Online Only: The A,B,Cs of Latter-Day Autocracy

Dictatorships may not be lumbering behemoths, but William J Dobson overstates the extent to which authoritarians have changed their ways

For many young Muscovites, the highlight of their summer is a week spent at a summer camp on the banks of Lake Seliger. Teenagers make the five-hour journey northeast of the Russian capital looking forward to swimming, cycling and kayaking. But proceedings at the Camp Seliger, which is organized by the heavily-subsidised pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, have a dark ideological tinge. Evenings are spent listening to defences of Putin and watching photographic montages of the impaled heads of Gary Kasparov and other dissidents. In 2007, in a part of the camp called “the red-light district” hung posters with the faces of opposition leaders on the bodies of half-naked women. Above the doctored image a sign read “political prostitutes”.

In modern Russia, this lewd propaganda is one of the more imaginative ways in which Putin’s apparatchiks suppress dissent and cultivate order. According to William J. Dobson, Nashi and its summer camps are evidence that autocrats like Putin are evolving.

As Dobson points out in The Dictator’s Learning Curve, we tend to think of authoritarian regimes as “dinosaurs — clumsy, stupid, lumbering behemoths, reminiscent of the Soviet Union in its final days or some insecure South American banana republic”. It is a comforting thought: the kleptocrats are too inept to be here forever. With diligent reporting and shrewd analysis, Dobson, who is the foreign affairs editor of online magazine Slate, dispels that myth and reminds us that, even in the age of Facebook and Twitter — those supposedly emancipatory tools — there is nothing inevitable about a dictator’s collapse. Dobson argues that dictatorships have survived the challenges of the 21st Century by adapting with surprising suppleness.

Violence, censorship and brutish intimidation still have a place in the dictator’s armoury. But Dobson’s neo-autarchs understand that a seemingly fair legal system and a semblance of democracy are just as effective instruments of power. Venezuelans, for instance, have voted 13 times since Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999. That is because elections are Chavez’s most effective tool of suppression. The Venezuelan leader “understands that it is better to appear to win a contested election than to openly steal it”. Of course, these polls are really a formality. Chavez spends the state’s money on his campaign and has shut down dozens of dissenting television channels and newspapers. But carefully orchestrated votes create a veneer of legitimacy.

Dobson’s second thesis concerns the increasing globalisation of the battle between dictatorship and freedom. There are, he says, no greater experts on the collapse of the Soviet Union than the Chinese Communist Party, for whom their former ally’s final days are how-not-to guide to running an authoritarian state. In 2004-5, the Kremlin watched Ukraine’s Orange Revolution just as closely. The determination shown by young Ukrainians scared Putin’s strategists into engaging with young Russians through groups like Nashi. After the “Jasmine Revolution” brought down Ben Ali in Tunisia, Chinese censors frantically blocked online searches for “jasmine” and even banned the now-subversive flower’s sale in Beijing’s markets.

Dobson’s observations shed light on the inner workings of these regimes. But, for all the book’s illuminating vignettes, the Darwinian claim at the heart of The Dictator’s Learning Curve is specious. Unless dictatorships adapt to modern times they will not last, argues Dobson. While nimble and media savvy regimes may be in office in Russia and Venezuela, North Korean rulers, whose stranglehold on power shows no signs of loosening, have guaranteed stability with Stalinist brutality. Dictators may have learnt a few new tricks, but, even in the 21st century, fear and violence remain the most potent weapons in their fight against freedom.

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