Opinion | I Wrote a Book About the End of Dictatorships, and It Became a Best Seller in Russia

FLORENCE, Italy — It’s a little embarrassing.

Normally, I write about various aspects of Russian politics — the basis of Vladimir Putin’s support, the Kremlin’s media strategy, Russia’s foreign policy. Now, to my surprise, I’m writing about something else: my own book.

Three years in the making, the book came out at the end of January and quickly became a best seller across Russia. The first print run disappeared almost immediately, and since then, there have been three more. While not many of the journalists and outlets remaining in the country have dared to write about it, there has been a huge amount of attention on social media and an extensive series of reviews in Russian-language publications abroad. Objectively — though it’s awkward to say — the book has become a bit of a phenomenon.

But the book, “The End of the Regime: How Three European Dictatorships Ended,” is not about Russia or Vladimir Putin. It’s about three dictatorships — those of Francisco Franco in Spain, Antonio Salazar in Portugal and the colonels in Greece — and how those countries became democracies, returning to the global fold. A large number of Russians haven’t suddenly taken an interest in the history of 20th-century Southern Europe. Rather, discussions of the book have common themes: How do prolonged right-wing dictatorships end? And can Russia become a democracy?

As one might expect, the book is being widely discussed by opposition groups and those calling for an end to the war. More surprisingly, it is also being read by the Russian nomenklatura — those at the apex of the Russian state. It seems that the book has become a pretext for discussion of taboo topics, such as political transition, the health and death of the leader, defeat in a colonial war, the end of isolation and, indeed, the end of the regime.

In days gone by, it was possible to broach such subjects, albeit gently. But in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin’s repression of dissent, the space for candid discussion has been sealed off. The Carnegie Moscow Center, for example, where I worked and was able to converse with members of the ruling elite, was shut down by the authorities last spring. The bulk of its scholars have left the country and are now creating another think tank in Berlin.

Those who remain in Russia have lost the opportunity to engage in an open dialogue on the country’s future. Yet the extraordinarily high level of interest in the book is evidence that, despite the fiction of consensus that state propaganda has tried to reinforce, Russians have not stopped asking questions about what comes next. Given the book’s focus, it seems that readers are thinking not about the regime’s continuation — as the authorities would wish — but about how it might end.

For many, the simple act of buying the book is a political statement, and numerous bookstores are using it to quietly indicate their positions. А major store near the notorious Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (and previously the K.G.B.) in Moscow, placed copies of “The End of the Regime” right next to “Putin’s Path,” a hagiography devoted to the Russian leader, and a book on Stalin. The implication was clear.

Unlike many authors of the Soviet and czarist eras, who — deprived of the opportunity to discuss their country and their future directly — masked those discussions by focusing on other peoples and eras, I didn’t set for myself the goal of writing a book about Mr. Putin: This is not a book about Russia disguised as a book about Spain, Portugal and Greece. Nevertheless, unlike numerous Western works on similar topics, the book is written by an inhabitant of an autocracy for other inhabitants of an autocracy. This links author and readers with a special, almost conspiratorial view of the subject.

Most important, the book gives readers a new, more accurate perspective on the country they live in. Russian and informed international readers are aware that analogies with the collapse of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union are misleading. It is difficult to imagine a defeat along the lines of that suffered by Germany being experienced by a nuclear power such as Russia. Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet regime came about first and foremost because of its sclerotic economic system, which left the population behind the Iron Curtain without food and consumer goods.

Even while waging war, Mr. Putin’s Russia remains a market economy and a consumerist society that has yet to close its borders. That makes it more akin to the dictatorships described in the book. They, too, kept their borders open and retained private ownership while dividing citizens into patriots and enemies, repressing the opposition, branding the West as corrupt and promoting special paths for their countries.

Russian readers have found much that is resonant in the book. How the Greek dictatorship, for example, collapsed after an attempt to annex Cyprus, which it regarded as a historical part of the country. Or how the Portuguese regime caved in as a result of a colonial, imperialist war that dragged on for years. Or how Salazar, plagued by health problems, was removed from power but continued to think that he was ruling the country. (To maintain the illusion, a special newspaper was published just for him.) And then there is the story of how in Spain, the idea of a transition to democracy slowly took hold and was brought about by the ruling elite itself.

Unsurprisingly, the book has infuriated some pro-Kremlin propagandists. Mobile network operators blocked one bookstore’s campaign of promotional text messages, a clear sign the book is seen as dangerous. Nevertheless, there is no legal way for the authorities to ban it. And in any case, prosecuting a book that focuses on the transition from conservative or fascist dictatorship to democracy risks looking overly defensive.

In one chapter, I write that political energy, like any other kind of energy, doesn’t simply disappear — it merely takes on different forms. Russians’ interest in “The End of the Regime,” it seems, is a good example of that energy finding an outlet.

Alexander Baunov (@baunov) is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting fellow at the European University Institute in Florence.

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