9 Nonfiction Books About Life Under Dictatorships, Autocracies, And Authoritarian Regimes
While I wouldn’t describe myself as a glass-half-full kind of gal, I’m hardly prepping my doomsday bunker either. (Although I can tell you one thing: there will be an impractical amount of books and far too few cans of soup in it, if I ever do.) And while political pundits on both sides of that aisle we keep hearing about are quick to remind all us young’uns that the comings and goings of the current White House administration are hardly business as usual, and not to become desensitized to the massive amount of chaos and hot air being expelled from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s also true that America has survived at least a handful of truly terrible presidents and political leadership. (Though not without plenty of work from engaged activists and everyday citizens.)
All that is to say, while I won’t be donning a red baseball cap in this lifetime or the next, I also don’t necessarily think (read: hope) the U.S. will be headed the way of North Korea, Syria, Sudan, or even Venezuela (read: totalitarian democracy) anytime soon — despite what my Twitter feed might say. Still, whether you’re interested in books about dictatorships and autocracies because you’re stocking your own doomsday bunker shelves, or you’re just looking for a broader perspective on the current state of the union, these books are definitely worth the read.
‘Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea’ by Barbara Demick
Not quite memoir, not quite novel, not quite investigative reportage, Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea by Barbara Demick was a National Book Award finalist that follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over the course of fifteen years: through a change in dictators, a famine that killed one-fifth of the North Korean population, and into what everyday life looks like for regular people who are living and dreaming and loving under the most repressive totalitarian regime on the planet — and what happens when their disillusionment with that regime becomes impossible to deny.
‘A Thousand Miles To Freedom’ by Eunsun Kim
Another story that comes from the mysterious terrain of North Korea, A Thousand Miles To Freedom by Eunsun Kim describes one young woman’s upbringing beneath the regime and the unthinkable nine-year journey she, her mother, and her sister took: through North Korea, China, and Mongolia, before making their way to freedom in South Korea. Though much of this memoir is set in China itself, it demonstrates the lengths defectors will go to escape North Korea and finally live life on their own terms.
‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa’ by Peter Godwin
Set in the then-President Robert Mugabe's dictatorship of Zimbabwe, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa tells the story of writer Peter Godwin’s return to his family’s home in Africa — and to a country where people are starving, millions are fleeing the dictatorship, and Godwin’s own parents’ once-comfortable life is threatened by the political climate. Goodwin himself left Zimbabwe for the United States years ago, and in this memoir he finally discovers the reasons why his family never left as well.
‘The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria’ by Alia Malek
Published last year, Alia Malek’s The Home That Was Our Country is a memoir of Syria that will take you behind the headlines (and Tweets) and into the devastating personal effects of the violence that has wracked this region of the world for years. From an interfaith city destroyed by war, to a new home in the United States, and back again, Malek learns firsthand what living beneath the oppression of a dictatorship really means for those who do so every day, when she returns to Syria to try to reclaim her family’s ancestral home.
‘Things I've Been Silent About: Memories’ by Azar Nafisi
A writer who has written extensively about what living in Iran is like for women and scholars, Azar Nafisi’s Things I’ve Been Silent About tells a story of growing up in Iran during a time of political revolution and cultural repression, and how life changed for Iranians — and especially Iranian women — practically overnight. In Things I’ve Been Silent About, the personal is political and the political personal, as Nafisi’s story transcends generations and countries.
‘The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia’ by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Set in a country that’s been on the mind of many a politician these days, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia is the memoir of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Born in 1938 and living across the street from the Kremlin in the swanky Metropol Hotel, Petrushevskaya suffered near-homelessness with her family after the Russian Revolution: barred from their apartment by the government, standing in bread lines, sleeping in freight cars, and begging in the streets. This memoir is an extreme example of how turning political tides can change the lives of innocent citizens literally overnight.
‘Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening’ by Manal al-Sharif
Imagine a land where women are allowed to own cars, but not allowed to drive them; allowed to work as engineers, but not allowed to take business trips without a male relative chaperone; allowed to work in government, but shamed for speaking to their male colleagues. This is where Manal al-Sharif’s story in Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening begins, taking readers through al-Sharif’s feminist awakening and into her journey as an activist for Saudi women’s right to drive — a change to law that is finally set to take effect in June of this year.
‘Freedom: The Story of My Second Life’ by Malika Oufkir
You might recognize Malika Oufkir from her Oprah Book Club-recognize first memoir, Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail, which told the story of the Oufkir family’s decades-long imprisonment after their father attempted to assassinate the king of Morocco. In Freedom: The Story of My Second Life, Oufkir reflects more deeply on her life before and after her father’s execution and her family’s imprisonment, and takes a look at the woman she has become in the years since her release.
‘Escape From Camp 14’ by Blaine Harden
Shin Dong-hyuk is one of the only people born inside a North Korean labor camp known to have escaped and lived to tell about it — which he does, through journalist Blaine Harden’s Escape From Camp 14. A book that goes far beyond the walls of the torturous political prison camps, Escape From Camp 14 looks at the worst of what life is like for regular citizens in North Korea, and what happens when the fog of the regime’s brainwashing is finally lifted.