15 Illuminating Memoirs From Modern Dictatorships

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Words like totalitarian, fascist, and dictatorship are being thrown around a lot lately, leaving some of even the most hyperbolic of left-wing political pundits to wonder: “Might we be going a tad too far here?” After all, if the 2016 election and its resulting administration have taught us anything, it’s that words matter — so before we dive into these books about modern dictatorships, let’s take just a moment to explore what a fascist dictatorship actually is. (Given that “fascism” was in the running for Merriam-Webster’s most-looked-up word of 2016, many of us could probably use a quick dip back into our Political Science 101 textbooks.)

At its most basic, fascism is a political philosophy, movement, or regime that prioritizes nation (and often one race) above the rights of individual citizens, in an autocratic way. Got it. But let’s dig a little deeper. Fascism cannot function without an enemy to hate — be they a political, racial, or religious minority. Once a government has established that “enemy," said enemy then becomes the excuse for the government to limit citizens' individual freedoms, under the guise of protecting the people from the enemy. Historically, fascist leaders and their governments are often supported and influenced by big business interests. In fascism’s most un-nuanced, bald-facts form, that’s it. Are fascist dictators known to do things like alienate and silence the press, enable economic collapse, enforce the mass detainment and incarceration of dissenting citizens, and allow or support ethnic cleansing and genocide — yes. But the time to call a fascist a fascist isn’t after the worst-case-scenario snowball has started rolling downhill (and if you don’t believe me, any one of the memoirs about life under a dictatorship listed below will be enough to convince you.) The time to call a (suspected) fascist a fascist is when they start acting like a fascist.

Now, am I saying Donald Trump is a fascist dictator? I don't know. Maybe. But really I’m saying that some moderate, reliable Republican might want to give him a gentle tap on the shoulder and perhaps causally mention that when it comes to fascist tendencies, he’s currently checking three out of three boxes. While the beauty of American democracy centers around the three branches of government designed to keep tabs on one another, I’d rather none of them start dipping their toes into the fascism cesspool.

We Americans aren’t always the best at listening to the rest of the world. But right now, the sorrows and successes of other countries — and the ways our own actions directly impact those sorrows and successes — can go a long way in teaching us how to better manage our own. Because while I’d like to say we’re better than the actions our government has taken over these last two weeks, the fact is we haven’t always been. So maybe this whole election is one giant, painful, unavoidable, embarrassing, humbling, eye-opening, wake-up call for those of us who have always been a little bit (or a lot bit) more comfortable than our neighbors, just assuming our rights are monitored by a well-oiled machine and we're free to sit back and take advantage of them. It’s not too late to change directions — as a citizen, as a neighbor, and as an entire country.

But first, consider spending a little time reading these 15 books that tell true stories about what it’s like to live in a dictatorship. You never know what you might learn.


‘The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984’ by Riad Sattouf

Riad Sattouf grew up in the landscapes of rural France and beneath the dictatorships of Muammar Gaddafi's Libya and Hafez al-Assad's Syria. Filled with a sense of urgent political idealism, Sattouf learned to navigate a life in near-constant motion: encountering poverty, political turmoil, his family home being taken over by squatters, and his parents’ own cultural disconnects. Describing the constant search for home, opportunity, safety, and a place for his unusual family to fit in, Sattouf’s graphic memoir, The Arab of the Future, gives readers insight into what it means to grow up beneath the shadow of a dictatorship, and what a childhood looks like for a young boy with no clearly defined homeland.

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‘Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship’ by Anjan Sundaram

After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, during which now-President Paul Kagame led the rebel forces that ended the genocide, Kagame himself took over as president of the devastated, divided country. First seen as a leader for hope and progress in Rwanda, Kagame’s regime soon began cracking down on free speech, journalists, and anyone else who dared to voice dissent. Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship tells the story of reporter Anjan Sundaram’s time spent running a journalist training program out of Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, and what he learned about the country’s climate of fear, the silence of its citizens, and the government’s brutal treatment of anyone who dares to speak out against the regime’s preferred narrative.

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‘Twenty Letters to a Friend’ by Svetlana Alliluyeva

As the youngest child and only daughter of Joseph Stalin, Svetlana Alliluyeva grew up in the shadow of the Kremlin, a surreal and haunting environment that hid violence and tragedy behind the thin veil of a Russian fairy-tale. In 1967, Alliluyeva fled the Soviet Union for a U.S. Embassy in India, turning over her personal memoirs to the CIA as she sought asylum. That memoir, titled Twenty Letters to a Friend, told an astounding and devastating story of what life was really like inside the Kremlin: Alliluyeva’s mother’s suicide, Stalin’s growing cruelty and violence, and how life was lived — even for a daughter of privilege — in the USSR.

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‘Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets’ by Svetlana Alexievich

Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich is by far one of my favorite writers of all time — dedicating much of her work to the compilation of oral histories that tell everyday, often silenced stories of what life is like in some of the most tumultuous, mysterious, and repressive corners of the world. Her first work to be translated into English after her 2015 Nobel Prize Win, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets is a collection of oral histories that chart the collapse of the USSR, describe what’s really going on behind the state-sanctioned narratives of Russian life, and speculate about what might be next for this region and the world.

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‘Saddam City’ by Mahmoud Saeed

Technically not a memoir, this novel is based on the true experiences of its author, Mahmoud Saeed, an Iraqi-born novelist from Mosul whose work was censored, banned, and destroyed at various points by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and who ultimately left Iraq in 1985 after being arrested and imprisoned six times. Saddam City tells the story of a teacher living in Baghdad who is imprisoned by the government without cause, and over the course of 15 months is completely isolated from his family, bears witness to the torture of others imprisoned alongside him, and experiences his own brutal interrogations as well.

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‘Memory and Totalitarianism’ edited by Luisa Passerini

This collection of oral histories and analyses isn’t so easy to find these days — even on the almighty Amazon copies can be scarce — but if you can snag yourself one it’s definitely an illuminating read. Memory and Totalitarianism explores the factors and ideologies that allow totalitarian regimes to rise, gives voice to the memories of those living under totalitarian regimes around the world, and explores how those memories change or evolve following a regime’s collapse. From the Cold War, to apartheid in South Africa, to the struggle for Aborigines' rights in Australia, Luisa Passerini gives readers a global tour of some of the most repressive governments in modern history.

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‘The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia’ by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was born in 1938, across the street from the Kremlin, in the Metropol Hotel — a lavish, swanky environment where she spent the first years of her life. But in the wake of the Russian Revolution, her Bolshevik family went from a comfortable residency in the Metropol to near-homelessness: barred from their apartment by the government, literally living in the space beneath dining tables in shared apartments, standing in bread lines, sleeping in freight cars, and begging in the streets. Matter-of-fact and without pity, Petrushevskaya writes of a deprived upbringing in Stalinist Russia, and the tenacity she developed along the way.

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‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa’ by Peter Godwin

Following his father’s heart attack in 1984, the Zimbabwe-born Peter Godwin began making a series of trips back to his homeland, from his new residence in Manhattan. What he found when he returned were two parents whose loyalty to their country never faded, even as the state began to fail beneath the violent, chaotic leadership of the dictatorial then-President Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Although people are starving, millions are fleeing the country, and Godwin’s parents’ once-comfortable life is visibly threatened, the couple refuses to flee — and then Godwin discovers a long-held family secret that explains why his family has continued to believe in Zimbabwe for so long.

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‘Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma’ by Zoya Phan

Zoya Phan was 14-years-old when aircraft bombed her seemingly-idyllic Burmese village — part of a military junta that has controlled, destroyed, and terrorized the villages of Burma for decades — forcing her, her family, and her neighbors to flee; landing in a refugee camp on the border of Burma and Thailand. But instead of destroying Zoya’s spirit, her years spent on the run and in refugee camps awakened the heart of an activist, and both she and her father (who was assassinated by the Burmese regime in 2008) began fighting for the freedom of their people.

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‘The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria’ by Alia Malek

Landing on bookstore shelves next month, Alia Malek’s The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria is only the latest of a number of recent memoirs that have risen from the violence in Syria. For generations, Malek’s family resided in the Tahaan building in Damascus — home to the Christians, Jews, Muslims, Armenians, and Kurds who were the Maleks’ friends and neighbors, and one that was lost to them when Hafez al Assad came to power in 1970. But during the Arab Spring, Malek, who grew up in the United States, returned to Syria to reclaim her family’s home — gaining a wealth of on-the-ground experience about what living beneath the oppression of a dictatorship really means for those who do so every day. With heartbreaking detail, this memoir also introduces readers to the Syria that once was: a beautiful and diverse landscape, filled with culture, art, history, and faith, that has all but been reduced to dust.

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‘The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America’ by Ernesto Che Guevara

This travel journal offers readers a firsthand account of the famous motorcycle journey taken by Ernesto Che Guevara over the course of nine months in 1952. Covering more than 5000 miles of South America, through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela, he witnessed a myriad of government dictatorships, human rights violations, and social injustices. At the same time, he also witnessed the incomparable beauty of humanity — the small acts of kindness, and the hope and resilience keeping small villages alive — that awakened a political consciousness that would inform the rest of Guevara’s life.

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‘Budapest Exit: A Memoir of Fascism, Communism, and Freedom’ by Csaba Teglas

Csaba Teglas’s memoir Budapest Exit: A Memoir of Fascism, Communism, and Freedom takes readers thorough two decades between World War II and the Hungarian Revolution, when Teglas was confronted with the Nazi invasion of Hungary, and the Soviet occupation that followed — finally finding an opportunity to escape the oppressive regimes during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Faced with terrifying violence, constant repression, and staggering poverty, Teglas details his own refusal to give up. He also challenges the west to think more deeply about our history of selective interference in the human rights violations taking place across the globe, as well as reevaluating our treatment of the immigrants who do manage to reach our shores.

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‘A Mother's Cry: A Memoir of Politics, Prison, and Torture under the Brazilian Military Dictatorship’ by Lina Penna Sattamini

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Brazil’s dictatorship arrested, tortured, and interrogated anyone who expressed dissent or who were suspected of subversion — and hundreds of those arrested were ultimately killed in prison. In 1970, a young political activist named Marcos P. S. Arruda was imprisoned and tortured by the agents of dictatorship in São Paulo. A Mother's Cry: A Memoir of Politics, Prison, and Torture under the Brazilian Military Dictatorship tells the story of both Arruda and his mother, Lena Penna Sattamini, who at the time was working for the U.S. State Department and was able to mobilize there sources to get her son freed and out of Brazil.

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‘Memories of Mass Repression: Narrating Life Stories in the Aftermath of Atrocity’ edited by Nanci Adler, Mary Chamberlain, Selma Leydesdorff, and Leyla Neyzi

This collection of oral histories features the stories of witnesses, victims, and survivors of mass repression, dictatorships, and genocide, examining how the memories and retelling of these stories evolve in the aftermath of atrocity — and how the stories of individual citizens often stand in direct conflict with the narratives promoted by state governments. Memories of Mass Repression: Narrating Life Stories in the Aftermath of Atrocity explores how the gathering of individual stories allows for a more expansive, truer picture of national and international atrocities, and how the narratives that are sanctioned by history aren’t always the most accurate ones.

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‘Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times' by Eyal Press

After a reading list filled with so much oppression, pain, and darkness, it might be tempting to give into inaction and despair. But now is definitely not the time for that, and if you find yourself wondering how even one individual person can make a world of difference, Eyal Press’s Beautiful Souls is the book for you. This collection catalogs a series of small but bold acts of dissent that have taken place throughout history — from a Swiss police captain who refuses to enforce a law barring Jewish refugees from entering his country, to a financial industry whistleblower who loses her job after refusing to sell a toxic product, and many more. Beautiful Souls gathers together the research of moral psychologists and neuroscientists alongside narratives collected by journalists, to demonstrate that there will always be those individuals willing to risk their own safety and lives for the sake of doing what is right.

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