10 Dictators Who Were Surprisingly Good

The first few words that come to mind when you think of dictators are “evil,” “mass murderer,” or “worst person ever!” What if you came to know that there have been dictators who don’t just want to kill everyone who doesn’t obey them? There have been dictators in history who, as it turns out, have been quite nice. Despite their darker moments, they were benevolent, caring, and progressive. Here, we’ve made a list of ten such dictators who weren’t all that evil but worked to uplift their country and its people. Read on to find out more about them.

1. Ashoka was an Indian emperor, belonging to the Mauryan dynasty between c 268 to 232 BCE. He ruled over almost the entire subcontinent of India stretching from present-day Bengal to Afghanistan. He turned out to be a benevolent ruler after the Kalinga War and is one of the first rulers to give consideration to humans and animals in his empire.

King Ashoka
Image source: althistory.wikia.com, wikimedia

Ashoka ruled the Mauryan Kingdom from 268 to 232 BCE. It is said that he was a very cruel and bloodthirsty dictator in the beginning of his reign and that he even had a torture chamber built. After the Kalinga War in 260 BCE, he underwent a transformation and became a concerned and thoughtful ruler. He converted to Buddhism after that. Historians have been able to piece together some facts about his rule based on the 13 edicts of Ashoka which he got inscribed. According to these, Ashoka provided for medical aid to humans and animals in his kingdom and surrounding states as well.

He banned royal hunts and limited the killing of animals to only for food and Vedic animal sacrifices.  Ashoka is also the first ruler who abolished slavery, the death penalty, and cruelty to animals. He also planted trees and dug wells along roads to provide water and shade for travelers. He was instrumental in spreading Buddhism throughout his kingdom and even abroad to countries like Sri Lanka. Ashoka based his rule on Buddhist teachings and maintained peace with his neighboring states.(1,2)

2. Kemal Pasha was the President of Turkey from 1922 until the time he died in 1938. He was a nationalist revolutionary who raised an army against the Ottoman Empire’s European occupants. In 1935, he was given the surname “Ataturk,” which means “Father of the Turks.” He modernized Turkey ar beyond any recognition of its former state.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Image source: wikimedia, wikimedia

Kemal Pasha took over Turkey’s reins as the prime minister from 1920 to 1921, then as president from 1922 until he died in 1938. He formed the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and abolished the Caliphate in 1924. He founded a single party regime which lasted till 1945. Although Kemal Pasha was primarily a military leader and never relinquished his power till he died, he was also almost single-handedly responsible for modernizing and secularizing Turkey.  He gave women equal rights by giving them universal voting rights in 1934, abolished polygamy and gave them the right to equal inheritance. In 1935, there were 18 woman MPs in the parliament when women in most other countries didn’t even have the right to vote.

Kemal Pasha established secular, civil law based on Western models and banned Sharia law, essentially separating religion from governance. This also had a positive effect on education reforms by introducing coeducation, easier access to learning, and adult education. He propagated the rise of art and culture which had been prohibited during the Ottoman rule. Under him, art, architecture, literature, music, libraries, and cultural centers thrived. He pushed the economy forwards by encouraging small- and large-scale industries, establishing a banking system, and introducing land reform.(1,2,3)

3. Josip Broz Tito was essentially a dictator but became the official leader of Yugoslavia in 1945 to 1980 by overthrowing the ruling king. He, however, was instrumental in bringing a more relaxed form of communism to the country, called “Titoism.”

Josip Broz Tito
Image source: wikimedia, wikimedia

Tito unified Yugoslavia by merging six different countries which he ruled from 1945 till he died in 1980. He is best known for fighting the Nazi occupation. Tito succeeded in making Yugoslavia a liberal communist country by breaking away from the USSR. He gave all the countries equal representation in his government and the right to use their own languages. Tito nationalized industries and started working towards a planned economy. He didn’t force farmers to collectivize, but they were strictly required to hand over their produce. Later on, though, he loosened his stronghold on the country and made several concessions to small farmers. In 1950, after decentralizing the economy, he established the worker self-management system where the workers elected their management and delegates. He was also a proponent of the Non-Aligned Movement, which 125 countries are part of today.(1,2)

4. Lee Kuan Yew was a Cambridge-educated lawyer who freed Singapore from British rule in 1959. Yew ruled the country with iron-clad rules from 1959 to 1990 as the prime minister and for 21 years after that as an advisor. He took Singapore, an impoverished agricultural economy, and raised it to become one of Asia’s richest countries.

Lee Kuan Yew
Image source: archive.government.ru

Lee Yuan Kew was the prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, and then the senior minister, secretary general of his party and an MP until 2015 when he died. He was in power for 52 years, and his regime was anything but relaxed. Yew modeled every aspect of Singapore as a society and an economy, according to what he thought was best. Under him, Singapore became a country with the third highest national capita income in the world. Unemployment and poverty were drastically reduced, trade increased, the life expectancy went up to 71 years, and literacy increased to 90% in 1990.

Yew set up free family-planning clinics to curb the population. According to law, each worker mandatorily has to save 25% of his salary which is put into a provident fund which is further used to develop infrastructure. Right now, 74% families are homeowners. He all but eradicated corruption. His economic plans have been praised by leaders like Kemal Pasha.(1,2,3)

5. Paul Kagame, the 60-year-old President of Rwanda, has been in power since 1994 when his rebel army ended the genocide which had killed 800,000 people. He was the defense minister and vice-president until 2000 after which he assumed the presidential office. Despite his ruthlessness, he has managed to take the country forward by bringing about a number of reforms.

Paul Kagame
Image credits: Вени Марковски, Veni Markovski/ wikimedia, Rodhullandemu/wikimedia

Paul Kagame has been the head of Rwanda since 1994 when he stopped the genocide as the commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Since then, he has worked towards increasing the economic and social progress of the country through his liberal economic policies, denationalization of state-owned industries, and cutting down the red tape to let businesses flourish. He has also shifted the focus from agriculture to a knowledge-based economy. This led to an economic growth of 7% in Rwanda and reduced poverty.

Kagame fostered ethnic equality by removing the mention of ethnicity in the people’s identity cards and also by including an article in the constitution that prevents discrimination on any grounds.

In 2008, he made health insurance compulsory for everyone. As of 2010, more than 90% people were insured. This had made healthcare and overall health better. He encourages gender equality which is evident as most of his MPs are women. Kagame encourages literacy by diverting 17% of the annual funds towards education and has also offered free education to children for six years in government schools. Additionally, the country’s road network has improved, benefitting the populace and trade.(1,2)

6. Frances Albert Rene overthrew the president of Seychelles in a coup d’état in 1977 and took his place. He is also known as “The Boss” among party members and government officials. During his regime, Seychelles became the most developed country in Africa.

Frances Albert Rene
Image credits: Joe Laurence, Seychelles News Agency/wikimedia

Rene studied law at King’s College in London before coming back to practice at home in Seychelles. He formed the Seychelles People’s United Party in 1964 and was elected prime minister in 1976. He ruled from 1977 to 2004, before stepping down from office. After the coup, his was the only legal political party which enabled him to win all elections from 1979 to 2001. During his regime, he managed to uplift Seychelles to the most developed country in Africa. He eliminated poverty and raised the country’s GDP which is the highest in the continent. In addition, Rene established an efficient health care system along with increasing the national literacy rate to 90% by putting a lot of government funding into these sectors and also the environment sector. Seychelles has the best literacy rate, economic welfare, and infant mortality rates in Africa. He also kept away from the unstable political unrest of his neighboring island countries. Rene called himself an “Indian Ocean Socialist.”(source)

7. Peisistratus is known as thetyrant of ancient Athens” and ruled between 561 and 527 BCE. He may have been a dictator, but his administration and policies helped Athens become one of the most prosperous and beautiful cities in ancient times.

Peisistratus the Tyrant of ancient Athens
Image source: alchetron.com, alchetron.com

Peisistratus was the ruler of ancient Athens from 561 to 527 BCE. Despite being named a tyrant or dictator, he did not install a one-man rule but rather, distributed power as well as benefits among the administration. According to Aristotle, the “tyranny of Peisistratus had been the age of Cronus, or the golden age.” He limited the power and privileges of the aristocracy though and even took away their lands to give them to the poor. Peisistratus was responsible for the flourishing art, culture, literature, and festivals during his time, including the building of the entry gate on the Acropolis. He built an aqueduct to improve the city’s water supply, gave loans and land to small farmers or those who needed it, and organized the marketplace more efficiently, etc.

He also reduced taxes for the poor and provided employment to people at the construction of his public buildings. Peisistratus promoted the growing of olive trees for cash crops. He also helped settle rural cases by sending traveling judges to give state trials. His aim was the religious, cultural, and patriotic unity of Athens.(1,2)

8. Frederick II, or Frederick the Great, was the self-proclaimed king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. He unified the kingdom and modernized it by making reforms to the judicial and economic system and encouraging religious tolerance.

Frederick II
Image credit: Anton Graff/wikimedia

Frederick the Great was the ruler of Prussia between 1740 and 1786 and was considered to be the embodiment of enlightened absolutism. At that time Prussia was a collection of territories, and by 1772, Frederick was able to unify them all under his power. He was a patron of art and culture and allowed considerable freedom of literature and press, unlike a dictator. He is known for personally leading his army in battles and often wore his old uniforms instead of a royal ensemble. He didn’t believe in the divine right of kings and instead took steps to consolidate his kingdom’s economy and administration. He had canals built and encouraged agriculture by draining swamps. He established a thousand villages which increased the flow of immigrants.

He introduced indirect taxation which increased the state’s revenue. Frederick took steps to control the price of grains and built government stores to help the poor in times of need. Frederick also propagated meritocracy by letting common men become judges and bureaucrats. In the judiciary, he banned the use of torture except for the punishment of flogging soldiers found guilty of desertion. A death penalty could only be signed by him, which he only did for murder. He was known for his compassion towards animals and opened Germany’s first veterinary school.(source)

9. Simon Bolivar was the President of Gran Columbia from 1819 until he stepped down in 1830. He was officially named the dictator of Peru in 1824. He was a great military leader and speaker who was instrumental in releasing Venezuela, Peru, Columbia, Bolivia, Panama, and Ecuador from Spanish dominion.

Simón Bolívar
Image credits: Arturo Michelena/wikimedia, Martín Tovar y Tovar/wikimedia

Simon Bolivar, a keen military leader, was the president of Gran Columbia from 1819 to 1830 after which he died. He also became the president of Venezuela, Peru, Gran Columbia and Bolivia. He led a series of wars from 1813, and gradually freed these six South American countries whose citizens named him the “Liberator.” He is one of the very few people to have a country (Bolivia) named after them. Most of his career was spent in consolidating his rule, but he did work towards increasing literacy by opening several schools in monasteries and convents in Lima. He also established the Ginecco in 1825, later called the Normal Lancasterian School for Women. Additionally, he opened universities in Peru, Trujillo, and Arequipa.

Simon Bolivar is also known as the “George Washington of South America.” His attack on New Granada is cited as one of the most daring feats in military history. Towards the end of his rule, he was hated by many due to his dictatorial tendency and because he wanted a unified region because the countries kept getting into strife. But he is loved and admired by most of Latin America today for helping them gain independence.(1,2,3)

10. Catherine the Great became the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796 by unseating her husband, Peter III, with help from her lover. Although she held absolute power, she ushered in the Golden Age of the Russian Empire, or the Russian Enlightenment, by introducing a number of changes in administration and reforms.

Catherine the Great
Image source: wikimedia

Catherine the Great staged a coup, dethroning her husband and reigning as the Empress of Russia between 1762 and 1796. Even in her old age, she did not relinquish the rule to her son. She was the “longest-ruling female leader of Russia,” who modernized Russia by initiating a number of reforms. She introduced the Russian Statute of National Education in 1786 which had educational reforms like opening free schools, boarding schools for orphans, and also a guideline for teachers about teaching techniques and subjects. Her Smolny Institute was the first educational institution for women which catered to girls from noble families. She also opened the Novodevichy Institute for common-born girls.

She expanded her territories through conquest and created a number of new towns and cities. She wrote a document, “Nakaz,” which outlined the functions of a fair and modern government and asked for a ban on capital punishment and torture. The use of paper money began in her rule. Catherine was a great patron of arts which contributed to Russia’s cultural growth. The Hermitage Museum originally housed her personal collection. She also commissioned the building of a theatre in St Petersburg.(1,2,3)

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