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Spot Media Interviews Andrew Solomon: Why Do People Obey Dictators?

Poster of Saddam Hussein, vandalized

A bullet ridden poster of Saddam Hussein, July 4, 2003. Photographer: Sgt. Kevin R. Reed, USMC; Combined Military Service Digital Photographic Files.

by Magda Grădinaru

Andrew Solomon, one question we keep hearing these days is this: Why don’t the Russians revolt? Is that a good question? When we are dealing with an authoritarian leader, is he held in power by the lack of any reaction by the people?

This is exactly what the rest of the world once wondered: “Why don’t Romanians revolt against Ceauşescu?”

It is not easy to overthrow an oppressive leadership. It’s possible, but it’s not easy at all. People are afraid. And they are rightly afraid. Putin is a bully who remembers the image of Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole in the ground and Gaddafi dragged out of a sewer.

In addition, fatalism and the acceptance of an opposing fate are deeply rooted in the Russian spirit—”so it was under rule by other countries, so it was under communism, and so it is today.”

Yes, there are great activists and fierce intellectuals and brilliant people. But the education of those who do not fall into these categories is meant to teach them to be docile, and on top of that, much of the famous post-Soviet proletariat is drawn to the image of a strong Russia and considers Putin to represent that aspiration.

They may not like this war—if they know that there really is a war, remember that a central part of Putin’s strategy is control over the press—but they certainly like the idea of Russia as a superpower.

For them, acts of aggression against other nations and even against their own fellow citizens are taken as proof of power. Many Russians love Putin. Not only are they afraid of him (though they may be afraid), but they believe, to borrow Donald Trump’s harmful expression, that he will “make Russia great again.”

What does obedience to a dictator mean? Where does this come from? From pure fear?

Fear is definitely an element in this whole process. But there is also apathy. The overthrow of an authoritarian government requires a lot of energy and a lot of bloodshed, and many people are simply not prepared for it.

Beyond the economic problems that we now see because of sanctions, the lives of ordinary Russians have not been bad at all under Putin. He did not do what Stalin did, there was no new Gulag. And most people in Russia didn’t have much before and they don’t have much now, either, so they don’t think a riot would make them rich and happy.

People are attracted to the strong.

Besides, people are terribly burdened by the effort to think for themselves, and when someone like Putin is in power, ordinary Russians no longer have to make their own decisions or take responsibility for what they do or what they should do.

It is comforting to know that you have no power, because that means you have no responsibilities, and responsibility is a difficult thing.

In an interview a few years ago, Amos Oz told me that the world had received a “gift” from Stalin and Hitler, namely an understanding of the harm of totalitarianism. But now people have forgotten the trauma and here come back instincts that seemed repressed: xenophobia, bigotry, extremism. Does it seem to you that we are at that point in history where we can repeat major evils, such as Communist or Nazi totalitarianism?

As a famous saying goes, one who does not learn history is doomed to repeat it, and he who teaches it is doomed to see others repeat it.

The world’s problems at the moment either have no solution at all or they have a solution; in either case, they are very difficult. The climate is changing and millions of refugees will flee their land, which will be destroyed, and we do very little about it, with all the agreement in Paris.

Immigration is a very confusing thing for everyone right now: what will immigrants do, take over the culture they arrived in, or bring with them the culture they came from?

There is a sense of chaos all around us, unstoppable chaos, and in desperate circumstances, people usually look for someone else to solve those problems in front of which they feel powerless.

For example, we could all recycle the containers of all the drinks we consume, it’s not that hard, but can we still stop the destruction of the planet?

Romania, which neighbors Ukraine, is currently experiencing a new anxiety, that of imminent war. There are people packing their bags, buying iodine pills, there are endless queues at passports. Psychologically, what does a war mean? War makes people desperate. Probably the smartest thing to do is leave it at that. If you read about World War II, smart people fled Germany before they could no longer do so.

I don’t think Romania is in immediate danger—at least I hope not—but the truth is that this man is completely unpredictable. I mean, OK, don’t pack right now, but it’s good to have a passport ready and a plan in case you have to run.

Then hope you never have to do that.

(To read the interview in Romanian, please visit Spot Media.)