In 1960 Jacques Soustelle, a long-standing Gaullist disillusioned by his hero’s crabwise moves toward granting independence to Algeria, told the general that all of Soustelle’s friends were opposed to this policy. “Changez vos amis,” responded de Gaulle briskly. “Change your friends.”

Soustelle didn’t follow this advice (and spent years in exile as a result), but Anne Applebaum does in this readable and passionate curiosity of a book. A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and staff writer for the Atlantic who has written extensively on Soviet Communism, Applebaum invokes the grand abstractions of democracy and authoritarianism with her title, which suggests an exploration of how Europe and America have gradually moved from the triumph of democracy after 1989 to its allegedly weakened and (in some cases) even suicidal state today. That is indeed the theme of the book. But it is explored in an oblique way by examining how some of Applebaum’s friends have contributed to this process of democratic change and decay, and how this process has in turn affected them and their friendships with her.

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“Badly” is the simplest answer. Her account opens with a party on the last day of the 20th century at the provincial Polish home she shares with her husband, Radek

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