Just as everyone has to be somewhere, dictators have to have been born – like everyone else – on a particular day of the year. Like everyone else too, they usually take quite a long time to mature, and for us to notice the impact they have.
For the 50 current dictators throughout the world, the period 1952-65 appears to have been a fertile time. Vladimir Putin (1952), Recep Erdoğan (1952), Emomali Rahmon (1952), Xi Jinping (1953), Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (1953), Alexander Lukashenko (1954), Miguel Díaz-Canal (1960) and Bashar al-Assad (1965).
They all vary. The circumstances that brought them to power, and sustained them there; the social fabric and political structure, the popular expectations and freedoms, the impacts on poverty and equality – all these differ. For every dictator read strong man. Virtually all of them are men, pulsating with Trumpian testosterone and Machiavellian pragmatism. With the rise of fascism and far right ethno-cultural nationalism throughout the world, strong man realpolitik is in vogue.
Neo-liberalist capitalism is a complex business, full of moral ambiguities about the rights of public commons and how far to trust a utilitarian principle to deliver happiness. For the social ant-heap, safety seems better guaranteed by strong leaders with metaphorical and literal balls. Women have yet to scale the heights of the masculinist pantheon of world dictators, and perhaps, wisely, they don't feel they need to do so.
Wherever these dictators come from – an already-powerful elite (think Middle East), an indignantly impoverished back-street, as an apparatchik in the party, a military junta, a chance coup or unplanned disaster – we know that, once they're in position, they're usually hard to dislodge. Mugabe tottered to oblivion in old age, Stalin strolled to his mausoleum on the bodies of the gulag, Castro went with both a bang and a whimper.
But it's where they're going that's of real interest – especially to the people who want him removed from office but are too scared to say so. What will the dictator do next? What will and could happen to them tomorrow, next week, next year? Nobody lives for ever. If we could really know when he will fall from power – just as we know when Mussolini and Hitler did, using 20:20 hindsight – then we could plan for it realistically.
Perhaps there's something in the stars. When wars start and things fall apart, we have to turn to something. Red-top rhetoric ratchets up the emotional temperature with talk of doomsday, Armageddon, and the end times. This is Cold War speak on steroids, and, fresh from re-reading five of the early James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, and John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
(1962 – that period again!), I start to wonder whether I need to scry into the future myself, like the necromancers and hermetic alchemists of yore.
Doris Lessing reminds us about the remorseless trajectory of imperialist warfare in her book The Wind Blows Away Our Words
(1987). It describes the Afghan War, the one in which Russia invaded Afghanistan, fought the Taliban to near-destruction, razed major cities to the ground with ceaseless bombardment, and then buggered off. Just in case we all forgot about Afghanistan (something history over the last 150 years tells us has been impossible), it's been a favourite theatre of war for later adventurers who shall be nameless.
Since the fate of Georgia and Chechnya have rather faded into the backdrop of history, it comes as a savage novelty to see Russia's blitzkrieg of Ukraine, and (not so novel) to say we should have seen it coming long ago. But we cannot see into the future: can we? Astrology claims to be able to do just that, so I checked out the birthday of Vladimir Putin (7 October 1952 – a difficult year for a noble vintage, the wine masters tell us) and consulted an astrologer.
She told me (in mysterious tones and off the record) that we were dealing with that sign in the Zodiac called Libra – the scales – which operated between 23 September and 22 October. Librans apparently seek balance and harmony in their lives; they are keen to attain and maintain an equilibrium, and want conflict to be resolved. In fact (if we're speaking of fact here), the most toxic force for a Libran is to face disorder – it is a severe blow to their self-confidence.
So, then, what might that tell us about the future? Well, she declared, speaking almost in tongues like Thomas the Rhymer (and peering through a stone with a hole so as to envision the future clearly), such a Libran, above all one endowed by destiny and with access to unlimited power, would do all he could to maintain the world as he wanted it to be. Anything which opposed or contradicted it – upset or threatened the balance of nature – would be eliminated and destroyed.
Armed with the fascinating insight into zodiacal polarities and modalities, my search for a reliable glimpse into the future continued apace. Another way to foresee what might happen swung into view: sortilege. In this you seek guidance from a chance selection of items (like tablets with writing on them or like passages from a well-known authority such as Homer or Virgil or the Bible).
Such sortes biblicae
can be found if you open the Bible at random and read a verse. It may – even will – tell you what a fully rational and systematic search will not. Perhaps that would be more reliable than astrology – which, as we know from horoscopes, is notoriously vague.
The three passages found in this way – truly random and I wasn't looking – were food for thought indeed. 'You will succeed in luring him, said the Lord. Go and do it' (1 Kings 22:22). Then 'I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false' (Revelation 2:2). And 'If you lay a hand on him, you will remember the struggle and never do it again. Any hope of subduing him is false' (Job 41:8-9).
Finding and then interpreting such randomly-chosen passages might, to the intelligent person, be a bit of a mug's game. Yet we all do it instinctively – is Russia testing the West? Is Putin claiming to be the ethno-cultural messiah of the Russian world? Is what the West doing and hoping for all in vain? On and on the exegesis travels, going nowhere yet perhaps going somewhere.
Finally, I turned to Nostradamus. Michel de Nostradame (1503-66) was a French Jew with a canny reputation for divination and knowledge of Kabbalistic lore. Even Hitler consulted him, along, as historian Ellic Howe says, with many other Teutonic mythographers. The complete prophecies of Nostradamus remain very much in print and, as a librarian told me, every good library should have a copy. One of the best is that compiled by Mario Reading (Watkins Publishing, 2009).
Nostradamus looks both at the past and at the future: retrospective quatrains can be seen to apply, say, to the Crusades and Martin Luther. Most of them, understandably for anyone keen or mad enough to consult him, refer (or could be made to seem to refer) to future events, such as the execution of Charles I, the French Revolution, and 9/11.
A typical quatrain (originally in French) reads like this: 'Brothers and sisters held captives in various places / They pass near the monarch / He looks at them with alert attention / It is disagreeable to see the marks on forehead, nose and face' – interpretation that the marks were the marks of the beast, 666, the reference to an Antichrist, and so applicable to Hitler.
Such prophecies can and have been applied to many current events: the assassination of a world leader The Day of the Jackal
-style, famine relief and global warming, a world epidemic, and a global war that changes the world order and sets up a great leader, a Genghis Khan and Fu Manchu and Alexander the Great rolled into one. There is, too, a glaringly recurrent theme among the quatrains – that of disorder in Russia, the paranoia and treachery of the tsars, their massacres and their urge to jeopardise the rest of the world.
Is it that we look for the irrational when we've given up on rational historical knowledge, just as we look for off-the-wall nostrums when mainstream medicine seems ineffective? Perhaps astrology, sortilege and prophecies are a menu for the mad and desperate, something we give houseroom to when the journalists and military strategists don't tell us enough of what we want to know, enough to allay our fears. One thing we do know: that one dark night in January 1952, something happened in a Russian bedroom that led to one of those famous 50.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland