“Good morning, Thomas; good morning, Anna,” said the President, cheerily, as he strode back into his palace after taking a lengthy stroll in the grounds.

The two servants nervously reciprocated those sentiments then turned to look at each other with raised eyebrows.

“What’s up with him these days?” demanded Thomas, as soon as the great man was out of earshot.

“God knows. But ever since that fall from the horse, he’s been a changed man.”

“He calls me by my first name. He asks how my wife and kids are doing. He smiles; as if he was glad to see me.” He shook his head in bafflement. “I’ve been here for five years and that’s never happened before.”

Indeed, in the five years he had been at the palace, he had heard stories of former servants and gardeners who had been arrested at the dead of night by the secret police and taken away, never to be seen again. And such was the stifling and suffocating atmosphere in the palace that even to talk openly about such matters incurred suspicion. Everyone was watchful and on edge.

“He’s actually treating us like human beings, Anna.”

“I don’t know if I like it, Thomas. It seems as if it’s too good to be true? D’you think there could be a trick in it?”

“I don’t know, Anna, but we’d best be on our guard all the same.”

The two servants nodded their sombre agreement on that point and went back to their duties.


It was indeed a fall from a horse, three weeks before, which had started the whole baffling process.

The President was riding his favourite mare over a stretch of country some miles from the palace when the wretched animal, sweating to keep up its load as well as cope with the uneven turf, caught a hoof in a loose rut of earth and fell to the ground. The President was thrown from the saddle, crashed his head against the side of a stone, and was knocked out cold. An hour later, he awoke and pulled himself to his feet. With much effort he staggered, in a semi-comatose state, back to the palace, a hand clasped against his bruised and bloodied head.

The alarm was raised and a whole phalanx of doctors was dragooned into action by the alerted security forces. They were driven over to the palace at breakneck speed in order to attend to the casualty. The injuries were treated and the President was put to bed in a secluded room within the palace. A number of nurses and doctors were there, in constant attendance, even though the injuries seemed far less critical than was first envisioned.

Government ministers and leading officials, alarmed about that accident which involved the most important man in the state, were driven to the palace in their chauffeured limousines and waited, nervously, in the hallway outside the sick room, where they pestered the doctors and nurses as to the condition of the President. Yet within a week or so, he was restored to a clean bill of health. The ministers and bureaucrats departed to their offices, sure that everything would return to normal, and after advising him not to overtax himself, the medical team left the President to resume his awesome responsibilities.


It seemed, at least to the superficial eye, that he was the same man that he had always been. There were no broken bones or lasting injuries, and all the bruises and abrasions had healed. Physically, he was the same. And yet the person who recovered from the accident was different, in some essential degree, from the one who existed before. And this soon became apparent to all he came in contact with. He seemed, for some utterly inexplicable reason, which baffled ministers and servants alike, to have become a more human, accessible, and approachable individual than he had ever been before. Whatever transient effects it had had upon his body, the fall had worked some strange transformation in his psyche that had left everyone puzzled and uncertain.

Gone was that stern, humourless countenance, that cruel set of the mouth, and the dark, suspicious gaze that caused unease and trepidation wherever it fell. He smiled and complimented people and enquired about their families. He asked individuals their opinions instead of commanding their compliance. His laughter had no harsh, malicious tone to it, as before.

Needless to say, his ministers were extremely perturbed and alarmed at that inexplicable change of character. And some of them—who were well used to his dark moods, his distrustful nature, and his mercurial personality—suspected that it was all some sinister ploy on his part, some sly and underhand gambit to try to trip them up or catch them out in some way.


“I don’t know what he’s up to,” said Zelich, the Interior Minister, to his colleague, Kaminsky, the Head of the Trade Department, “but I don’t like it. To be quite frank, I smell a rat.”

They were talking, in subdued tones, in the grounds of Zelich’s villa, so as to avoid the bugging devices which the omnipresent security police had placed, on the orders of the President, in the houses and apartments of all leading officials.

“You think it’s all a pretence? A charade?”

“Of course. What else could it be?”

“You don’t think the fall and the blow to his head he received could have had this effect on him? That it could have had done something to his brain and even altered his psychology?” He shrugged his shoulders. “The mind can be a strange thing.”

Zelich shook his head.

“After all,” continued Kaminsky, “things like that have been known to happen before.”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Zelich. “A leopard doesn’t change its spots. If you ask me, this sudden display of bonhomie and comradeship is just a sham.”

“But why on Earth would he act in this manner if he didn’t mean it? Why should he pretend to be something that he isn’t? It seems quite absurd.”

Zelich shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. It’s hard to fathom. But I think that the old dog is up to something. He’s playing some kind of game with us.”

“Well, if it is a game, it’d help if we knew the rules.”

“Oh, he’s too cagey for that. We’ll just have to keep our wits sharp, my friend.”


Though the President, since his fall, had become a more generous and human individual altogether—with no trace of the chronic mistrust and malice of his old self—there was one thing which he looked upon with a far from cheerful or forgiving eye. And that was the presence of the suffocating, all-embracing cult of his own personality which the state he ruled over had taken up with the unswerving zeal of a religious faith. Indeed, it was a cult that he himself, during his long years of power, had deliberately created, sustained, and magnified in order to increase his stranglehold over the party and the people.

It was all about him. The busts, statues and paintings of his person, all in a heroic, flattering and idealised manner, which filled the rooms and chambers of his overblown palace.  His youthful and unblemished profile that was on every coin and stamp. His face glaring sternly from every banknote. It was evident in the constant adulation that was heaped on him in the press and on the radio,  television, and cinema screen, and in the huge posters, that bore his heroic image, that were plastered on billboards across the entire country. This leader, purportedly of the party of the people, was now the supreme, living God, that all, without exception, had to worship. And a revolutionary movement that had set out to free the masses from bondage and to forge an egalitarian society had elevated him to the status of a latter-day pharaoh, ruling, with absolute power, over an empire of slaves.

He ordered his servants to remove all the busts and portraits—with the one exception of a full-length portrait that hung in the conference room—and put them in a storeroom, where they were to be kept under lock and key until they could be disposed of in a more permanent manner.

‘We’ve got to put a stop to this madness,” he said before retiring to his study.

“Does he know what he’s doing?” one servant muttered to another at that act of wanton iconoclasm. Indeed, had an ordinary subject sought to remove one of those hallowed images, it would have resulted in his immediate arrest on charges of treachery and counter-revolutionary activities, followed by a summary trial and a bullet in the back of the head.

“I don’t know what to think any more,” mumbled the other with numbing confusion at that strange abandonment of old norms and certainties. “Let’s get back to our work. These are things we shouldn’t be talking about.”


The following evening, the President called a meeting of the Supreme Council; the body that purportedly ran the government, but which in effect merely rubberstamped the President’s decrees and decisions. At the time specified, his ministers duly trooped into the conference room, where they seated themselves round the table, at the head of which, as always, the President sat.

“Comrades, you’ll have noticed that most of my portraits and sculptures have been taken away.”

The ministers looked at each other warily, though none ventured an opinion.

“This is just in the presidential palace. But I’ll soon give the order for the removal of all my statues and portraits across the whole country and for the minting of new coins, and the printing of new banknotes and stamps, without my face on them. This grotesque personality cult has got to stop.” He pointed at the one portrait on the wall that had been allowed to remain, and which showed a handsome face free of pockmarks and a left arm that wasn’t wizened and deformed. “That artificial monster which we’ve imposed on the people must be destroyed once and for all.”

“But Comrade President,” said Zelich, hesitantly, “may I point out that it was you who ordered the cult to begin with? It is because of your orders and directives that we have all these images and statues in the first place. Why are you changing things now?”

“Because it is necessary.” He lit his pipe and drew on its stem. “Of course it isn’t just this ludicrous cult that has to go. That’s just the beginning. It’s all the other things as well. We have to end this monstrous dictatorship which we’ve foisted on the nation. The camps have to be closed down and the prisoners released. Most of them are there on trumped-up charges anyway. We must disband the secret police and stop the show trials. Rule by fear and intimidation must cease. We have to stop spying on our own people and looking for treachery and disloyalty where none exists. We have to remove the element of secrecy from political life and show the people that we are working in their interests. We have to live up to our principles for once and give power back to the masses. We have become an oppressive elite, and a new ruling class—accruing to itself unearned luxuries and privileges—and that is even worse, in some respects, than the old imperialists and capitalists we fought against and replaced. All this has got to stop. And huge, far reaching reforms must be made to overhaul and renew an entire system that has become sclerotic and moribund. Indeed, what we need is nothing less than a second revolution.” He was determined to use his autocrat powers to destroy the very autocracy he had created.

His ministers looked on, open-mouthed, unable to speak through their own stupefaction.

“Yes, my friends, I fell from the horse, but I’ve come to my senses.”

After half-an-hour, the President wound the meeting up. He told them to come back the following week, when they would have more detailed and specific discussions pertaining to those reforms and others yet that he had in mind to reinvigorate the entire oppressive system.


“I think you’re right,” said Zelich, to Kaminsky, as they both waited under the porch for the arrival of their limousines. “That fall from the horse has changed him. He’s not the same man we knew before.”

“No, he’s not the same man,” echoed Kaminsky gloomily. “And now he wants to destroy everything he created.”

Zelich pursed his lips. “He doesn’t realise what he’s doing. These drastic reforms he’s proposing could undermine the entire system. Indeed, they could sweep away the whole regime.”

“Yes, and what would become of us?”


The following week, as requested, they duly trooped into the conference room again with their briefcases. They sat themselves ‘round the table.

The President greeted them with a breezy affability they found both strange and disconcerting.

“Well, gentlemen, I’ve given you a week to chew things over. I’d like to hear your ideas and propositions as to how we should dismantle this monstrous machinery of oppression that is enslaving the masses.”

Unbeknownst to the President, Zelich and his colleagues—which included the chief of the secret police—had discussed the situation at some length in the grounds of his villa only the night before, where they had reached conclusions about the future of the state which differed profoundly from those that the President had in mind.

“Well, what are we waiting for?” said the President, in a rare display of ill-humour, after his request was met by a lengthy period of silence. “You must have come up with some ideas by now?”

Zelich glanced nervously at his colleagues, then opened his briefcase and pulled out a small black pistol. He got to his feet and pointed the pistol at the President.

Under normal circumstances no one, excepting security guards, was allowed to carry firearms into the palace. But the standard body and bag searches that even top ministers were subjected to had been suspended for that day on instructions from the Ministry of Security. And the scanning equipment had been switched off on orders from the same ministry.

“Indeed, Comrade President, we have given much time and thought to the questions you have put to us.  And we have, by unanimous agreement, come up with a simple and direct solution to the problems we presently face.”

“What the hell are you doing!” the President demanded as he clambered to his feet. “Put that thing away, will you?”

Instead of putting it away, he tightened his grip ‘round the handle while the other ministers withdrew identical guns from their briefcases, stood up, and pointed them at the President.

“If we got rid of the personality cult,” said Zelich, sternly, “the whole state apparatus would crumble to the ground and take us with it. It might be a monstrous invention—and indeed, your own invention, Comrade President—but it helps to control and condition the masses and to keep this regime in one piece. We can’t afford to get rid of it.” He pointed at the heroic, idealised portrait of the President that hung on the wall. “We’re not going to destroy that image, which embodies the power and strength of our party and our state, and that so many people believe in and cherish. It is an icon of faith that people are prepared to give their lives for. If it were torn asunder and cast aside, the people would be very angry and disillusioned, Comrade President. And we would bear the brunt of that anger.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Zelich,” bellowed the President. “You people have always followed my orders. You can’t stand in my way now.”

Zelich looked from the resplendent portrait on the wall to the mere, fallible mortal before him. “But you, on the other hand, are quite expendable. We can afford to get rid of you, Comrade President.”

Zelich fired the first shot. The others followed suit. The President fell dead to the carpeted floor. Security forces, which had ringed the palace on prior orders, moved in and arrested all the servants, including Thomas and Anna. They would never be seen again.

The President’s body was handed over to a team of morticians, who tidied it up and carefully preserved it for further use when, sometime hence, it would be put on display in a glass-topped casket in a gleaming marble mausoleum, at the heart of the capital.

Though he had died in body, the old President was kept alive as a political presence. Reports about his speeches and policy initiatives regularly appeared in the state-owned press. Old newsreels, television footage, and radio recordings were carefully doctored and played through the media at regular intervals to give the illusion of his continued existence.

It would be some weeks before they would dare to announce to the people the grim news of the great leader’s illness and his slow, measured decline into death. Only when it was safe and convenient for them, and an acceptable replacement had been groomed for the succession—who would keep the system secure and intact—would he be finally done to death and given a lavish state funeral.