How Stalin Weaponized Old-School Photoshop To Eliminate Rivals
Joseph Stalin was a terrifying ruler. His mix of power and paranoia meant even if a person was Stalin’s right-hand man one day, they could find themselves whisked off to the gulag the next. Once an “enemy” of Stalin was imprisoned or executed (and let’s be honest, they were usually executed), he could exert an existentially creepy level of power by erasing photographic evidence of their existence.
Yes, Stalin proved to be a king of Photoshop decades before Photoshop was a thing. He had gained control over the Soviet Union in 1922, and once he had power, he didn’t want to let it go. By doctoring photographs to remove those Stalin deemed a threat, he was able to control the narrative over who was important to the Soviet Union. This wasn’t something that was only done a handful of times, either. Thousands of retouched photos have been discovered.
The editing became particularly weaponized during the Great Purge. Beginning in 1936, this period of mass political violence resulted in the deaths of roughly 750,000 people whom Stalin feared served as a threat to his dominance. Political enemies, who may have had ties to exiled Leon Trotsky or those who Stalin baselessly worried about, were arrested secretly in the middle of the night and never heard from again. To complete their erasure from history, Stalin had their images removed from photos.
This resulted in some morbidly humorous moments, like the picture below. It had been retouched at least three separate times to remove different figures until only Stalin remained.
In another instance that demonstrates some sort of irony, Nikolai Yezhov was removed from photos. Yezhov was once the head of the Soviet secret police during the Great Purge, but eventually, he found himself out of favor with the paranoid Stalin. He was then executed and removed from photos. Some might say that that's karma.
Stalin didn’t just employ photo manipulation to delete enemies from existence. He also used it for the same reason as every modern-day influencer: to make himself look better. His face was scarred from having smallpox as a child, so of course, those scars had to go in editing. And once you start doctoring photos, you might as well make him a little taller while you’re at it. Imagine what BS photos Stalin would use if Soviet Tinder existed back then.
Top Image: Public Domain/Wiki Commons