Masha Gessen — Autocracy: Rules for Survival

I have lived in autocracies most of my life, and have spent much of my career writing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I have learned a few rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect. It might be worth considering them now:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable. Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was all posture. More recently, the same newspaper made a telling choice between two statements made by Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov following a police crackdown on protesters in Moscow: “The police acted mildly—I would have liked them to act more harshly” rather than those protesters’ “liver should have been spread all over the pavement.” Perhaps the journalists could not believe their ears. But they should—both in the Russian case, and in the American one.

Masha Gessen — Autocracy: Rules for Survival, New York Review of Books

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24 thoughts on “Masha Gessen — Autocracy: Rules for Survival

  1. Yep. I saw this last night, in the midst of all the “why are you afraid? are your fears rational?” discussion here, and yes, I am rather afraid of what is going to happen, what Trump will attempt, what hideous policies he will let Pence enact against me and mine, the kinds of violence and social decay that will result from his success, the price we’ll pay fighting, instead of letting him destroy our lives, etc.

    This will likely be very bad for people already vulnerable. I expect it to do literally nothing to help those Trump pretended to care about.

    It’s just bad all the way down.

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  2. I think this is why everyone is on edge. As you said, the Constitution and our institutions might be getting their ultimate stress test.

    The test for me is whether Donald Trump really tries to “look her up” as so many people gleefully chanted at his rallies. So far Jason Chaffetz tweeted something about how Congress should keep investigating HRC. Even if a normal court throws out the indictment, I doubt Trump and his DOJ are willing to take this lightly.

    The thing about democratic norms and ideals is that they are important and they last until they don’t. But we don’t want to talk about it. Instead we just make up new norms about how you can’t talk about the countries and societies that went from democracy to authoritarian very quickly.

    So suppose Trump decides that he needs to “lock her up” and/or deport lots of people. Suppose the courts and Democratic politicians try and get in his way. Does he use this to sack all those who oppose him or does he learn that he is not the boss of things.

    If Donald Trump tells the military to remove Democratic Senators from their seats, do they listen or not?

    I guess we are going to find out.

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    • Someone has already floated restoring the House Unamerican Activities committee. I’ll give you two guesses as to which Americans are un-American, and the second doesn’t count.

      And Guiliani is on the AG’s short-list, and the leaks at the end of the election implied pretty heavily that all the email and Foundation smoke (complete with “indictments soon”) was coming from the fever swamp of his brain.

      Like…true believer style, not dirty politics style.

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  3. I’m hearing a lot of whining, both IRL and here. If you ACTUALLY THINK our system isn’t resilient enough to handle a Trump Presidency then you only have one recourse left: Revolution. So are you going to step up or are you going to wait until your door is broken down at 2am and you’re dragged off to a “re-education camp”?

    “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

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    • — Revolution is not a solitary activity. I have no more ability to bring about a revolution than I do to bring about a democratic electoral victory. Nor do I want to hitch my wagon to some token nonsense doomed to fail.

      This is particularly true since I’m not entirely a leftist. I might ally myself with antifa groups, but I’ll never be one of them.

      Which, nevertheless, I can offer resistance. I can prepare for violence, which I am doing. I can prepare to flee, if needed, which I am also doing. I can build alliances with other queer people, which are already in place. But most, it is time to strengthen ties and to find out who is serious and who is not.

      My point, to babble on about “revolution” is a false dichotomy. To talk of resistance is a different matter.

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      • +1

        When African-Americans felt the government had become hostile to their civil rights and claim to equality within America, they did not grab their guns and revolt. Certainly there were people within the civil rights movement who considered and a smaller number who advocated such measures. But more the most part, they held sit-ins, demonstrations, filed lawsuits, had protests, engaged in the political process despite their lack of majority (seeking allies and making deals along the way) and attempted to persuade their fellow Americans. It was a tough, long struggle, which could have failed, but it mostly worked.

        Let’s at least try something like that first before we look to violence, okay? If the Trump Administration starts rounding up Muslims into camps or making them wear green crescent moon patches on their clothing, we can revisit this issue.

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      • As I said V, ” If you ACTUALLY THINK our system isn’t resilient enough to handle a Trump Presidency then you only have one recourse left” I’m concluding you think the “system” is still resilient enough. That’s fine, but that’s a long way from the doom and gloom I’m hearing about “people being put in camps”.

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          • But Kim, we’re not talking about “illegal kids in camps”. Because that’s inconvenient. The current administration is in charge and has these kids in camps. We can’t talk about that. No we’re talking about taking “important people” or “favored groups” and putting them in camps. That’s what must be resisted. That other story? That’s not important…but we’ll bring it up again after the inauguration. THEN it will be important.

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        • Or that the fact that approximate 75% of voting age americans didn’t vote for Trump means that non-violent challenges could well work.

          I know you think everything is violence already, but you’re advocating a major step that would get a lot of people killed (and probably break the country for good) and wondering why it isn’t a first step. Which is odd.

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          • Actually, I’m not advocating violence at all. I simply said that if you think the country cannot survive a Trump presidency and you think your values must prevail, then resistance and revolution are the only paths. Those are big ifs. But it was also a “put your money where you mouth is” kinda comment. Because when you start spouting off stuff like “not my pres” I start wondering if you have the stones to actually DO something about an issue you claim is game changing. I expect not. It’s far easier to complain on FB than it is to actually DO something.

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    • I can’t speak for anyone else, Damon, but here’s my answer for myself.

      First, I don’t think or believe our institutions and civil society aren’t resilient enough to survive a Trump presidency. I fear they might not be. But I don’t think with enough certainty to know.

      Second, it’s possible the institutions aren’t strong enough, but perhaps they’ll survive acceptably enough to rebuild without a revolution.

      Third, a revolution (speaking of violent revolution…perhaps you’re not necessarily saying revolution has to be violent) might bring too much collateral damage.

      Fourth, I know this puts me in a bad light, but it’s true: I personally have too much to lose from a meaningful revolution in most of the likely circumstances that I can think of that would require or permit a revolution. You might say that makes me a coward, and you’d be right. I’d like to think I’d do the right thing. But I know myself too well to put much trust in it.

      Fifth, I’m hopeful that in the meantime, I can try to do what I can to at least make life a little more humane for others.

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