Although Stalin was for decades the supreme leader of the largest country on Earth, he saw little of his empire, rarely venturing beyond the walls of the Kremlin. Instead, he experienced the USSR primarily as a series of texts that landed on his desk each day. In Stalin’s World: Dictating the Soviet Order, Sarah Davies and James Harris reconstruct his claustrophobic, insular reality through a close study of his archive, shining a spotlight on the daily business of running a massive totalitarian state. It paints a portrait of the dictator as monstrous, paper-shuffling super-bureaucrat.
RJB Bosworth takes a very different approach in Mussolini’s Italy. Via an astonishing accumulation of detail, he immerses the reader in a reconstruction of daily life under the fascist dictatorship. The results are surprising: I did not know that a quarter of Italy’s Jewish population were members of the National Fascist Party by the 1930s, nor that Topolino (Mickey Mouse) was regarded as a corrupting influence on Italian youth. And yet Mussolini’s own children read comics starring the American rodent; even in Il Duce’s own household, his political experiment was a failure.
Stalin’s World is very dense and Mussolini’s Italy is very long – common characteristics of books about dictatorships. Simon Leys’ Chinese Shadows has just over 200 elegantly written pages, and yet cuts to the heart of Mao’s Cultural Revolution with precision. Leys exposed the destructive evil of Mao’s regime at a time when “useful idiots” ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre to Shirley MacLaine were singing its praises in the west. His narrative fuses insights from his own travels in China with profound but lightly worn erudition. One moment Leys is discussing Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse‑tung, the next he is reaching back to its 14th‑century precursor, the Ming Ta kao.
And now for something completely different: Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future. We know personality cults are strange, but that strangeness looks different from the perspective of a child. Sattouf experienced both Gaddafi’s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria while still a small boy. Kids don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on totalitarianism, but they do form strong impressions. His simple depictions of living in an almost-abandoned building for expatriates in Libya, or of watching Assad praying on TV are the kind of banal micro-details that would lose their significance in written prose. Captured in the panels of a cartoon strip, however, they attain a luminous resonance that lingers long after you’ve finished the book.
• Dictator Literature: A History of Despots Through Their Writing by Daniel Kalder is published by Oneworld in the UK and is available in the US as The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy (Henry Holt)