I am certainly not a serious collector of historical artifacts, but I have a thing for obscure curiosa: for example, I maintain an expansive if entirely worthless collection of hyperinflationary banknotes from around the world.
My other unserious numismatic pursuit is the collection of money depicting murderous revolutionaries, dictators, and other bad actors who either couldn't help themselves and put their own likeness on the currency - or who ended up there as a consequence of a personality cult cultivated by their successors after the subject's death.
Of course, the criteria for inclusion on the list is a bit mushy. For example, all his accomplishments aside, Napoleon Bonaparte can be described as a murderous despot - yet most Europeans would object to having him included next to Pol Pot. To avoid the ambiguities of dealing with an era where authoritarian leadership was the global norm, I decided to pragmatically limit my collection to the leaders who established authoritarian regimes in the 20th century and beyond. I also stayed away from kings and other royalty.
It must also be said that the collection is necessarily incomplete. For instance, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin are among the most prolific murderers in human history, but I am not aware of any state-issued banknotes bearing their likeness. In contrast to this duo, some other dictators commemorated here, such as the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, feel almost out of place - but they did end up on a banknote or two.
The collection is fascinating, quite wacky, and at times rather beautiful. Let's kick off the list with some household names in the West. First, we have the father of the nation and the eternal leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. Middle-of-the-road estimates put the number of people murdered by the regime at around 1,500,000; countless others perished due to famine or ended up in labor camps:
Next, we have Chairman Mao Zedong of China. The murders carried out by the revolutionary regime likely total more than a million, but they pale in comparison with more than 30,000,000 who perished due to Mao's deranged agricultural and land reform policies implemented shortly after the establishment of his communist state:
Up next, Vladimir Lenin, on one of several Soviet banknotes to bear his likeness. The murders carried out during and immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution number in the hundreds of thousands. The overall death toll of Marxist-Leninist ideologies in the Soviet Union and the neighboring states easily exceeds ten million, much of it credited to Lenin's protege, Joseph Stalin:
Closer to modern day, we have Saddam Hussein, the absolute ruler of Iraq up until his capture and eventual execution by the forces aligned with the United States of America. It is estimated that at least 200,000 people were murdered by Hussein's regime, and some researchers place the number closer to 600,000:
Next, we have Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, assassinated after being captured by rebels during the Libyan Civil War. A flamboyant ruler always conscious of his image (and portrayed here with his trademark shades). Gaddafi's legacy is perhaps a bit more nuanced, although there is little doubt that he was a tyrant and that his regime made little distinction between rebel fighters and their civilian supporters, killing them by the thousands:
Next up: a more clear-cut rogue, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, still presiding. A ruthless ruler during a period of a bloody civil war. The regime's death toll is estimated in the excess of 100,000, with numerous war crimes against civilian populations documented along the way:
The next well-known likeness is that of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the theocratic dictatorship in Iran and the de facto leader of the country for many years after. Tens of thousands perished in the midst of the Islamic revolution in the late 1970s; millions have to live under the oppressive, fundamentalist ideology cultivated by Khomeini's successors to this date:
The last universally-recognizable revolutionary in my collection is Ernesto "Che" Guevara, one of the leaders of the Cuban Revolution. A martyr of the international communist movement, Che morphed into a t-shirt icon for many far-left movements in the West. Nevertheless, he was also a brutal leader known for summarily executing captured enemies, and was the co-architect of a comparatively less oppressive yet profoundly miserable communist regime on the island:
With this out of the way, the remainder of my collection revolves around leaders perhaps less known to Western audiences. We can start with Jean Bedel Bokassa, the revolutionary leader of Central African Republic. Bokassa is a polarizing figure. He is the father of the nation remembered for carrying out a successful coup to rid the country of French colonial rule, but he was also a dictator who murdered thousands of political opponents - and at one time, oversaw the execution of 100 schoolchildren. Later exiled, then imprisoned, and finally released only to slide into insanity in the final years of his life:
Next in line: Francisco Macias Nguema of Equatorial Guinea. Another colonial independence fighter regrettably turned a ruthless dictator, responsible for the deaths of somewhere around 60,000 people. Eventually tried and executed by a military tribunal:
Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier of Haiti, a totalitarian leader trying to build a personality cult. Responsible for the murder of perhaps 40,000 of his compatriots, and portrayed on a rather beautiful banknote. He died peacefully and was succeeded by his son (who also appeared on currency):
In Liberia, we have Samuel K. Doe, a military ruler known for carrying out massacres of civilians, later tortured and executed by his opponents:
In Malawi, Hastings Banda, a well-traveled anti-communist crusader supported by the West during the Cold War. Remembered for economic accomplishments, but also for torturing and executing perhaps more than 10,000 people:
In Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, a communist father of the nation and its ruler for life. Obsessed with his image to the point of constructing a towering golden statue of himself in the capital, he is a figure more difficult to condemn. His regime isn't known to have been particularly murderous, but Niyazov's long-term authoritarian rule and questionable economic policies left Turkmenistan a relatively poor and isolated country in comparison to many of its peers:
Next, we have Uganda and Idi Amin. A prolific mass-murderer, believed to be responsible for the death of around 300,000, perhaps more. Idi came to power after deposing Milton Obote, another despot portrayed on Ugandan currency. He was eventually deposed and exiled, too, eventually living out the rest of his days in Saudi Arabia:
Meanwhile, in Zaire, we have a banknote commemorating Mobutu Sese Seko, a despotic African leader known for a peculiar and economically-devastating brand of nationalim, plus a history of orchestrating purges. Deposed and exiled:
Last but not least, in Yugoslavia, the banknotes commemorated Josip Broz Tito. As with Niyazov in Turkmenistan, Tito is sometimes thought of as a relatively benevolent dictator and the father of the nation; but this view is contested by other historians. For one, it appears that in the period of consolidation of Tito's rule, his sympathizers executed quite a few dissidents. The purges ended quickly, but Tito's rule had many of the hallmarks of later-day dictatorships in the Soviet Bloc - perhaps not bloodthirsty, but preoccupied with clamping down on political opposition and ideological dissent.
To be continued... some of the characters I want to add include Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier of Haiti and Milton Obote of Uganda (both mentioned earlier), Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone, General Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda, Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, Paul Biya of Cameroon, and Murtala Ramat Muhammed of Nigeria.
Your lucky number is: 20813324