With the current conflict in Ukraine, we’ve seen Russia trying desperately to control information in order to control opinion both at home and abroad.  They banned Instagram, Facebook from Russia and heavily restricted Twitter without an outright ban. Apparently, some content on Twitter is useful to Putin and the Kremlin still.  As this is being written, Russia has entirely closed itself off from all internet traffic coming from the West. The social media platforms not banned may have to ask themselves why they appear useful to Putin in his effort to convince the world that what he is doing in Ukraine is justified.

This is nothing new, countries like Russia, China and North Korea have a long history of erasing people they don’t want to be reminded of.  Often they start out as regime insiders with the power, but when they are un-personed, these regimes even go to such lengths as to remove them from the historical record like they never existed at all.  They will even rewrite entire history textbooks to remove the disloyal from the collective memory of their country.

Regimes obsessed with appearing to be perfect can’t have anything or anyone imperfect break the bubble of that illusion, so whether it’s banning social media or simply airbrushing someone out of a photograph,”Out of sight,” appears to be truly, “out of mind.”

Here are a few examples we dug up.

Nikolai Yezhov

Yezhov was a German politician who was the district leader of Berlin. He was also the chief propagandist for the Nazi Party that became Hitler’s closest follower and advocated the harsh discrimination that included the extermination of the Jews in what we know as the Holocaust. He worked as a Soviet secret police official under Joseph Stalin, the head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). During the peak of the Great Purge from 1936 to 1938, when Stalin ordered the removal of the central party leadership, Old Bolsheviks, government, and even Red Army officials in fear of losing his position, Yezhov was the one who organized the mass arrests, torture, and executions of those who were ordered to be purged. After they had successfully removed the threats, Stalin ordered Yezhov to kill all of the other agents in the Soviet Secret Police in worries that the agents might use and leak the information they had against him.


Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Yezhov in 1937 (original) and the copy where Nikolai Yezhov had been removed from the photo. (Photo: scalar.usc.edu)

Yezhov obliged as he was told, without knowing that he—just like those he eliminated—would be ordered to be killed, too. His death completely sealed off Stalin’s secrets during the Great Purge. Not only that, but he ordered for those who were executed within the NKVD to be removed from history to make sure that the future generations wouldn’t even know of their existence. To do that, they deleted Yezhnov from all the public photos released by the media, as well as removed all his accounts and records, and started spreading rumors that he betrayed the Soviet Union by striking an alliance with the fascists. Because of this, art historians nicknamed Yezhov “The Vanishing Commissar” after his total disappearance in 1940.

Qin Bangxian

Popularly known as Bo Gu, Qin Bangxian had a huge amount of responsibility and became the most important leader of the Communist Political Party in China under Mao Zedong. Everything was going well as far as his political career until some arguments arose about the tactical military defense at the Zunyi Conference during the Long March. Bo Gu was gravely criticized for “serious partial political mistakes,” and so he was replaced in 1935 by Zhang Wentian. Even so, he still retained some degree of authority and importance within the CCP and was even one of the people who negotiated with the Nationals during the Xi’an Incident the year after. He also served as the head of the Xinhua News Agency, apart from retaining as a Central Committee member.

Despite all this, he was not able to regain Mao’s full trust, and he was killed in a plane crash “accident” after attending a Congress in Chongqing as a Chinese Communist Party delegate. In reality, Mao ordered for him to be executed and at the same time removed from all of the official photos while reminding the country that he was a traitor.

Now you see him, now you don’t.

Jang Song-thaek

Stills from “The Great Comrade” that show Jang Song-thaek (seen left) edited out. (Ministry of Unification/AFP/Getty Images via npr.org)

Perhaps the most recent act of having someone erased from history was when Kim Jong-un decided to delete traces of his uncle and close advisor, Jang Song-thaek. When Kim Jong-un was still considered quite young for such a high political position, and his decisions were deemed questionable, his uncle played the dangerous role of opposing the leader. Song-thaek was more focused on following his brother Kim Jong-il’s ways, which Kim Jong-un didn’t appreciate. Because of this, he ordered that his uncle be tried by a special military tribunal and then executed through a firing squad. There were also rumors that he was killed by dogs. However, some people suspect that Jang Song-thaek might still be alive. When former U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman visited North Korea in 2014, he claimed that Song-thaek stood behind him in the photoshoot, sparking controversy. Whichever it was, what’s certain was that the dear leader of North Korea ordered all the state media outlets to remove any traces of the old man from history, including pictures and all sorts of information from online archives and history books. Of course, there were still plenty of pictures of Song-thaek in Western countries even after his execution in 2013, but that does not matter in North Korea as no western news, programs, or films were ever broadcasted in their country.