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10 Brutal Dictatorships With Surprising Upsides

Morris M.

For the most part, life in a dictatorship is harsh, brutal, and (probably) short. That’s why they’re dictatorships; if everything was smiles, rainbows, and unicorns farting pixie dust, they’d be something else entirely. But even the craziest, bloodthirsty regime occasionally manages a policy that isn’t totally awful, and sometimes they’re actually sort of brilliant.

10 East Germany Encouraged Nudism

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If you were over 16 in 2003, you might remember a little film called The Lives of Others. It was about a spy in East Germany who was tasked with snooping into every aspect of a citizen’s life. The film won an Oscar for its gritty, realistic portrayal of life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), but it missed out one important point. Everyone in pre-unification East Germany liked nothing more than to get totally, publicly naked.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, a movement known as “free body culture” took off across Germany. Basically, it was nudism, and while freedom-loving West Germany was kind of uncomfortable with it, the repression-loving GDR couldn’t get enough. The party even encouraged the practice, promoting it as a valuable Communist pastime.

9 Turkmen Drivers Get Free Gas

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Turkmenistan is a country you’ve probably never heard of that hates its own people with a passion. For 21 years, they lived under the rule of dribbling madman Saparmurat Niyazov, only for Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a slightly less-deluded madman, to take his place in 2006. Despite being one of the most oil-rich nations in the world, its citizens have almost nothing—unless they happen to own a car.

In 2008, Berdymukhamedov decided to top his predecessor’s historically low gas prices by giving the stuff away for free. Every car and motorbike driver in the country currently gets 720 liters (190 gallons) of petrol and 240 liters (64 gallons) of natural gas every six months without having to pay a cent. Whether that makes up for the excessive human rights violations carried out elsewhere by the state is another matter.

8 Cuba Has Awesome Free Healthcare

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Castro’s Cuba needs no introduction: Born from the ashes of the mafia-sponsored Batista dictatorship, it became a local Communist pariah, a despotic regime within swimming distance of Florida. But for all its unnerving aspects (and there are plenty), Cuba still manages to outclass everyone else in one area: healthcare.

Simply put, Cuba’s health system is one of the best in the world. There are twice as many doctors per capita as there are in the US, life expectancy is roughly the same, and Cuba manages this while spending only $300 per patient compared to the $7,000 in the US. And did we mention it’s completely free?

Now, it’s obvious that cheap surgery doesn’t make up for a plethora of human rights violations, but you have to wonder: When even the despotic nutcases have better healthcare than we do, where did it all go wrong?

7 Bhutan Is Obsessed With Happiness

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Bhutan is a small country above India with a population of 750,000 and a sideline in ethnic cleansing. In the early ’90s, the monarchy stripped a sixth of the population of their citizenship and booted them into UN refugee camps for no apparent reason. Life is so restricted that citizens can’t even choose what clothes they wear, the detention and torture of ethnic Nepalis is abundant—and the government is totally committed to happiness.

Sure, it sounds like the meaningless slogan of any dictatorship, but Bhutan really means it. Rather than GDP, the country measures its successes in “gross national happiness” and is currently placed as the happiest place in Asia and the eighth-happiest on Earth. And it appears the locals polled really mean it . . . until you realize the ones being tortured and oppressed don’t count. It’s kind of like asking Ronald McDonald how good the grub at McDonald’s is.

6 Kazakhstan’s Dictator Is A Total Hippy

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Despite it being the one of the largest countries in the world, most of us probably only know about Kazakhstan thanks to Borat. And while the allegations of corruption and anti-Semitism may have cut a little close to the bone, Sasha Baron Cohen’s film totally missed out the part about it being ruled by a vicious, peace-loving environmentalist.

Meet Nursultan Nazarbayev. Aside from being one of the most corrupt men who’s ever lived, he’s also a tree-hugging peacenik. When his regime inherited the fourth-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he did exactly what most dictators wouldn’t and completely dismantled them. He also set up a nuclear non-proliferation charity, urging other despots to follow his lead. He also created another charity dedicated to saving the ecosystem of the Aral Sea. This is an authoritarian ruler who runs a gangster-like state—and he wouldn’t seem out of place at a Woodstock revival.

5 Enver Hoxha Was A Staunch Feminist

Paper doll graffiti in a public street - Rome

Modern-day Albania is one of the poorest, most-corrupt countries in Europe. Believe it or not, this is an improvement: Under Communist stooge Enver Hoxha, it was a failed, isolated nation state that could give North Korea a run for its money. When not busy banning beards, Hoxha was murdering his opposition, operating Stalinesque torture centers, and . . . fighting for women’s rights?

It turns out the only thing Hoxha hated more than facial hair was chauvinist Albanian pigs. Until his rule, Albanian life was informally governed by something called the Kanuni I Leke Dukagjinit. Among other joys, this code regulated women to the status of objects and barred them from work or politics—and Hoxha hated it. One of his first acts in power was to overturn the code, reportedly with the warning that the party would “hurl into the fire and break the neck of” anyone who didn’t abide by his ruling. Since he was a vicious dictator and all, people kind of took him seriously: Within three years of his edict, female representation in government had nearly tripled.

4 North Korea Is Addicted To Kinky Sex

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Of all the things you’re likely to associate with North Korea, free love and kinky sex wouldn’t be high on your list. But according to defectors, Pyongyang is like London in the swinging ’60s: a hotbed of lust, adultery, and permissive sex.

Apparently, the top brass got inspired in the ’80s by Kim Jong Il’s “Joy Brigade,” a team of young girls tasked with sexually gratifying their “dear leader.” From that point on, the party descended into something like sexual anarchy, with regular Pyongyang residents enjoying an explosion of permissiveness so utterly overwhelming it sparked off all sorts of weird side effects—like women willingly selling themselves as prostitutes. It all sounds so oddly free and laid back—until you remember this is the same country that let nearly 4 million of its citizens starve to death.

3 Lenin Supported Gay Rights

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Soviet Russia wasn’t exactly big on tolerance, what with all the gulags, killings, and so on. But there was one area where the USSR literally led the world in acceptance: gay rights.

In 1922, Russia became the first country in history to decriminalize homosexuality. Prior to the revolution, being out of the closet in Russia was as illegal as everywhere else, but the first Soviets were keen to show the world exactly how open and free their Communist utopia would turn out to be. The upshot is that gay people living under Lenin were allowed to be themselves in a time when places like Britain were still sentencing their citizens to hard labor for the “crime” of one man loving another. This move was so progressive that it took the rest of the world decades to catch up, by which time Stalin had come to power and recriminalized homosexuality.

2 Gadhafi Gave Away Free Everything

Free-Stuff

Although in reality he was simply mad, Libyan tyrant Gadhafi was theoretically a socialist. And while that probably wasn’t much comfort if you were languishing in one of his torture centers, it did lead to some interesting policies, such as his propensity to give away everything for free.

When he first obtained power in 1968, Gadhafi pulled a Castro and instituted free healthcare, followed by free education. And free transportation. And free housing. Basically, in the early days of his Libya, everyone got a piece of the pie. At least for a while—within a year or two of eliminating education costs, Gadhafi had replaced the curriculum with subjects along the lines of “why Gadhafi is awesome” and “why the West are infidels.” So yeah, a nice idea completely mismanaged by a half-crazed tyrant. Who could’ve predicted that?

1 Iran Funds More Sex Changes Than Any Other Government

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Let’s be clear about this: For most people on the LGBTI scale, Iran is a bad place to be. Under the country’s strict sharia legal code, homosexuals can be executed, and oppression and violence is at a mind-numbing high. Yet, incredibly, this ultra-conservative religious state has some of the most progressive laws on transgender people in the world.

Since the late ’80s, a fatwa (legal judgment) by the ayatollah has recognized the rights of transgendered people. Currently, Iranians who undergo sex-reassignment surgery can legally change their birth certificates and other documents with no hassle and automatically receive all the rights of their chosen sex. Most of the surgeries are funded and carried out by the state itself, with the government even lending money to post-op transgender people to start their own businesses. There’s literally no other government on Earth that’s so supportive of transgender rights (in financial and emotional terms), and yet this is the same government that brutally murders gay men without a hint of sympathy. It’s a strange world we live in.

Morris M.

Morris is a freelance writer and newly-qualified teacher, still naively hoping to make a difference in his students' lives. You can send your helpful and less-than-helpful comments to his email, or visit some of the other websites that inexplicably hire him.

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