The currencies of Dear Leaders

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 acolytes 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 listed 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. Saddam espoused a blend of nationalism and secular socialism. 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 socialist 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. Another ruthless, notionally socialism-aligned 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 who at one point described himself as the "the world's first socialist emperor". 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: Paul Biya of Cameroon, serving to this day after coming into power in 1982 after his predecessor's surprise exit from politics. A proponent of "planned liberalism" that supposedly combined the best of capitalism and communism, Biya is not believed to be nearly as murderous as some of the other names on this list, but that did not stop him from promptly eliminating his opponents and establishing a one-party system. Later, when forced to abandon this model due to mounting domestic and international pressure, he apparently switched to rigging the elections instead:

Meanwhile, in Equatorial Guinea, we have Francisco Macias Nguema. Another colonial independence fighter regrettably turned a ruthless dictator, responsible for the deaths of somewhere around 60,000 people. His political leanings are difficult to ascertain: he variously described himself as Marxist, an African nationalist, an atheist, a Catholic - but likely did not subscribe to any dogma beyond his own best interest. Ousted by his nephew; eventually tried and executed by a military tribunal:

In a nearby Guinea - a distinct country with a similar name - we have Ahmed Sekou Toure, who helped secure the country's independence from France, became its first president, and then swiftly got rid of all political opposition. He embraced Marxism, jailed dissidents, and brutally cracked down on free enterprise; his ultimate death toll is estimated to be around 50,000. He died in office:

The next contestant is Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier of Haiti, a totalitarian leader trying to build a personality cult. An anti-communist trying to garner support of the United States, he was responsible for the murder of perhaps 40,000 of his compatriots. He died peacefully and was succeeded by his son. His likeness adorns this rather beautiful banknote:

Speaking of the son: Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier continued his father's authoritarian legacy while indulging in all kinds of earthly pleasures; he was eventually persuaded to flee the country, settling in France to enjoy the spoils of the regime. He returned to Haiti 25 years later, only to be arrested shortly after arrival. He died awaiitng trial:

Coming up next, Suharto of Indonesia, a military leader who carried out a coup and then acted as the second president of the country from 1967 to 1998. An anti-communist crusader who modernized the country and helped greatly increase the standard of living, Suharto is revered by many. Nevertheless, he is also believed to have been one of the most corrupt politicians in human history; Amnesty International estimates the spoils of his regime to be in excess of $15 billion:

In Liberia, we have Samuel K. Doe, a military ruler whose anti-communist leanings earned him the support of the United States. Known for carrying out massacres of civilians; later tortured and executed by his opponents:

In Malawi, we have Hastings Banda, a well-traveled anti-communist crusader supported by the West throughout the Cold War. Remembered for economic accomplishments, but also for torturing and executing perhaps more than 10,000 people:

Modibo Keita: the first president of the post-colonial Mali. An avowed Marxist leader, who - taking hints from many of his peers - quickly outlawed all competing political parties and imprisoned dissidents. Although he reportedly wasn't as ruthless as some of his contemporaries and maintained good relationships with the West, he couldn't help himself but to put his own likeness on the currency. Eventually deposed and imprisoned following a military coup. He died in captivity:

After this, we have Murtala Ramat Muhammed of Nigeria, a military commander assassinated less than a year into the role of the leader of the nation. His military track record is perhaps more damning than his brief stint as a civilian leader. In the latter capacity, he pursued authoritarian social policies but embraced economic liberalization and free enterprise. At wartime, his unit implemented scorched earth policies and summarily executed civilians during one of the world's bloodiest civil wars:

Up next: Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda, an anti-communist strongman who sought the creation of a totalitarian one-party state; he reportedly went as far as forcing his subjects to dance to affirm their loyalty. He was eventually assassinated, but that only made things worse: the event precipitated the Rwandan genocide, the slaughter of as many as 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority who opposed Habyarimana's rule and who likely had a hand in his death:

In Sierra Leone, we have Siaka Stevens, a communist-aligned kleptokratic ruler who - like some of his peers - established a faux democracy while simultaneously outlawing all political parties but his own. He also had a penchant for killing and paying off dissidents. He eventually retired without incident; his successors were not afforded the same courtesy:

Modern South Korea is a fairly young state, the product of the administrative partitions of the Japan-occupied Korean Peninsula in the wake of World War II. Unlike its neighbor to the north, the nation never plumbed the depths of totalitarianism. Nevertheless, its first elected leader, Syngman Rhee, was known for authoritarian crackdowns on the opposition that resulted in the summary executions of perhaps as many as 100,000, making little distinction between communist militias and their civilian sympathizers. Rhee was ousted following the brutal pacification of protests in 1960:

In the first part of the article, we talked about Bashar al-Assad; it would be also prudent to mention his less-known predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father and the leader of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party in Syria. At first, Hafez embraced garden variety Marxism-Leninism exported from the Soviet Union, but he soon found the system too constraining, replacing the rule of the Party with a cozy family-run dictatorship:

In Turkmenistan, we have 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 and renaming days of the week, and forcing all schoolchildren to read his autobiography. His regime isn't known to have been particularly murderous, but Niyazov's long-term authoritarian rule and very questionable economic and social 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 promoted a peculiar and poorly-articulated form of "African socialism", but it would be difficult to argue that he was an ideologue. He was eventually deposed and exiled, living out the rest of his days in Saudi Arabia:

Milton Obote, Amin's predecessor, was an Ugandan freedom fighter who sought the end of the British colonial rule. He has the dubious distinction of being one of the few strongmen deposed not once, but twice: first by Idi Amin, his deputy commander of the armed forces; and then in another military coup many years later. For this ordeal, he probably deserves little sympathy; Amnesty International estimates that Obote's regime killed about 300,000 civilians during the Ugandan Bush War:

In Vietnam, banknotes commemorate Ho Chi Minh, a Soviet- and China-backed Vietnamese revolutionary who fought to rid the country of French colonial rule and established an enduring, authoritarian Marxist-Leninist state. Except for wartime atrocities carried under his watch, he probably deserves less scorn for his direct actions, and more for architecting the oppresive party apparatus of modern-day Vietnam:

In Yugoslavia, the banknotes commemorated Josip Broz Tito. 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 socialist dictatorships in the Soviet Bloc - perhaps not bloodthirsty, but preoccupied with clamping down on political opposition and ideological dissent.

Last but not least, in Zaire, we have a banknote commemorating Mobutu Sese Seko, a despotic African leader known for a peculiar and economically-devastating brand of nationalim that rejected the tenets of both capitalism and socialism. Perhaps more importantly, he is also remembered for a history of orchestrating purges. Deposed and exiled:

To be continued...

Other features you might enjoy: The Hyperinflation Gallery and comics about communism.

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