According to KnowYourMeme, among others, a relatively young Stalin is so good looking in a certain picture that he is often referred to as "sexy Stalin":

enter image description here

This is indeed a pretty picture of a young man with quite a smooth face (1902, 23 years old). There is however a problem with this picture. It has to be a doctored photo. Although this photo is often judged to be "authentic", the face is a bit too smooth. He had a quite disfigured skin due to smallpox or chicken pox, depending on which version of Wikipedia you trust more. Regardless, the result of this childhood infection was quite a scarred face:

enter image description here
From: Dermatologie Stalin: Psoriasis and Facial Scars (from Smallpox)

While it is a hopefully well-known fact that after he really came to power in the Soviet Union, many photos were retouched to make him look more attractive, more friendly, closer to Lenin, etc.

What I want to know is:
when was the photograph of "sexy Stalin" altered?

Was that a service offered by the original photographer in 1902? If so, then that seems to be a wide spread/standard service? In the case for this picture that is quite unlikely, as it is a mugshot (but compare another one from 1911) taken by the police from Batumi. Was it done after the fact that he came to power? If so, did they really get their hands on all of those photos to retouche them?

The latter seems quite unlikely. Given that the StalinMuseum has some less obviously altered images of him (example), the museum still only has this "sexy Stalin" photo from his 23rd year.

enter image description here Apparently the photo as is on display offline at the museum

Or is there an unaltered version of this picture somewhere?

  • FWIW, retouched photos seem to be quite common in Russia in the first half of 20th century. I've seen lots of family photos from that time retouched.
    – vpekar
    Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 8:31
  • The reference on Stalinist photo manipulation is The Commissar Vanishes (1997), but it does not include this photograph. Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 21:37
  • @AaronBrick That book might be interesting, even if for this photo it's a negative. Is there something in it of relevance for this question nonetheless? Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 17:56
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    I take back what I said when I called it a reference; it's more of a coffee table book, with a lot of photos' careers in different versions and remarks on alteration techniques. Defintely worthwhile for contextual reading. If I had seen it sooner I would have been able to write a better answer. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 18:44
  • Are you sure it is the original mugshot? Manually retouching photos was pretty much the standard in portray photography even in the late 20th century. Even now many studios (automatically, digitally) retouches your photos if you have a passport shot inside a shop (I just got one a couple of weeks ago), in spite of the fact that passport photos are supposed to be accurate.
    – Greg
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 5:20

3 Answers 3



       Dec 6, 1878      Stalin was born 
       1884             Stalin Contracts Smallpox 
       Nov 1905         elected delegates to Bolshevik conference in Saint Petersburg.
       Apr 1906         Stalin attended the RSDLP Congress in Stockholm; first trip outside the Russian Empire
       Aug 1907         attends Congress in Stuttgart, Germany
      *1908             Stalin is arrested and serves time at Bailov Prison
       1924             Lenin Dies
       1928             Trotsky exile
       1936 to 1938     Great Purge where Stalin Consolidates power 
       Aug 21 1940      Trotsky dies in Mexico

Photographs Origins:

So the picture is featured on the cover of the book Young Stalin copyrighted 2007. It appears on both the front and back covers.

enter image description here

enter image description here

In the credits of that book it says the mugshot is from 1912, not 1902 and it's originally obtained for the book from the David King Collection.

David King being a graphic designer and design historian who amassed one of the world’s largest collections of Soviet political art and photographs, which he drew on for revelatory books on Leon Trotsky and the Stalin era, died on 2016 in London.

I found this photo which appears to predate the above book.

enter image description here

It was posted on wikipedia back in 2005 and is credited to a book published in 1950.

Stalin, Foto 1902, copied from the book "Josef Wissarionowitsch Stalin - Kurze Lebensbeschreibung" (Josef Wissarionowitsch Stalin - short live description), Publishing for russian literature in foreign languages, Moscow 1947.

Looking at that image it appears it was changed extensively by wikipedia users, with the latest version coming from the Stalin Museum in Georgia. The Stalin Museum in their gallery of photo's of Stalin, contains several other photo's of the younger Soviet leader. All photo shopped to remove his small pox scares. I could find no photo's of young Stalin with smallpox scares so maybe he had all of them photoshopped.

I found a few younger stalin photos which were interesting.

Rare Historical Photos
enter image description here
Mugshot of Stalin after an arrest. 1908.

enter image description here Mugshot of Stalin in 1911

enter image description here
A criminal file on Stalin following his arrest in Baku, Azerbaijan. 1910.

enter image description here
The information card on “I. V. Stalin”, from the files of the Imperial police in Saint Petersburg, 1911

All appear photo shopped to me, except maybe the 1911 mugshot.

If you look at these photos of very young and little older in what I perceive to be chronological order you can tell that Sexy Stalin actually looks nothing like Stalin, older or younger than. In all the photo's you can tell it's the same guy by the eyes and dark hair. Sexy Stalin's eyes are completely different and the hair is lighter. The facial shapes though are the same, and if you check out Stalin's left eyebrow, it traverses a little further to the center than the right eyebrow in all the photos. So it's both the same and not the same. Just like you would expect if an artist tampered with it to give Uncle Joe GQ good looks.

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

I also found this profile picture which matches Sexy Stalin. enter image description here

Which led me to believe the pair Sexy Stalin and the above Profile picture are Mug Shots, or based on mug shots.

In conclusion I think the photograph is a Soviet artists creation and although it resembles Stalin, it's really a fugazi which rendered to depict Stalin as more attractive than he actually was.

So then I started looking at when the Soviet Union started modifying pictures for political reasons. It appears they started doing this after Lenin died as Stalin was consolidating power. A lot of those photographic editing for political reasons occurred during Stalin's purges. Especially the Great Purge 1936 to 1938. The Soviets would erase people out of photographs who had lost favor as the below photograph demonstrates.

Censorship of images in the Soviet Union
Censorship of images was widespread in the Soviet Union. Visual censorship was exploited in a political context, particularly during the political purges of Joseph Stalin, where the Soviet government attempted to erase some purged figures from Soviet history, and took measures which included altering images and destroying film. The USSR curtailed access to pornography, which was specifically prohibited by Soviet law.

An example of how the picture was altered again and again after each person fell out of favor with Joseph Stalin.
enter image description here


This image taken by the Moscow Canal was taken when Nikolai Yezhov was water commissar. After he fell from power, he was arrested, shot, and had his image removed by the censors. enter image description here
Yezhov is clearly visible to Stalin's left. The photo was later altered by censors.
enter image description here

But they also altered images in other ways. Making Stalin appear more heroic, handsome, or involved by super imposing him next to Lenin. All these techniques were pursued.


So that's my answer. Sexy Stalin was probable retouched during the Great Purge 1936 to 1938. Although Stalin was trying to influence his place in history including his image since 1924 when Lenin Died.


  • 1
    Quite circumstantial, but still +1 at least. – Although you quote the date from the credits of the book: in the above photo he looks much younger, retouched or not, than in the shot from 1911. The eyes, not the skin. If your quote is correct I conclude the book seems to not be correct and the pic from 1902? Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 13:56
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    @LangLangC, yes Young Stalin from the David King collection has the photo from 1912. The older book from 1950, "Josef Wissarionowitsch Stalin" is credited as the source for the wikipedia picture which seems obvious is the same photograph and it is dated at 1902. I mentioned it because David King reportedly had a world renowned collection of Soviet doctored photographs and so I thought he might be the more authoritative source. I did not pursue the discrepancy farther but if someone was interested in pursuing this farther, that might be a place to start. Thank you for the +1
    – user27618
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 14:14
  • According to Rappaport book, linked in Q, he was arrested in Batumi as well? – Can you reformat all those pics now here into gallery format? Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 15:12
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    The comment about "the picture was altered again and again after each person fell out of favor" is a bit dubious. The picture portrays N.Antipov, Stalin, S.Kirov and N.Shvernik. Of them, only Antipov was repressed in 1938 and certainly was cut out for that reason. However, Kirov was killed in 1934 and proclaimed a martyr, and Shvernik was making a great career until after Stalin's death; if they were still edited away, then only because the editor needed a nice picture of Stalin alone, or Stalin with Kirov. If it could make things better..
    – jmster
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 17:28
  • 1
    @Angew, Thank you.. looks like I misquoted the source on that one. quick google turned up "Stalin faced several severe health problems; in 1884, he contracted smallpox and was left with facial pock scars.[28] Aged 12, he was seriously injured after being hit by a phaeton, which was the likely cause of a lifelong disability to his left arm" Stalin
    – user27618
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 12:16

Stalin earned a whitewashed backstory once he held power. As you note, this was a mugshot of a young man, so there would be no reason for the state or the subject to do this project off the bat. Unless as editor of Pravda (1912-1913, 1917) he sought to publish his own mugshot, the retouching probably happened during the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) when he was a top-ranking Bolshevik official and press censorship was in full swing.

An photo of the 1919 Communist Party Congress was retouched before half the people shown were executed; these edits happened before those men fell from grace:

VIII Congress

The goal of the alteration was controlling the accessible information about him. It wasn't cheap to accomplish. First, someone had to find the print or negative in local police files. The decision was taken to edit it for publication (and of course, suppress the original). Then the alteration took place, by a professional, because the state sought plausible deniability. Afterwards the only image officially available was the altered one. Since so many retouched Soviet photos do still exist in their original forms, maybe Sexy pockmarked Stalin is still out there too.

  • 2
    During the Civil War Stalin was still far from having achieved the kind of personal power that later allowed him to counterfeit history and photographs. Other prominent Bolsheviks - as a certain V.I. Lenin - still held a lot of power and would not indulge in tampering with photographs just for the sake of the - then - secondary character of Djugashvilli. Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 1:05
  • @LuísHenrique I tend to agree, but in the 1922 Gorky photograph of Stalin and Lenin, his cheek is exaggeratedly clear and smooth. Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 21:35
  • I think this photo may not have been tampered with. It is true that Stalin's face is too smooth, but then the resolution of the photo is quite low - everything is smooth, and his pockmarks don't show. On the other hand, why would the photo be altered to eliminate Stalin's pockmarks... but not to eliminate Zinoviev, obviously a much greater danger to Stalinist rule than pockmarks? Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 12:43

It was almost certainly altered after he came to power. Stalin was very self conscious about his smallpox scars. Presumably various artists were given the task of finding and/or retouching old photos of him to "correct" them.

As you're probably aware, altering photographs for political reasons was a high priority in the Soviet Union at the time, so it's not that strange that some artists were given this particular assignment.

  • 4
    This does not directly answer the question; could you improve and expand the answer rather than give a general description of the topic? Commented May 25, 2018 at 1:52

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