The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy by William J Dobson - review by Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

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The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy


Harvill Secker 341pp £18.99

We seem to be living in an era when dictators are falling like ninepins. Over the last twenty years or so, we have seen examples of the type brutally murdered (Ceauşescu, Gaddafi), forced into exile (Honecker, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali), or detained and tried (Milošević, Mubarak and Charles Taylor).

Within living memory, dictators dealt with putative or real opponents by simply murdering them, as in the case of Pol Pot, or interring them to rot in Gulag systems such as the Chinese laogai. Nowadays, according to William J Dobson’s fascinating book, authoritarian regimes have to be more cunningly circumspect, though as we have often witnessed, many opponents of Robert Mugabe are beaten black and blue, while those brave or foolhardy souls who root around too closely in the murk of Vladimir Putin’s FSB-mafia state are killed – the fate of the spy Alexander Litvinenko, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. 

Dobson has travelled 93,000 miles in order to reveal how the more sophisticated authoritarians are adapting (in the evolutionary sense) to opponents who, rather than pursuing terrorist violence, practise forms of leaderless non-violent protest that are as hard to combat as the semi-autonomous jihad of al-Qaeda.

Both sides in such struggles

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