Life in a Dictatorship

What to expect. How to survive.

Life in a Dictatorship
Photo by Fr. Daniel Ciucci / Unsplash

Half the developed world is walking blithely towards authoritarianism. Seeking change, citizens are voting against their best interests and allowing iconic democratic institutions to corrode.

There is still room for redemption, but hope is not a strategy. To prevent the rise of fascism, people need to use the very rights that are at risk. The right to free speech, the right to assembly. The right to vote. In theory, the right to bear arms is also meant to prevent the rise of tyranny. Unfortunately, a significant portion of society is too busy watching Netflix or worshiping false gods to prevent democracy's demise.

As we saw in France over the past few days, we can use these rights to our benefit. Whether or not we choose to do so is to be determined. Sadly, once the threshold into authoritarianism is crossed redemption is no-longer a winning strategy.

It's too early to know what the future holds, but in the following article I attempt to show what daily life in a dictatorship is like and how best to survive.

"Every day in the Gestapo, I saw how people had been broken by terror. I experienced myself how one was crunched by this machine. That is what was so monstrous about it. One was no longer human." - Victor Klemperer from his diaries "I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years"

Life Under Authoritarian Rule

Authoritarian governments rule by fear. Broad top-down and grassroots surveillance is key to keeping the population on edge.

North Korea's surveillance state is among the most extreme in the world. The regime employs a vast network of informants, and even private conversations are not safe from scrutiny. Citizens are required to attend weekly self-criticism sessions, where they must confess any perceived disloyalty. This constant surveillance ensures that any opposition - along with the dissenter's entire family - is quickly identified and neutralized. The fear of imprisonment, torture, or execution is ever-present, as even minor infractions can lead to severe punishment.

In Nazi Germany, the secret police created a culture of fear by encouraging citizens to report any suspicious activities, even those of their friends and family. This tactic effectively turned people against each other and ensured a high level of compliance with the regime's policies. As one German citizen recounted, "We lived in fear of being denounced by our neighbors, friends, even our own children."

"We had all grown used to living in a state of permanent fear, and that was why we were always so short of time. Fear is the most time-consuming activity there is." - Nadezhda Mandelstam from "Hope Against Hope"

A key ingredient to creating fear is actual or perceived alienation. For authoritarian regimes, the alienation pre-planted using social means (with the threat of physical isolation). Alienation is manufactured by a combination of relentless censorship and propaganda, leaving dissenters to believe they are alone. For this reason, media control is essential to maintaining a dictatorship.

The Soviet Union, for example, tightly controlled the flow of information through state-run media outlets. Independent journalism was virtually nonexistent, and the government disseminated propaganda to shape public perception. Independent journalists and writers who dared to challenge the official narrative faced imprisonment or worse. The Soviet regime's propaganda glorified the state and its leaders while demonizing perceived enemies. A Soviet citizen described the omnipresence of propaganda: "Everywhere we looked, we saw the state's version of reality. There was no escape from it."

Similarly, China's Great Firewall restricts access to information from outside the country, ensuring that the population is exposed only to state-approved narratives. Social media platforms are closely monitored, and any content deemed subversive is swiftly removed. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) employs sophisticated algorithms to censor dissent and promote its propaganda, creating a controlled information environment. This pervasive censorship stifles dissent and prevents the spread of alternative viewpoints.

Propaganda is a powerful tool for shaping public perception and maintaining control. Nazi Germany's Joseph Goebbels famously stated:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

The Nazi regime's propaganda machine glorified Hitler and the Aryan race while demonizing Jews and other minorities. This relentless propaganda created a climate of hatred and fear, justifying the regime's atrocities.

In modern China, the CCP uses propaganda to promote its vision of a harmonious society. State media outlets emphasize the party's achievements and downplay its failures. Patriotic education campaigns instill loyalty to the party from a young age, ensuring a steady stream of compliant citizens. A Chinese citizen explained, "We are constantly bombarded with messages about the greatness of the party. It's hard to see the truth through the propaganda."

While censorship and propaganda softens and aligns most of the population, authoritarian regimes still must deal with dissenters. Disappearances, torture, detention, forced labor and summary executions are used to create examples out of those who overtly oppose the government.

"In China, we live in a virtual prison. The surveillance is everywhere, and it is the fear of what might happen that keeps us in check." - Ma Jian from "China Dream"

In modern Russia political opponents and journalists critical of the government have faced harassment, imprisonment, and even assassination. The murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny are stark reminders of the lengths to which the regime will go to maintain control. A Russian activist noted, "Speaking out against the government is a dangerous game. Many have paid the ultimate price for their courage."

Strategies for Survival

Authoritarian regimes thrive on compliance. While it's easy for keyboard warriors to suggest revolt against dictators, most people just want a peaceful life with their families. Once authoritarianism takes hold, citizens will do what it takes for their family to survive and avoid harassment. Survival is realty, not cowardice.

The most straightforward way to avoid persecution is to comply with the regime's demands. In Nazi Germany, many citizens outwardly conformed to the Nazi ideology to avoid suspicion. Attending state-sponsored rallies, displaying Nazi symbols, and participating in mandatory activities were common ways to demonstrate loyalty. This public conformity often masked private dissent, as individuals sought to protect themselves and their families.

In contemporary China, compliance with the CCP's directives is essential for avoiding trouble. The Social Credit System, which rewards or punishes citizens based on their behavior, incentivizes conformity. A high social credit score can lead to better job opportunities and access to services, while a low score can result in restrictions and penalties. Many Chinese citizens navigate this system by carefully curating their online presence and avoiding activities that could draw negative attention.

Surviving and prospering in an authoritarian regime often requires a nuanced understanding of the system and the ability to navigate its complexities. In Pinochet's Chile, some individuals managed to maintain their livelihoods by aligning themselves with the regime's economic policies. Entrepreneurs who supported the neoliberal reforms benefited from the regime's support, even as they privately opposed its brutality.

In modern Russia, oligarchs and business leaders who maintain close ties to the Kremlin enjoy significant privileges. These individuals navigate the political landscape by aligning their interests with those of the state, ensuring their continued prosperity. However, this relationship is precarious, as falling out of favor with the regime can lead to swift and severe repercussions.

"In North Korea, we did not have the luxury of thinking for ourselves. The regime did all our thinking for us, and if we resisted, we were punished." - Yeonmi Park from "In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom"


While compliance is a common survival strategy, some individuals resist authoritarian regimes through subterfuge. This is highly risky, but the drive to fight back is powerful for some.

During the Soviet era, underground movements and dissident networks challenged the state's control. Samizdat, the clandestine copying and distribution of banned literature, disseminated alternative viewpoints. These acts of risky resistance allowed individuals to express dissent and connect with like-minded people.

In North Korea, defectors have developed ingenious methods to smuggle information in and out of the country. USB drives containing foreign media are covertly distributed, providing a glimpse of the outside world. These acts of defiance are dangerous, but they play a crucial role in undermining the regime's control over information.

Stayin' alive

When faced with unspeakable brutality, is conformity cowardice? In any authoritarian environment, you will have approvers, dissenters and conformists. Unfortunately, it's not realistic to expect everyone to rebel against oppression. Often, we're forced to adapt to our circumstances rather than make them right.

Generally, survival in a dictatorship requires one to keep their eyes open and head on a swivel. Below are a few ideas for blending in, remaining informed and staying sane:

1. Stay Informed and Educated

Ensure you're consuming information from a variety of reputable sources, both domestic and international. This will help you stay informed about the true state of affairs.

2. Protect Your Digital Privacy

Tools like Signal, ProtonMail, and VPN services can help protect your online communications from surveillance. Avoid sharing sensitive information that could be used against you. Assume that anything you post online is monitored.

3. Build a Support Network

Establish a network of trusted friends, family, and colleagues who share your concerns and can offer mutual support. Engage with groups that advocate for human rights, civil liberties, and democracy. They can provide resources and solidarity. However, association with such groups could create heat for you and your family.

4. Maintain Documents

Keep important documents (e.g. passports, bank records) and records in safe, encrypted digital locations or secure physical places.

5. Learn Survival Skills

Consider learning ways to protect yourself physically. Learn skills like first aid, emergency preparedness, and resource management. Decrease reliance on the state for life essentials. Grow food. Beware that if there is a shortage, food will be confiscated to feed police and military, as these are vital tools for maintaining state control.

6. Secure Your Finances

Keep some of your assets in safe, stable forms that are less susceptible to government control and easy to transport, such as foreign currencies or precious metals. If using gold or digital wallets, a significant amount of wealth can be transported in a backpack. Maintain an emergency fund in a secure, accessible place.

7. Establish a Safe Exit Strategy

Identify potential safe destinations and create a plan for a quick and safe exit if necessary. Ensure your passport and other travel documents are up to date. Build connections in other countries that could provide assistance if you need to leave quickly.

Truly remaining invisible requires blending in. If peaceful survival is your goal, you'll need to put aside personal values and do what's expected. That might mean attending rallies or flying a flag on your front lawn. Can't stomach this? Non-conformity is a form of resistance, so prepare to be treated accordingly.

This is not a comprehensive guide. Merely a few thought starters to help prepare for the worst case scenario. Let's use our voices and votes today to ensure it doesn't come to that.

I don't like writing this as much as you don't like reading it. But with many governments around the world descending into dictatorship, this is the unfortunate reality we must consider.