David Patrikarakos David Patrikarakos

The depressing durability of dictatorships

Authoritarian regimes that have emerged out of violent social revolutions have survived on average three times as long as their non-revolutionary counterparts

Fidel Castro in January 1994 assures participants at a Solidarity with Cuba meeting that the country would never return to capitalism. [Getty Images]

Many years ago, in Tehran, I spent a few hours in a bookshop run by an Armenian whose adult life had coincided almost exactly with the existence of the Islamic Republic. As I browsed, he fell into conversation with a German-language student who had come in looking for what appeared to be an obscure Persian grammar. The student was hopeful for change in Iran. A young population with growing social media use, together with state-wide oppression and economic mismanagement, would, he argued, see the end of the mullahs soon enough. The bookshop manager listened politely for a long time and then, clearly deciding his potential customer could be trusted, replied that none of that mattered. Somewhat forlornly, he said of the mullahs: ‘They may not know how to run this country properly, but they know how to survive.’

Despite the disasters the mullahs have inflicted on Iran, they now approach half a century of domination

I thought of this bookseller when reading Revolution & Dictatorship, an interesting and rigorous analysis of why so many autocratic states born of social revolutions – from the USSR to China to Iran and so on – prove immovable in the face of problems that would end normal regimes. 

To explain why, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way posit a theory of what they call ‘revolutionary durability’. In November 1941, they point out, ‘Soviet power hung by the barest of threads’, overwhelmed by the invading Nazis – and this following years of starvation and purges. One might have reasonably expected another popular revolution, or a coup against Stalin. Indeed, according to this book, days after the German invasion the Soviet leader was found in his dacha slumped in a chair, apparently expecting to be arrested by the senior members of the Politburo who had come to visit him unannounced.

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David Patrikarakos
Written by
David Patrikarakos
David Patrikarakos is the author of 'War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century' and 'Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State'

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