Portrait

Breakfast with fearless Russian journalist Masha Gessen. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Author and editor Masha Gessen

Sitting on the bench outside Northcote Town Hall in Melbourne, I shuffle through my notes. I’ve overprepared, if there can be such a thing when interviewing someone such as Masha Gessen. A small flock of grey pigeons pecks at the speckled concrete next to my foot. The tubbiest of the pack moves boldly towards me; clumsily pecks at the toe of my boot. I look up from my preparation, shocked at its small-fry brazenness.

 

Inside and it could be the half-glass of house red, or my apprehension about the interview, but I ask it anyway: “Are you nervous?” There the conversation filler is, hanging static between us as we hover behind the heavy stage curtains. It’s a smack-palm-on-forehead-then-repeat-again moment.

Is she nervous? The writer who was attended – at his request – an audience with Vladimir Putin? Is she nervous? This New York Times journalist, author of The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Is she nervous? She who chased the trail of the infamous Tsarnaev brothers back from the bloodied finishing line of the 2013 Boston marathon, skittering across the icy Massachusetts streets on her fold-up bicycle, striding notebook in hand, across the streets of Chechnya, Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan, in search of answers. Is she nervous? The Russian-American author who, while waiting out a penal colony visit to Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokno, was detained for taking a photograph of a prison banner, was made to write a statement explaining her presence and intentions. Is she nervous? About her interview with me?

“You just need to think of these appearances as a performance, you know…”

To the list of traits fast-writing itself, I add grace.

On stage, Gessen frankly dissects the Tsarnaev brothers’ path to an American tragedy. “Having been an immigrant kid… you’re always just one step away from falling into the abyss – that’s what immigration is. And they balanced on that edge for a really long time – and then they fell in.”

In close conversation, the writer is a riveting study in compact power. There’s the precision, immediacy and certainty of her responses, the way her stories unfold like an open road, but ultimately double back hard to bed down the question. Her striking, chiselled profile is offset by dark cropped hair, intense, prune-black eyes. Her diminutive frame carries a leanness both of figure and manner.

 

Several days later, Gessen and I meet at a Brunswick cafe, down the street from her Australian publishing house. It is industrial chic meets rustic faux vintage: shopfront hipsterville, with a side view of an inner-suburban Kmart.

Leaving Russia with her family in her mid-teens, Gessen returned to her homeland to live and work as a writer and journalist. Sitting with scrambled egg and Bircher muesli in front of us, I ask about her gay rights activism, what it was like to be out and queer in her birth country as a young adult.

“Well, I could kind of afford to be out at the time.” Gessen underplays the significance of her early public life as an activist. “Because of the circumstances of my life, I didn’t have much reason to fear violence. I was probably the first openly gay person to be on TV in Russia. For a while, it was kind of my gig. I’d go on television a couple times a year and talk about being gay.” She chuckles.

But the reality of being out in conservative Russia wasn’t quite that innocuous. Gessen lives her convictions. It’s a singular strength; a rarity that makes even the most politically avowed self-examine.

In 2013, Russia introduced new anti-gay laws, including banning “the purposeful and uncontrolled distribution of information that can harm the spiritual or physical health of a minor, including forming the erroneous impression of the social equality of traditional and non-traditional marital relations”. Gessen was beaten up outside parliament. Her family was flagged by political figures as the kind the legislation was aimed at preventing. Gessen moved them to America.

She leans forward over half-eaten eggs, voice raised a notch, from its quiet multi-accented lilt. “The minute they might come for the children, we had to leave.”

Some of Gessen’s critics point to her disdain for the Putin regime as the reason for her fraught relationship with Russia, but Gessen speaks about a continuing dialogue born from love.

“I wanted to live and work there,” she says.

If you could write a love letter to Russia now, I ask, what would it say?

“I did all I could for our relationship … but it became so abusive I just had to walk away. I couldn’t take it anymore. But if you ever decide to seek professional help, I’m here for you.” This time, there’s sadness lurking in her smile.

I tell Gessen that I heard a recording, circulated by an anti-marriage equality group. “They claimed you’d unwittingly revealed the secret gay agenda to ruin the institution of marriage.”

She laughs, tells me of her decades-old experience with marriage – starting with a union of practicality with a gay male friend of hers at the height of the AIDS epidemic, with the mutual aim of vesting legal responsibility for medical decisions, regardless of the fact they were both HIV negative.

“It was a scary time. We were terrified,” Gessen says, picking at her sourdough.

“What I was saying on that panel is that marriage doesn’t – and can’t – reflect the many circumstances in which queer people create families.” Gessen herself has three children, who share five parents between them. “We shouldn’t pretend that it does.”

Over the other side of the cafe other patrons call out, looking towards the floor. Gessen looks over. “Is that…? There’s a bird in here.”

I peer over. “It’s a pigeon.”

“I just… Ugh. I just… I have this thing about birds.”

Gessen recoils nervously. The tubby grey pigeon pecks clumsily at the matt-waxed floorboards, waddling along with small-fry brazenness. A waiter approaches, carrying a blue bucket. He bends down beneath a table, straightens up, carries the bucket outside.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "Nerves of steel". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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