask them important questions now, because your parents won’t be around forever. In my own house, we didn’t have an attic for old diaries or ledgers, so my parents had all this information from over the course of their lifetime.

My father was the youngest of eleven children. The first five didn’t like what the found in America, so they returned to Russia and ultimately didn‘t survive. Just to explain how certain aspects of Jewish immigration worked. My family benefited from the efforts of Baron Maurice de Hirsch who was a wealthy German-Jewish industrialist. He had made a fortune constructing railroads across Europe, then put a lot of those profits into assisting other European Jews, including financing their immigration to the Western Hemisphere. This was started around the late 1800’s. So it’s because of Hirsch that my father and other family members were able to start a life in America.

David: When did you first want to become an author?

Paul: I’ve been writing since an early age. My older sister was a theatre studies major in college and I used to read her stuff. I got my start writing plays. I wrote for the BBC for a number of years, but it all probably started in Junior High.

David: So returning to your novel, why Stalin? Why a Barber?

Paul: I wanted to understand the Soviet period. What better way to understand it than through Stalin? The barber enabled me to put someone close to Stalin, who was notoriously paranoid. One of Stalin’s actual barbers was a Jewish man named Karl who he had put to death, so there’s some basis in reality for the story.

David: You repeatedly mention Turkish-style Barbering and Hair Singeing. What made you want to include that so prominently in the book?

Paul: If Avraham Behar (The Main Character) was to find a position in the Kremlin, his barbering skills would have to be unusual.

David: There is a minor character named Benjamin Levitan, I couldn’t help noticing the similarity to your name. Any relation to you?

Paul: My father’s name was (Baruch) Benjamin Abraham Levitt. There was a famous Russian painter by the name of Isaac Levitan. I thought the similarity worth exploiting in the story.

David: Since the book’s publication, have any citizens of the former Soviet Union or historians commented on your depiction? If so, how?

Paul: Yes, the Soviet historian Suzi Weissman fact-checked the book for me.

David: Have you been paying attention to the current crisis in Ukraine?

Paul: Very much so.

David: What did you think when you visited the area?

Paul: Poor country. Lot of agriculture.

David: Considering your family background and your own research, what’s your opinion of contemporary Russia?

Paul: I think Putin’s a thug. I thought Gorbachev was one of the major figures of the Twentieth Century. I share some opinions with Stephen Cohen about the Crimea situation, but Eastern Ukraine is much different. For the moment, they’re all rallying behind Putin, because there’s a certain restoration of Russian greatness. But when they get the bill, that’ll virtually bankrupt Russia. Ukraine itself has been in a bad way for a long time: politically, ethically, financially. Then, Ukrainian Nationalism has historically gone hand-in-hand with Anti-Semitism as a way to get people riled up. We’re seeing some of that now.

Around that point, we wrapped up our conversation and I thanked Paul for his time. In the days that followed, I reflected on the constant stream of news coming out of Ukraine and how it related to historical context like the experience of Paul’s family. Many of the tensions now underway seem like a convergence of regular people, bad policies, and the unresolved legacies of men like Joseph Stalin. Paul’s novel illustrates those dark fingerprints on history. Moreover, it provides a view into the real-life circumstances of a region that’s perpetually waiting for a positive outcome. Unlike fiction, it’s an ending that still remains to be seen.

Read Stalin’s Barber 


Stalin’s Barber: A Book Review and Historical Comparison

By David Michael Newstead.

ImagePaul M. Levitt’s novel Stalin’s Barber is a social examination of the Soviet Union that opens a window onto the lives of its numerous and diverse characters. But each of these plots are anchored by the story of one man who eventually holds a razor to the throat of Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. Avraham Bahar is a Jew who leaves Albania in search of a better life in Communist Russia. But the paradise he has heard about is soon revealed to be a myth created by Soviet propaganda. In the earliest part of the novel, he is an eyewitness to famine in Ukraine and this portrait only grows darker and more complex as he moves eastward. Avraham and the other characters are threatened by government surveillance, widespread distrust, and the fear of being denounced as a traitor for any and all reasons. Throughout the course of the story, the reader peers into history through the lens of a Soviet typist, humble peasants, artists, mental patients, a religious believer, petty bureaucrats, secret agents, homosexuals, prison laborers, and a simple barber as the web of family and friendships entraps everyone in their associations with incriminating loved ones. In fact, sometimes the only crime is familiarity and in that environment no one is capable of being innocent.

The main character, Avraham Bahar, is an expert in his craft and overtime becomes the personal barber to Joseph Stalin. In that position, he can see the craters on Stalin’s face and smell the harshness of his breath, knowing that any nick or cut or misspoken comment could cost him his life. But as Avraham diligently works to trim and shave his all important customer, he’s left to wonder: what happened to Stalin’s last barber? And is the man that sits in front of him really Joseph Stalin or one of his many body doubles?

Strangest of all, Levitt’s novel draws attention to real intrigues that took place and often consumed the lives of Soviet citizens during that period. Stalin was a deeply paranoid man, fearful of plots against him. At home, he smoked and drank too much, played billiards, and loved Charlie Chaplin films. But he also forbid carpeting in his residences, because it prevented him from hearing people’s footsteps, especially a would-be assassin. His life was framed by a kind of unceasing belief that threats against him were around every corner. As such, arrests and purges were a ubiquitous occurrence. Millions were sent off to forced labor camps to die.

Tied to that paranoia, the Soviets did, in fact, deploy at least four men simultaneously to pretend to be Joseph Stalin, attend official functions, and, of course, to disrupt the effectiveness of assassination attempts. Although these body doubles never met one another, some of them are known to have trained under actor Alexei Dikiy, the man who played the role of Stalin in Soviet films (also sent to a forced labor camp). Among these four, only one ever went public about his experience in 2008 after decades of silence and after the expressed approval of the Russian government. His name was Felix Dadaev. He was a juggler, an actor, and an illusionist whose greatest performance began in 1943 when the NKVD Secret Police recruited him because of his strong resemblance to Stalin. Although he was only in his early twenties, the native of Dagestan took on the sixty-year-old leader’s precise characteristics under the watchful eye of the state security apparatus. This meant make-up, dying his hair, and learning the movements and minuet details of appearing to be Joseph Stalin. Felix would continue this work until the Soviet leader’s death in 1953. But during that long time span, he only met Stalin once in the early 1950’s. It was brief. The man said nothing and Stalin nodded to him. The end. Such limited recognition hides the fact that Felix had acted the part for years at great personal risk. He was a body double during the height of the Second World War. Furthermore, his family in Grozny had been told that Felix was killed by the German Army in the early 1940’s, and thereafter his entire life revolved around living in Stalin’s shadow.

If Levitt’s novel is about anything, it is about people living in the shadow of a dictatorship and the fear that can overwhelm their day-to-day existence. By showing the experiences of a common barber, Levitt offers a kind of unedited and conversational access to a tyrant who, in the course of a haircut, speaks freely, vents about his life, and asks about the barber’s family. Along the way, each characters’ actions highlight a different aspect of Soviet society, but in most cases, we’re reminded of the central fact that anyone who is in favor with a dictator eventually falls out of favor.

Another real-life example unfortunately reiterates this point. Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini was known for being clean-shaven and in the early years of his reign starting in 1922, he would pick up barbers at random to prevent any pattern from being established that could compromise his personal security and lead to assassination attempts (Note: there were numerous assassination attempts against Mussolini over the years). By 1939, however, Mussolini decided to select someone to be his regular and trusted barber. Luigi Galbani was a young Italian, skilled in his trade, and came from a prominent business family that owned much of Italy’s cheese industry (Gruppo Galbani still has a large presence in Italy’s cheese industry). Regardless of that status, Luigi was tested for the job by being forced to shave Mussolini at gunpoint. While those tensions naturally eased overtime, the barber was still a fly on the wall to war and world politics in the 1930’s and 1940’s, much like the main character in Levitt’s novel. And just as the novel aspires to reveal personal traits about Joseph Stalin, the barber Luigi was given private access to the man who ruled Italy. The most revealing of which, Luigi later told people, was that he overheard a phone conversation concerning Mussolini’s secret order authorizing the execution of his own son and his first wife, Ida Dalser, who Mussolini had married in 1914 and never officially divorced. Both had fallen out of favor and were killed by lethal injection.

While Stalin’s Barber serves as an interesting work of fiction, its real value is as a humanized portrayal of history that draws family members and friendships from what might otherwise be an impersonal ledger of atrocities. Stalin’s rule was so brutal and the statistics about his crimes are so vast that telling the story of an individual man among the millions who suffered can be a difficult feat. Paul M. Levitt does it successfully.

Read Author Interview


What Happens When a Dictator Shaves?

By David Michael Newstead.

When a man shaves his face, he looks in a mirror and at himself. What’s reflected back is then filtered and viewed through the lens of his psyche. And for many people, that picture is a fairly accurate portrait of reality. Oh, you might delude yourself into thinking you have more hair on your head or less belly fat. But a clear mirror and a rational mind can only reasonably stretch the truth so far. But when the worst men in history shave, what do they see reflected back in the mirror?

The answer is likely colored by their own inflated egos, possession of near absolute power, and the legions of frightened, but adoring Yes-Men that surround the typical, everyday tyrant. Although we don’t usually imagine dictators beyond the uniformed orators that they’re depicted as in a news clip, they’re very human. They eat and sleep and shit and shave their faces like everyone else. For instance, the idea that Adolf Hitler spent every morning of his adulthood combing an exacting part into his hair, trimming his perfect Toothbrush moustache, and then dressing up like some satanic Boy Scout would be comical if it wasn’t deranged. But it’s these private details that might say a lot about a man: a self-image so warped that shaving is like looking into a funhouse mirror.

First Case: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Also known as North Korea). It’s been reported that North Korean president, Kim Jong Un, cuts his own hair, owing to his fear of barbers. The rumor is that this is due to an unexplained childhood trauma, but it’s just as likely for legitimate security reasons. Paranoia runs so deeply among that country’s leadership that in 2013 Kim had his own uncle, Jang Song-Taek, purged, tried, and executed for treason. Jang was accused of plotting a coup against his nephew and whether this was real or imagined, he and his entire entourage died for it. One of them was even supposedly executed with a flamethrower. It is in this turbulent environment that receiving a shave and a haircut from a barber could just as easily leave a person vulnerable to being murdered, especially a man like Kim Jung Un. Therefore, a unique hairstyle was born with the young and pudgy Kim as its model. State media in that country has dubbed this bad, self-inflicted haircut to be the “Ambition” style, heaping praise onto a man who already resides in a delusional cloud of propaganda and personality cult. Even by autocratic standards, North Korea is absurd. Kim’s birthday is a national holiday. He supposedly shot 11 hole-in-one’s on the golf course. And at age 31 with no combat experience, he’s also been labeled a military genius. No matter how over-the-top, the praise he receives never ceases, even for his cartoonish hair. Agents from the North Korean embassy in London recently showed up at an unsuspecting hair salon to demand that the business removes a satirical advertisement, mocking Kim’s hair. Yet this tale of crimes against fashion is rounded off with an ironic twist for the world’s most totalitarian regime. The “Ambition” haircut is not included on the list of 28 government-approved hairstyles for North Korean citizens. But whether this behavior ultimately stems from the traumatic childhood of a North Korean boy, from fear of assassination, or from a twisted combination of both is just another question on a long list about the strangest dictatorship in our time.


We do know, however, that similar fears motivated the Iraqi strongman, Saddam Hussein, albeit manifesting themselves quite differently. Throughout his reign, Saddam employed an unknown number of body doubles to confuse and deflect any assassination attempts from his long and ever increasing list of enemies. In that nightmarish situation, the same grooming style and wardrobe were copied each day by a small army of men as they sought to impersonate the original. Every morning, they would sit and silently prepare themselves for the possibility of a violent death all while their own identities were stolen from them and replaced with the mask of a sociopath.

And while the fate of Saddam’s duplicates is not known, there is one survivor from that time period with a story to tell. Latif Yahia was forced into service to act as a body double for Saddam’s oldest son, Uday, during the Iran-Iraq War. He would eventually escape in 1992 and later went on to write a book that became a movie, The Devil’s Double. As a conscripted decoy, Latif was first tortured, then threatened, endured plastic surgery, and faced strict scrutiny in his efforts to emulate the appearance and mannerisms of another man. Despite all that, however, the hardest part of his ordeal seemed to be dealing with Uday Hussein: a petulant man-child who was raised in the shadow of his cruel father. He placed no value on human life and was prone to violent mood swings that could be inflicted on absolutely anyone in Iraq. Uday was also a known rapist and murderer. In fact, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak once called him “a psychopath” after he witnessed Uday stab someone to death at a birthday party in Cairo. Not surprisingly then, Uday also beat, tortured, and shot Latif Yahia, a man essentially employed to save Uday’s life. And although Latif somehow survived his tenure as a body double, one can only speculate as to the bizarre psychology at play in that situation; a man who habitually mistreated others, while also gravely mistreating an identical copy of himself.

What really highlights the difficulty for body doubles like Latif Yahia in perfecting their craft is the nuanced oddity of many dictators; their unusual behaviors and a sense of style personalized to a man who has been unchecked in any practical way for years. Examples from the recent past like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and Uganda’s Idi Amin would be hell to impersonate with their outlandish clothes and animated, bombastic gestures. But in terms of eccentric personal grooming specifically, Hitler’s trademark moustache is now an iconic symbol all on its own. Actually originating in the late ninetieth century, the Toothbrush moustache was considered a more sleek and orderly fashion alternative to the gaudy, waxed handlebar moustaches of the day. The famous British actor Charlie Chaplin began wearing a Toothbrush moustache in 1914, while Hitler supposedly acquired the same style as a soldier in World War One. The use of mustard gas on the Western Front forced soldiers to wear protective gas masks, which can be obstructed by longer facial hair, preventing them from being securely sealed. For that reason, Hitler trimmed his regular moustache around 1919, forever linking a specific facial hair style with history’s worst despot. Adolf liked the new look so much he kept it that way for the rest of his life. However, while that is an interesting back-story, there is no apparent reason why the current, longtime ruler of Zimbabwe (Robert Mugabe) has shaved a slender version of this same moustache into place on his upper lip. This underlines just how unusual a person can become after having been in charge of a country for decades; he copies a style only associated with Nazi’s and Charlie Chaplin. But in Zimbabwe at least, who would risk telling the president-for-life that he’s wrong?

In a dictatorship, citizens are trapped in a grand projection of one man’s subconscious priorities. The leader’s official portraits decorate every office and doorway, every postage stamp and dollar bill. Their face is mass produced and deified, groomed and photo-shopped to perfection. The Soviet propaganda machine was known to airbrush away Stalin’s substantial wrinkles in photographs, leaving only Hollywood good looks instead of the harsh reality. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin is something of a master at photo-ops and staged public relations stunts that would likely make Stalin envious. In that respect, a dictator’s self-image is reflected back on every conceivable surface. They become the pinnacle of national achievement by virtue of suppressing everyone else’s. And the dark corridors of their paranoia and personal inadequacies become the blueprint for the society they rule, the policies it administers, and the mood forced down onto their besieged people.

History shows that these political intrigues can manifest themselves in any number of ways. Before his rise to power in Russia, Vladimir Lenin was known for his distinct goatee. Shedding this recognizable look was, in fact, key to a major turning point in world history. Long unresolved issues in Russia along with the deteriorating strain of the Empire’s participation in World War One were causing irrevocable changes. The Russian Czar had been toppled in the February Revolution of 1917, but the Provisional Government that replaced him was weak and made the unpopular decision to continue their country’s involvement in the war. Despite growing opposition, it appeared that the conflict would drag on and that the death toll would continue to climb. But the Germans, recognizing the feeble position of their enemy, set out to destabilize the situation and permanently remove Russia from the war. To do so, German authorities under Ludendorff launched a clandestine operation to support the anti-war Bolsheviks and assist the revolutionary exile, Vladimir Lenin. Having lived in Switzerland for years, Lenin had to make his way back to Russia to capitalize on the chaotic atmosphere following the fall of the Czar. To do so, he completely shaved his face, donned a shaggy wig to conceal his notable baldness, and took on the alias ‘Vilén’ with false papers provided to him by the Germans. He then secretly traveled in a sealed train car from Switzerland through Germany and arrived in Russia in April 1917. His disguise had allowed him to successfully evade detection by provisional authorities. Once in Petrograd (Now St. Petersburg), he began to dramatically call for an end to Russian participation in the war and for the overthrow of the government. ‘Bread and Peace’ was the slogan of the day and disgruntled Russian crowds listened intently, eager for change. The October Revolution of 1917 soon followed and Lenin went on to lead the Bolsheviks to victory, his usual facial hair now restored.

It’s worth noting, however, that Vladimir Lenin died of a stroke in 1924 and that his corpse has been on public display for propaganda reasons in Moscow ever since. After being embalmed, his body has been groomed and washed daily by technicians for almost a century, undergoing regular and fairly complex chemical treatments to keep it from decomposing. As a result, that same goatee exists today resting on his chin, having lasted substantially longer than Lenin himself, the Soviet government he founded, and several generations of Russian citizens.

When a dictator grooms himself, it is magnified far beyond his own face and the confines of his bathroom mirror. He’s really sculpting his grandiose ego onto society, deciding what statues of himself will look like, imagining heroic murals, the front page of the newspaper, and ominous propaganda posters. He’s designing the picture that will appear in textbooks and sketching his narcissism across the gulf of history. And it is that massive ego that saturates many things. It outlines national policy. It launches wars and touches the lives of millions of people for years to come. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” and if there’s any truth to that quote, then whole countries in the world today still live in the shadow of terrible men, past and present.