This week we learned that Kim Jong-un cannot bend space and time.

It was the end of a family myth that dates back to the ‘god-like’ founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il-Sung. The ‘Supreme Leader’ was once said to have the magical powers of ‘chukjibeop’, or the ability to teleport.

Only now has a Pyongyang-based newspaper refuted these claims.

It’s not insignificant progress for a country which has long used myth-making to belie the harsh truths of labour camps, mass starvation and poverty which lie behind its closed borders. That said, other bizarre reports about the current leader – that he could shoot a gun aged three, or drive a truck aged eight – remain undisputed.

But the Kim family are not the only leaders in history who have sought to create their own version of events

Stalin the ‘man of steel’

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin reports to the 8th All-Union Congress of Soviets on the draft Constitution of the USSR. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Joseph Stalin was undoubtedly ruthless, first as a revolutionary, later as dictator of the Soviet Union. He was responsible for many deaths amongst his political enemies and the wider population during gruelling Collectivisation programmes.

But the man remembered as Stalin started out life in Georgia as Losif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. In 1910, he took the moniker Stalin, meaning ‘man of steel’ in Russian. The Superman-esque nickname was a little wide of the mark for a man who was 5’4” in reality, had his photos air-brushed to smooth out childhood scars, and hid his left arm to disguise the fact that it had been injured in an accident and was considerably shorter than the right.

Gaddafi and his ‘Amazons’

ROME - AUGUST 29:  Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi arrives at Ciampino airport on August 29, 2010 in Rome, Italy.  Gadaffi is on an official two-day visit to Italy for talks with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The visit also marks the second anniversary of a friendship treaty between Italy and Lybia.  (Photo by Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images)
Photo by Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

One-time Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, was known for his all-female personal guards, known as ‘Amazons’ after the mythical race of warrior women. The glamour of their appearance and position within the dictator’s inner circle went against the grain of a regime which otherwise upheld a conservative view of women, restricting their access to education and employment.

But the female guards’ seemingly progressive status was exposed after Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011. Stories emerged of how the women were threatened, abused and raped by the leader, his family and his soldiers. The reality behind the myth was far from glamourous.

Mussolini, ‘Il Duce’

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1940:  Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), Italian statesman.  (Photo by Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
Photo by Roger Viollet via Getty Images

Most people know by now that the apologist’s response to Italian Facism – ‘yes, but Mussolini did make the trains run on time’ – is a fallacy.

Mussolini was a gifted propagandist, successfully cultivating his image as ‘Il Duce’, ensuring he was always portrayed in uniform and shown from below to accentuate his military bearing.

He painted Facism as a kind of successor to the Roman Empire, frequently using the symbolism of Rome in his early political writings and later speeches, notably just before the March on Rome.*

Famously associated with this landmark event in 1922, Mussolini is said to have gone to the capital to demand power from the king. In fact, he left the actual marching to his Facist troops, instead awaiting the outcome in Milan.

Mao’s celebrity status

UNSPECIFIED  :  Mao Tse Toung (1893-1976) chinese president here during review of army of The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in Pekin, november 3, 1967  (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)
Photo by Apic/Getty Images

Mao Zedong is still revered by some in China. The ‘father’ of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is seen as a deity, capable of miracles. His birthplace in Shaoshan has become something of a pilgrimage site in the decades following his death in 1976.

In life, Mao’s drastic agricultural and industrial reforms attempted to modernise China, but ended in millions of deaths. The full extent of the famine is still not recognised in the country today.

Yet his cult of personality peaked in the 1960s following this disaster, even as his Cultural Revolution sought to purge ‘bourgeois’ elements from the ruling Communist Party. Posters from the time show soldiers waving his ‘Little Red Book’ of quotations, working class families brought together under his benevolent gaze, even the man himself teaching village children.

You can still buy keyrings, glitter globes and teacups featuring his image in China, proof that his myth has long outlived his political reign.

*Source: ‘Constructing Fascist Identity: Benito Mussolini and the Myth of “Romanità“’, Jan Nelis, 2007.

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