Belarus sits like a large ellipsis at the center of Europe, an authoritarian puzzle to much of the outside world, worrying to its immediate neighbors, and a vexatious ally to Russia. But is it, Wilson asks, even “a proper country?” To answer that question, he takes the reader through a compressed mass of history, from the tenth-century principality of Polatsk, through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to the late-nineteenth-century stirrings of a national Belarusian movement. A clear yes-or-no answer does not quite materialize from the maze of claims and counterclaims by historians. But the search leads Wilson to a second question: Why today’s authoritarianism? What explains the endurance of a throwback dictator like Aleksandr Lukashenko? As Wilson reveals in unvarnished detail, Europe’s last dictatorship did not emerge and then entrench itself by accident, nor does it represent a break from all the history that came before. Today’s repressive state might have been abetted by clumsy, miscalculating leaders in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and later by the weakness and feuding of the political opposition. But Lukashenko knew the soil he tilled.