Review on “Spin Dictators by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman” and notes-and-words.


I have read “Spin Dictators” by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman. My review is below.

1. Review

The book took me 7 hours 22 minutes to read, that is 442 minutes. With about 220 pages of readable text (the whole book is almost twice larger, but the rest contains mostly references), this makes it about 2 minutes per page. Not exactly a book for slow reading.

Why is that?

When reading “Spin Dictators”, I couldn’t get rid of a feeling that I had already heard most of the propositions made. Where? In the Russian opposition-leaning media, for the most part, as well as the Western media, mostly left-leaning.

This made me… be critical about the text. I guess I have to give this disclaimer, because to an extent it means that I cannot review the book in an unbiased way. Not because I am pre-disposed to the book, but because I just have had too much exposure to a partisan political agenda.

Does it mean that things said there are a priori false? Not at all, after all, political agendas are sometimes built on genuine understanding, and in the case of “Spin Dictators”, most claims are supported by evidence, even though I haven’t bothered to verify that evidence. However, it did make me approach the text from a critical viewpoint.

So what the authors are saying can be roughly summarised as the following: since the last quarter of the twentieth century, dictatorships are much more based on manipulating and misleading people, rather than on inflicting fear upon them.

The first part of the book defines what a “Spin Dictatorship” is more precisely, and continues to describe its properties, such as its paradigmatic policies to democracy, international relations, propaganda, repression, censorship.

The seconds part of the book tries to establish how those “Spin Dictatorship” appeared, how they might evolve, and how democratic states should work with them.

Overall, this book left me with a feeling of unease. I cannot specify exactly where and why. Those interested may have a look at the notes in the next section of this file.

Perhaps, the most disturbing thought for me is the authors’ firm belief in “international institutions”. After all, international institutions are just institutions, prone to all problems of bureaucratic organisations.

One more thing that bothers me is a really slacky attitude to sovereignty. I mean, naturally, some countries are richer than others. But that approach “do what we tell, and only then we will help you” sounds too fragile to actually work as intended.

Also, they mention that presently countries have about 43% of their economies being used for import-export. This sounds way off from being reasonable. I mean, I like Japanese knives, but do I want to have no domestic knives in a shop nearby? I doubt.

Similarly, I find it hard to believe that “progress” can be achieved by instilling it into people by the more progressive. Something just doesn’t sound right here. Without independence how can there be adulthood?

2. Notes

2.1. Chapter 1 : Fear and Spin


  1. Raymond Aron called these <Nazism and Communism> “secular religions”
  2. Socialist revolutionaries like Nasser in Egypt (mobilizational) shared the world stagewith freemarket reactionaries like Pinochet in Chile (demobilizational) and kleptocrats like Mobutu in Zaire (demobilizational).
  3. Many scholars, for instance, have sought to explain the stability of classic, violent autocracies — the regimes that we call dictatorships of fear. How do such rulers avoid being overthrown in revolutions?

    It is not normal for people to rebel. People have an “emotional barrier” before they allow that violence to rise up. (?)

    1. intimidate citizens
    2. keep potential rebels from coordinating on a plan
    3. keep them divided—and terrified
  4. Most assume that citizens hate the dictator: only fear keeps them from revolting. But what if citizens actually like their ruler and do not want to storm the barricades?

    Is not that democracy?

  5. some features of spin dictatorship
    1. hold elections, and not all are empty rituals (ploys, con games, and bureaucratic abuses that autocrats around the world have used to secure victories)
    2. control the media
    3. surveillance and information technologies
  6. The key elements
    1. manipulating the media
    2. engineering popularity
    3. faking democracy
    4. limiting public violence
    5. opening up to the world


  1. Vis­it­ing Sin­ga­pore in 1978, Deng had been amazed at what Lee had made of the once im­pov­er­ished colo­nial out­post. In the eleven years since then, Lee had set out to men­tor Deng and his team, ad­vis­ing them on eco­nomic pol­icy.


  2. The next year, Li Peng, who, as China’s pre‐mier, had or­dered the troops into Tianan­men Square, vis­ited Sin­ga‐pore. Lee be­rated him for stag­ing such a “grand show” be­fore the world me­dia. Li Peng, ac­cord­ing to Lee, replied with hu­mil­ity: “We are com­pletely in­ex­pe­ri­enced in these mat­ters.”

    FFS. I didn’t know that.


More or less lists the things that are used.


  1. In Asian so­ci­ety dis­ci­pline and or­der are more im­por­tant than democ­racy, which has to de­velop over time.”


Well, dictators use both mobilising and de-mobilising propaganda.



What is modernisation and why it happens?

  1. Trade and in­vest­ment flows knit economies to­gether, while global me­dia link their news cy­cles and in­for­ma­tional fields. In­ter­na­tional move­ments and coali­tions of states form to pro‐­mote the new val­ues—most im­por­tantly, the re­spect for hu­man rights. Some­times these global in­flu­ences drive even dic­ta­tors with less ad­vanced economies to re­place fear with spin.
  2. Al­though eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment cre­ates pres­sures for gen­uine democ­racy, some au­to‐­crats man­age to de­lay the tran­si­tion by fak­ing it.

    Why exactly do they pressure for genuine democracy?

    Seemingly, the pressure from the outside should be the pressure by threat. But here there seems to be no threat.

    Where are the stimuli? Or the energy balance.


How about distinguishing between “human rights” and “citizen rights”? I think it is conflated a lot in this chapter.

  1. small groups of ed­u‐­cated pro­fes­sion­als with pro­gres­sive val­ues and of­ten le­gal train­ing linked up in the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury into a net­work of lib­eral NGOs. They used the global me­dia, in­ter­na­tional law, and a range of in­no­va‐­tive tac­tics to fo­cus pres­sure on bru­tal dic­ta­tors

    Dictators? Really? Why do Guriev and Treisman mentions displaced dictators I have never heard of? The Mexican on and the Ivorian one.

  2. When ac­tivists pub­li­cize abuses in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, re‐­search sug­gests multi­na­tion­als in­vest less in them.

    Which makes them poorer and less likely to rebel?

  3. The pre­vi­ous year, the U.S. Con­gress had cut $4 mil­lion from mil­i­tary aid to the coun­try to protest hu­man rights abuses and cor­rup­tion.

    What about foreign military aid from not USA? Say, Iran?

  4. But Ghana at the time re­ceived the World Bank’s big­gest lend­ing pro­gram in Africa.97 And Rawl­ings took se­ri­ously—per­haps too se­ri­ously—hints that con­tin­ued aid hinged on po­lit­i­cal change. “We were forced by the State De­part­ment—oh yes, forced—to adopt mul­ti­party democ­racy,” he com­plained in 2009. He had had to “force democ­racy down the throats” of his re­luc­tant com­pa­tri­ots, he told po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist An­toinette Han­d­ley, be­cause “the State De‐­part­ment was say­ing that there’ll be no more IMF and World Bank fa­cil­i­ties for us.”

    Very interesting. Are these guys permanently in debt, or somehow manage to get out?

  5. But from 1974, the U.S. Con­gress started ban­ning as­sis­tance to coun­tries guilty of gross abuses.

    Do as we say, and we will give you the money?



Okay, so the “West” should use the “idea of democracy” to educate the world.

4. Words [0/0]

  1. spin :: in this sense, “misinformation”, public relations with a twist in order to manipulate opinion
  2. peg :: a small usually cylindrical pointed piece (as of wood) used to pin down or fasten things or to fit into or close holes, metaphorically, “to fix something to something”
  3. entrepôts :: (French warehouse) a very important place to keep stuff for exchange, usually on a cross of trade routes, say Hong Kong or Singapore
  4. to schmooze :: to chitchat, to network, to have small-talk, usually in order to make connections
  5. suave manipulator :: sophisticated, cool, and possibly a bit charming, often in a somewhat insincere or superficial way, manipulator
  6. murky :: dark and gloomy, usually of liquids
  7. Carnation Revolution :: peaceful revolution in Portugal in 1974, which ended Salazar’s system; carnation means “гвоздика”
  8. scribblings :: ugly quick notes
  9. relish :: a paste, jam, marinade, a sauce, put on savoury dishes, like an additive; figuratively, enjoy much
  10. state coffers :: “закрома родины,金库”; what the government can use to pay for stuff
  11. to scoop :: “зачёрпывать,牢取”, to pick up a dose of a liquid with a tool, such as a ladle; as opposed to Russian word, can also be a noun for the dose, or for a tool
  12. scathe :: “to harm, to hurt”, seldom used in modern English; however, “unscathed”(=unharmed), and “scathing remark”(=hurtful, vitriolic verbal attack) are frequent
  13. restive regions :: prone to unrest and resistance, disobedience, regions of a country; restive is almost the opposite of restful
  14. stilted :: (stilts=“ходули,高跷”), often about language or speech: overly complicated, formal, unwieldy
  15. quipped (to quip) :: to make a sharp, witty, clever remark, especially negative
  16. as if on cue :: happening at a surprisingly good moment, matching circumstances ; “cue” is a hint for an actor to do an action on stage
  17. queasy :: (no corresponding noun in modern English) with an uncomfortable feeling in one’s stomach, squeamish
  18. knuckle-duster :: “кастет,指节铜套”, a piece of metal worn on one’s knuckles as a weapon
  19. to snarl :: to angrily growl in a menacing tone, about animals, or remark, about people
  20. hatchet :: small axe, often used by American Indian, used as metaphorically as a sign of enmity
  21. tough and flat-footed :: an idiom of Lee Kuan Yew, meaning to be straightforwardly aggressive
  22. ham-fisted :: clumsy, awkward, lacking dexterity in the use of their hands
  23. Syngman Rhee :: first President of South Korea
  24. disbursing :: paying many sums, usually to employees as salary
  25. pillory (public punishment) :: attach to a pole for everyone to humilitate, often used metaphorically
  26. churro :: a sweet dish made from fried dough, long-ish oily “buns”, “чурро,甜油条”
  27. to don the garb :: dress-up in specific clothing for a specific occasion; “don” is an old for “put on”, “garb” is “style, fashion, type of clothing”
  28. effete :: (lat. effetus, exhausted) weak, decadent, lacking vigour
  29. pounced on the un­doc­u­mented claim :: “pounced” = jump on, attack by jumping, usually about cats, here used figuratively
  30. squawk about :: making loud, piercing noise, usually about birds, figuratively “loudly protest”
  31. Zersetzung :: like “gaslighting”, but from the government, and aiming at citizens
  32. vying :: (infinitive “to vie”) to compete or contend eagerly
  33. turgid :: swollen or bloated due to fluid or excessive pressure, figuratively used about speech, when using convoluted language and lacking clarity
  34. obsequious :: being excessively obedient, submissive, or ingratiating towards someone in a servile or sycophantic manner
  35. elbow grease :: having to spend a lot of effort to do something
  36. pastiche :: (from french “pastiche”) thick meat sauce, Russian “паштет”, English loan “pâté”, usually used figuratively, to describe a “medley”, “potpourri”, mixed flowers, musical styles
  37. double entendres :: from French “double meanings”, puns, but not necessarily humourous
  38. contrite :: (adv) deeply remorseful and genuinely regretting
  39. gutter press :: what Russians usually mean by “yellow journalism”, excessively entertaining and sensational journalism, as opposed to the actual meaning of “yellow journalism”, not necessarily misleading or twisting
  40. military fatigues :: combat uniform, but usually used to describe it worn by civilians pretending to keep some connection to the military
  41. pliant :: like “pliable”, but more in the psychological sense (ChatGPT-3.5 fails to distinguish those two, ChatGPT-4 succeeds)
  42. comptroller :: chief accountant, or a head of the revision chamber, quality controller. in fact is like a “controller”, but using an old-style French spelling for fanciness
  43. flypasts :: ceremonial or symbolic flight by a group of aircraft or a single aircraft, usually on a parade
  44. romp home :: win easily and comfortably, romp means “lively and frolic”
  45. hound out :: follow, pursue, and harrass (Russian “травить собаками”)
  46. bickering :: engaging in petty, quarrelsome, or argumentative behavior, typically over trivial matters
  47. dabbling in :: get interested without deep involvement, such as learning from popular lectures or literature, not profound
  48. pore over (polling data) :: study very carefully, thoroughly, meticulously, with a lot of attention
  49. squalor :: dirt, decay, and general lack of order, usually used about living conditions
  50. rustle up :: prepare something quickly and hastily, usually about food, (rustle by itself is nervous, restless movement)
  51. hobnobbed :: literally, “have or not”, used to imply “would you like to have wine or not?”, nowadays used to express the process of spending time around important guys, in order to make career or raise in ranks
  52. stooge :: someone who is used to do dirty job with his hands, or pretends to be an innocent passerby while actually playing the game (Russian “подсадная утка”)
  53. anti-Western gadflies :: a person who interferes with the status quo of a society or an organization by posing upsetting or novel questions
  54. rote tasks :: mechanical activities that require little or no cognitive effort or decision-making
  55. sacrilegious :: offensive or blasphemous
  56. umpires :: official whose responsibility is to enforce the rules of the game, usually for exotic Anglo-Saxon sports, such as cricket or baseball
  57. cause célèbre :: controversial or highly publicized legal case
  58. sleaze :: what we is called “dirt” in Russian and used to described political, social, moral, behaviour of people, usually not literal dirt
  59. leeway :: a certain degree of flexibility when making decisions, in a good way