Cautionary Tales – Inside the Bizarre World of Dictators

29th March, 2024

Why are so many autocrats germaphobes? Why was the truth so dangerous for Soviet engineers? And what can salami reveal to us about the mind of Vladimir Putin?

Tim Harford, host of the Cautionary Tales podcast, examines the true stories behind the HBO series The Regime. In the first of two special episodes, Tim investigates real-life dictatorships and the social science that explains them, drawing on insights from game theory and psychology.

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Further Reading

The discussion of salami slicing drew from Thomas Schelling’s book Arms and Influence, and How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Statistics on public opinion about democracy come from the OSF Barometer. John Simpson wrote for the BBC about his experience at the Crimea checkpoint, with our other sources on the 2014 annexation including Radio Free EuropeBrookings and the Financial Times. Richard W Maass discusses salami tactics and Crimea in the Texas National Security Review.

The section on germophobia was inspired by Randy Thornhill and Corey L. Fincher’s book The Parasite-Stress Theory of Values and Sociality, along with studies including The Psychological and Socio-Political Consequences of Infectious Diseases and Associations of political orientation, xenophobia, right-wing authoritarianism, and concern of COVID-19. Reports about the oddly germophobic behaviour of various dictators came from sources including the New York TimesABCThe GuardianBusiness InsiderVOA and UPI. The Ceausescu section, in particular, drew from The Life and Times of Nicolae Ceausescu by John Sweeney, Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite by Edward Behr, and reporting in Harpers Bazaar.

The definitive account of Peter Palchinksy’s life and death is The Ghost of the Executed Engineer by Loren Graham. Steeltown, USSR by Stephen Kotkin relates what happened to Magnitogorsk. Amy Edmondson’s ideas are fully explored in her recent book The Right Kind of Wrong. On the Soviet census, see Andrew Whitby’s The Sum of the People.

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