Masha Gessen’s Definitive Take On Contemporary Russia Is The Work Of A Lifetime
“I wanted to write a story about how Russian democracy didn’t come to be,” Masha Gessen said.
We were discussing Gessen’s “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. In the book, Gessen tells the story of Russia’s post-Soviet evolution through the intertwining stories of seven Russians. Four of her protagonists were born in the last decade of the Soviet Union’s existence and came of age during the period of chaotic potential that followed. Three are intellectuals who strove to study and succeed in their chosen disciplines, only to discover after the USSR’s collapse that they had been living and working in an intellectual vacuum.
The book started, in Gessen’s words, as “a polemic on this idea of trauma.” Gessen quickly realized that to fully realize her ideas, she needed a literary format conducive to greater intimacy. The subject was intimate to her: Born to a Jewish family in Soviet Russia, Gessen immigrated to the United States with her parents as a teenager in the early 1980s, She returned to Russia as a journalist and activist in the early 1990s, then moved back to the United States in 2013 to escape the Russian government’s crackdown on LGBTQ people and families.
The resulting book is gargantuan in terms of both intellectual endeavor and sheer length, an enthralling and destabilizing immersion in a country that has recently become a subject of renewed American fear and fascination. “It felt like I was either going to succeed spectacularly or fail spectacularly,” Gessen said. “I’ve never written a book that’s so unusually structured, that’s so ambitious and also that’s so huge.”
Gessen was ahead of the curve. Following the election of Donald Trump, an article she wrote for The New York Review of Books, titled “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” went viral. “I have learned a few rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect,” she wrote, citing her years living in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“The Future Is History” is an illustration of the murkiness — intellectual, moral, political, interpersonal — involved in attempting to survive an autocracy. It is an illustration, as well, of the murkiness involved in trying to shed autocracy. Events from the time between the Soviet Union’s fall and Putin’s rise change meaning after they occur; moments that look like harbingers of democracy transform into warnings of a society that cannot change.
Those movements of a newly independent nation, in Gessen’s telling, feel personal.
“I consciously broke with the conventions of distance,” Gessen told me. “Narrative journalism is [usually] done at a sort of middle distance; the journalist stands close enough to her subject to be able to observe and describe, never so close as to not be able to see from the outside, never so far as to be able to really describe huge historical processes. What I wanted to do with this book was change that and use the kind of distance that a novelist would use.”
Gessen also eschewed common subjects for a journalist — those who hold power, and ordinary individuals whose experiences become emblematic for those of an entire group — for a specific set of protagonists.
“I wanted people who have an articulated relationship to power but don’t hold power,” she said. In choosing her youthful subjects, identified, as customary in Russia, by the diminutives of their given names — Masha, Zhanna, Seryozha and Lyosha — she looked for children of the 1990s who could remember the seminal protests and political changes of 1991, and who, as adults, had been affected by the crackdowns of Putin’s government. She also wanted them to come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. “I wanted to show something that Americans don’t usually think about when they think about Russia, which is the extreme stratification of Soviet society,” she said.
The book’s intellectual framework has, for Gessen, been the work of a lifetime.
“It’s probably the kind of writing experience that I’ll never have again, because there are ideas that have been percolating in my head for years,” she said. “In a way, I’ve been working on this book for 25 years, right?”
“The Future Is History” is one of a cohort of new books that attempt to communicate the history, sociological conditions, lived experience and ongoing impact of the Soviet Union on a human scale. Sana Krasikov’s sweeping novel “The Patriots,” released this past January, followed three members of a family through the USSR and the aftermath of its collapse. Yuri Slezkine’s “The House of Government,” released this past summer, is a nonfiction history of the USSR, told through the history of one of a mammoth apartment building that housed the Communist Party’s new elite and then witnessed their mass arrests during Josef Stalin’s purges.
It would be easy for an American reader to interpret the influx of new scholarship, journalism and fiction focused on Soviet Russia’s transition to independence as confirmation that Russia has progressed far enough in developing a new social and political identity to require independent analysis.
“The Future Is History” is grounded in a different idea about Russia’s post-Soviet growth: That the new Russian state operates through a contemporary extension of Soviet methods of governance, suppression and violence. The polemic on trauma that Gessen originally envisioned began, she said, with “the very simple idea that the same way we don’t expect people to function normally when they get out of an abusive relationship, we can’t expect a society, a country, to function ‘normally’ once it’s quote-un-quote liberated.”
Gessen’s young protagonists came of age slightly too late to be profoundly traumatized by the Soviet Union, and they grow up buffeted by that trauma’s aftereffects. All reach for some form of power, briefly accessing it as activists, politicians, businesspeople and academics. All, eventually, are forced away from that access by the centralized mechanisms of power under Putin. Two leave Russia permanently, one decides to step back from activism after being deeply involved in it for nearly six years, and one, with whom Gessen has been unable to establish contact since 2015, falls into a debilitating depression.
Their experiences humanize the theories of sociologist Lev Gudkov and psychoanalyst Marina Arutyunyan. Gudkov began assisting in sociological surveys of Soviet society in 1970 under Yuri Levada, who attempted to reinvigorate the field despite Soviet restrictions on it. Gudkov’s efforts to understand the feelings, values and thoughts of people in the Soviet Union and then Russia culminate, in Gessen’s telling, in a depressingly persuasive account of Russia’s failure to effectively democratize. Arutyunyan, one of the first Russians to become a fully credentialed member of the International Psychoanalytic Association, eventually comes to think that Sigmund Freud’s idea of the “death drive” — the inexorable impulse of humans to seek their own deaths — might apply to the whole of Russian society.
That duo shares an ideological outlook with Masha, Zhanna, Seryozha and Lyosha. Each protests, fighting for intellectual and political expansion despite the fact that independent thought is once again seen as dangerous.
Gessen offers a counterpoint to their perspective in the form of Alexander Dugin, a philosopher and political agitator who serves as an embodiment of the sobering ramifications of the Soviet Union’s intellectual closure.
Dugin’s story is a parable of the insidious, lasting power of Soviet anti-intellectualism. He first appears as a young man in 1984 who hates the Soviet regime, starts a relationship with the soon-to-be- radical lesbian Evgenia Debryanskaya, and spends his days reading whatever philosophical texts he can get his hands on, no matter their language. He can learn a new language in two weeks.
His intellectual capacity is astonishing. So is his descent into fascism. When he becomes enamored of Hitler in the early 1990s, the reader hopes it’s a misguided phase. Then he co-founds the National Bolshevik Party, writing a mission statement that, in Gessen’s interpretation, surpasses the anti-individualism of both the original Bolsheviks and the Nazis. As the decade ends, Dugin becomes even more entrenched in the set of ideas that led him to Hitler and the National Bolsheviks.
This year, a sensationalized Daily Beast headline declared Dugin to be “Russia’s Alt-Right Rasputin.” The degree of his influence is disputed — his English translator, for what it’s worth, is married to Richard Spencer — but his idea that Russia should become, as Gessen writes, “the leader of the anti-modern world” was evidently influential in Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. In a speech that Putin gave that April, he described the citizen of the “Russian world” who focuses “not so much on his own self.” The concept of a “Russian World,” which rests on a rejection of the Western focus on human rights, was originated by Dugin; he saw evidence of its rise in the election of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and the growing prominence of Marine Le Pen in France.
“Unfortunately, this book is a part of two legacies,” Gessen said. “The legacy of writing from exile, which has been very important for making sense of Russia for at least 150 years, and also the legacy of people writing books in English about Russia that aren’t translated into Russian.” (Only one of Gessen’s nine books has been translated into Russian.)
I asked her, in light of the concern over Russian anti-intellectualism that runs through “The Future Is History,” what it meant for her to publish the book while knowing it would, for most Russians, be completely inaccessible.
She responded with a weary frankness, citing the vast amount of writing on Russia that suffers the same fate; David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb,” which she called “one of the best books written on the collapse of the Soviet Union,” has only recently been translated into Russian, more than two decades after winning the Pulitzer Prize. And Gessen pointed out that anti-intellectualism has become something of a global movement, particularly in the United States.
She sees other parallels between Russia and the U.S. She mentioned the economist Nicholas Eberstadt’s studies of Russian mortality rates, which outpace those of any other modern country in peacetime. Every standard explanation for that excessive mortality — a fatty diet, alcoholism, smoking, pollution — failed to explain the phenomenon; in each case, another country had a worse version of the same problem, without a similar consequence.
“His hypothesis is that Russians are dying of depression,” Gessen said. “When I was writing the book it seemed like a pretty exotic thing to talk about.” Then “the idea of working-class Americans dying of despair started surfacing,” she said. “We are starting to face the possibility that people can die of remorse and hopelessness and the sense of lacking a future.”
While Gessen still remains deeply worried about Trump’s impact on the United States, especially in the ways he’s been “delegating violence” — a different thing from dictating state terror — she said that, in her view, the United States is still a long way from becoming totalitarian. Russia, she added, is not absolutely totalitarian: “It’s a mafia state, but it’s a mafia state constructed on the ruins of a totalitarian regime, so the habits of a totalitarian society have kicked in.”
The two countries find one more contemporary connection, this one implicit. Although Gessen’s early life in the Soviet Union was greatly affected by state-enforced anti-Semitism, she said she didn’t intend to trace anti-Semitism as a prominent theme of “The Future Is History.” It became one anyway.
“It spontaneously emerged in interviews as a life-shaping force not just for Jews,” she said. “Masha’s family is ethnically Russian, yet her mother’s specialty is tutoring Jewish university applicants for exams. That’s what provides them with their living, but also with an insight into the deep corruption of that system.” (Jews, in Soviet university entrance examinations, would face extra questions intended to prevent them from gaining admission.)
Gessen also tells the stories of anti-Semitism’s impact on Jews: Zhanna’s father, who figures prominently in the book, was Boris Nemtsov, a Jewish politician who was a leader of the opposition to Putin before his murder in 2015. Nemtsov had claimed to be only half-Jewish to circumvent restrictions on Jewish social and political mobility.
Perhaps most telling, in Gessen’s account, is the significance of anti-Semitic propaganda in modern Russia.
Confronting a lieutenant leading a platoon dispatched to help quell a protest, Gessen asks him how he gets his information. He tells her he relies on the book “Blows From the Russian Gods,” which, issued to every member of his platoon, relates the many evils of the Jews. Portions of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were taught in Moscow State University’s sociology department as late as 2007.
Why did anti-Semitism, along with homophobia, become one of the guiding ideological tools of both the Soviet Union and the new Russia?
“Hate has a great unifying potential,” Gessen said. “Most Russians have literally never met a Jewish person, and think that they have never met a queer person. Abstracted hatred is incredibly potent. There’s never the risk of having it challenged by the reality of living human beings.”
In this country, at this moment, our intellectual doors remain open: What we think, and whom we are able to listen to, is up to us. That freedom, as Gessen makes achingly clear, is precious.
“What I tried to get at [in this book] was how dangerous it is to be robbed of the tools of understanding what happens in your country,” she said. “This is, again, not an irrelevant message for any society.”