How Stalin and other tyrants airbrushed their enemies from history

Can YOU spot the difference? How Stalin and other tyrants airbrushed their enemies from history… as ex-PM Boris Johnson mysteriously vanishes from photograph with Grant Shapps

  • Joseph Stalin had images edited to remove former comrades turned enemies 
  • In one in Moscow, former secret police official Nikolai Yezhov was airburshed
  • Stalin also had an image of Vladimir Lenin edited to remove enemy Leon Trotsky
  • And China’s Mao Zedong and Italy’s Benito Mussolini also edited photographs 

When it emerged yesterday that Boris Johnson had been airbrushed from a photo with Grant Shapps, there were immediate cries of foul play.

Whilst the Business Secretary insisted that he had no knowledge of which of his staff had been responsible for the image, it was immediately noticed online how the move to ‘delete’ the former PM had rather sinister connotations.

Many pointed out the link with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who often retouched images to remove former allies who had fallen foul of his reign of terror.

Most famously, he had former secret police official Nikolai Yezhov deleted from an image that had originally showed the pair with two other officials standing next to the Moscow Canal. 

And China’s Chairman Mao also used the tactic to get rid of his political enemies from old photographs. 


Stalin famously edited his political enemies out of photographs. One such enemy was Nikolai Yezhov, a secret police official who oversaw Stalin’s purges. When he fell out of favour in 1938, Yezhov was removed from an image in which he was seen standing next to his boss on the Moscow Canal


When it emerged yesterday that Boris Johnson had been airbrushed from a photo with Grant Shapps, there were immediate cries of foul play, with critics pointing out the links with Stalin’s tactics. Above: Mr Shapps tweeted an image of him meeting and greeting staff at Spaceport Cornwall. The version issued by Downing Street in 2021 showed an identical scene, but with the then-PM Mr Johnson in the middle

Yezhov had been one of Stalin’s right-hand men but fell out of favour with the dictator in 1938. 

He was denounced, arrested, tried in a secret court and then executed. 

The retouchers simply replaced him with new water. Stalin used similar tactics on dozens of other party officials.

The editing of photographs was largely part of Stalin’s Great Purge, which saw an estimated 750,000 people murdered between 1936 and 1939 as he looked to remove any remaining influence of his former comrade Leon Trotsky and any other political rivals.


Mao Zedong had a 1936 image of him with his comrades edited to remove rival Po Ku (left)

As well as using the editing tactic to remove his new enemies, Stalin also had himself put into an image of an ailing Vladimir Lenin in 1922. In the re-touched photo, he was seen sitting next to his then leader, with the depiction intended to show how Stalin had visited Lenin before his death in the hope it would boost his prospects of succeeding him

More than a million other victims were sent to remote areas of Russia to do hard labour in gulags. 

Some of Stalin’s enemies vanished from their homes, whilst others were executed in public after show trials. 

Another famous use of editing came with an image of Stalin with Communist party comrades Nikolai Antipov, Sergei Kirov and Nikolai Shvernik in 1926.

One by one, as the men fell foul of his psychopathic tendencies, Stalin had them removed from the image, until only he remained. 

And an image of Lenin addressing a crowd of troops in Moscow in 1920 was later altered under Stalin’s orders to remove Stalin’s bitter enemy Leon Trotsky. 


This image of Vladimir Lenin addressing a crowd of troops in Moscow was later edited by censors to remove Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev

As well as using the editing tactic to remove his enemies, Stalin also had himself put into an image of an ailing Vladimir Lenin in 1922. 

In the re-touched photo, he was seen sitting next to his then leader, with the depiction intended to show how Stalin had visited Lenin before his death in the hope it would boost his prospects of succeeding him. 

But the dictator was not the only leader to make use of editing, with both China’s Chairman Mao and Italy’s Benito Mussolini doing the same. 

Mao Zedong had a 1936 image of him with his comrades edited to remove rival Po Ku.

And as part of efforts to present himself as a man of strength, Mussolini had an image of him on a horse edited to remove the person tending to the horse.  


As part of efforts to present himself as a man of strength, Mussolini had an image of him on a horse edited to remove the person tending to the horse

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