While my story of Simon Simonov is mostly a riff on narcissism, it’s obviously inspired by some of the crazier dictators of the 20th century. Here are some stories about two of the most bizarre megalomaniacs to have seized power – Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan and Enver Hoxha of Albania.
The Story of Sapamurat Niyazov
Niyazov came to power in oil-rich Turkmenistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and in subsequent elections he won 99.9% of the vote with the populace voting him President for Life! His personality cult replaced the adoration of Lenin and Stalin as he ordered enormous gold statues of himself to be erected all around the country in various smiling poses resembling that of a Las Vegas lounge singer.This is a country with crippling poverty – the general population never saw any of the oil money, obviously.
Niyazov renamed towns, airports, a meteorite, days of the week and months of the year after himself, and shared the others with his family and other national figures of the past that he deemed worthy of the honour. September was renamed after the book he wrote, the Ruhnama, a quite unreadable mess of Niyazov’s political, practical and philosophical wisdom. He considered the book so comprehensive that he banned all others with the exception of the Koran. Anyone who read it twice was guaranteed a place in heaven, Niyazov said, as he had ‘fixed it with Allah.’
He closed all hospitals outside the capital of Asgabat to encourage the people of the countryside to come to the city and with regard to dentistry he declared:
‘I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw to strengthen their teeth. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not chew on bones. This is my advice…[‘
He knocked down whole neighbourhoods of housing to build enormous marble complexes that no one could afford to rent and he built a 37km long ‘health road’ – a concrete walkway along treeless mountains that he expected everyone to walk at least once a year. Trees were, in fact, planted to give some shade in the gruelling heat but they were the wrong kind for the environment and so died off fast.
The Story of Enver Hoxha
Albania’s Enver Hoxha was another psychopath who seized power in 1944 and ruled until 1985 in a murderous regime of paranoia and absurdity. Convinced that the nation was under imminent attack even in remote mountain valleys, Hoxha had over 700,000 concrete bunkers constructed for the defense of the nation. He refrained from placing his own face on banknotes lest witchcraft be used against his image and he regularly killed anyone close to him, shooting, poisoning or pushing them off cliffs.
Hoxha was so paranoid that a double was found: an Albanian man with a resemblance to Hoxha was taken away from his family in his village and given plastic surgery to perfectly resemble Hoxha. The team of surgeons was then driven off a cliff into the Adriatic Sea. The double was taught how to walk and talk like Hoxha, eating the same food and reading the same books, and he was made to open factories and give speeches in Hoxha’s place. He was even taught how to die properly for the cameras in case he was shot so that Hoxha’s courage might be known until the very end.
When Hoxha died the double returned to his home village to find his family had been killed and wherever he went people spat at him or ran away screaming, imagining the ghost of Hoxha had come back to haunt them. He sought refuge in a prison camp where no one had seen any recent pictures of the late dictator and lived there for a few last miserable years.
Like Niyazov, Hoxha was a megalomaniac and stories have it that he expected roses to be planted in his footsteps on trips to the mountains and fruit trees to be planted where his glance fell. People were extorted to declare: ‘May Allah take years off my life and add them to yours, Comrade Hoxha!’ and just in case anyone forgot who was boss he had his name carved across a mountain slope.
In 2012, an Albanian artist made amends.
For more stories like these, a great book about Albania is The Accursed Mountains by Robert Carver.