Reading about Azar Nafisi's Iran is, in many ways, like reading about the Soviet Union - the imaginary Soviet Union, of course, the one in which religion wouldn't have been banned or frowned upon but, instead, imposed as fiercely as possible, in addition to what they wanted us to believe was socialism/communism...
The following reference to the Soviet Union made me realize that if I were teaching some kind of a class, I'd assign Nafisi's book together with the one by Yury Dombrovsky - The Faculty of Useless Knowledge, a novel that best describes the process of "individualization of evil"...
Modern fiction brings out the evil in domestic lives, ordinary relations, people like you and me - Reader! Bruder! as Humbert said. [...] We are all capable of becoming the blind censor, of imposing our visions and desires on others.
Once evil is individualized, becoming part of everyday life, the way of resisting it also becomes individual. How does the soul survive? is the essential question. And the response is: through love and imagination. Stalin emptied Russia of its soul by pouring on the old death. Mandelstam and Sinyavsky restored that soul by reciting poetry to fellow convicts and by writing about it in their journals. [...]
Another book that would probably go well with Nafisi's is In the Walled Gardens by Anahita Firouz: as far as I remember, our part of the world is hardly ever mentioned in this novel, and yet, the spirit is there, the excitement and hope of the revolution and the subsequent horror and disillusionment; also, unlike Nafisi, Firouz does provide an insight into what the Shah's regime felt like...
Michael Ignatieff's piece in this week's New York Times Magazine - Iranian Lessons - also shows that, despite all the obvious differences, Iran isn't too far from Russia (and the 19th-century Russia isn't all too different from what it is today...):
On the nights after Ahmadinejad's victory, the atmosphere among many of the liberal Iranians I talked with was reminiscent of another group of intellectuals: the Russian thinkers of the 1860's, Western-educated men and women who had to discover, painfully, just how out of touch their reformist ideas were with the poor and burdened of their own society. Barmaki told me mournfully, ''We reformers have lost five years.''
The political task ahead for the liberal thinkers of Iran is to find a program that links human rights and democracy to the poor's economic grievances.
A comparison with the current Russian liberal opposition - Nemtsov, Khakamada, etc. - would fit so naturally here: back in 2003, their campaign messages could have been appealing to the majority of the Swiss electorate, but not to the Russian masses.
Finally, this reads like it was written about Russia, too:
With oil at about $60 a barrel as I write, there is little likelihood that the regime will be forced to open up and reform the economy. But unless it does, there won't be much democracy or progress for the poor. One human rights truth, universally acknowledged, is that oil is an obstacle to democracy in every developing society. When a government can get what it needs out of oil derricks and ceases to derive its revenue from taxes, it loses any incentive to respond to the people. Theocracy in Iran is built on oil and will endure as long as the oil price holds up.