The Future Is History
For some years now Masha Gessen has been the smartest voice in the room when it comes to interpreting Russia for the West – no small compliment when the rooms in question are The New York Review of Books, The New York Times and, more recently, The New Yorker. Since November last year, she’s been an indispensable identifier of the convergences and, just as important, the differences between the emergent government of Donald Trump and the entrenched regime of Vladimir Putin. Almost once a week in at least one of those publications, she’s been on hand to explain the purpose and thinking behind the latest American policy outrage, given her familiarity with the tactics of governments hostile to their citizens. Sometimes this has meant tempering the panic of the left – Gessen has been particularly cautionary about the sudden re-election of Russia to the status of international super-villain. Just as often though, she’s made other aspects of Trumpism seem more frightening in the context of Russia’s deep history.
Although The Future Is History tells a chronological story of Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s that deep history she mines in this latest book, because the past is where she seeks the explanation for the puzzle of why Russia is not the liberal and democratic state that perestroika suggested it would be. To examine what she calls “the death of a Russian democracy that had never really come to be”, she follows the changing fortunes of four people born in the mid-1980s, embellished with the stories of three older characters, using them to illuminate the social topography of Russia with all its vistas and valleys.
If The Man Without a Face, her superb biography of Putin, was both a top-down look at people in power and a ground-up look at the problems facing journalists in Russia – several of Gessen’s colleagues have been killed doing their work – then The Future Is History looks at Russia from roughly the middle. Although she describes the choice of young people who allow her to show both “what it was to grow up in a country that was opening up and to come of age in a society shutting down”, they do not quite pretend to be representative of the position of the state or the mentality of the people. Instead, the book is also what Gessen characterises as “a long Russian (nonfiction) novel that [aims] to capture both the texture of individual tragedies and the events and ideas that shaped them” – in other words, an emotional history.
It’s a heady and unexpected read, and this is largely due to the characters’ particularities. The vantage feels roughly in the middle because they aren’t quite at the top – they are correctly placed to offer Gessen’s history a special insight but still subject to the changing moods of policy, rather than being in the driver’s seat. The most famous of the four young people are Zhanna, the daughter of Boris Nemtsov, the rival to Putin who was assassinated in 2015, and Seryozha, the grandson of Alexander Yakovlev, who worked extensively with the KGB archives once they were opened (and before Putin closed them) and before that was the main influence behind perestroika, the “godfather of glasnost”. The narrative is balanced, but the strongest thread perhaps belongs to Lyosha, who, as a lecturer in gender studies in a Russian university, is a particularly strong study in what is and is not possible depending on the changing social climate. Like Gessen herself, Lyosha eventually moves to the United States because of Russia’s growing intolerance of gay people.
One of the book’s strongest threads is around the death of intellectual freedom, in the absence of which it becomes much harder to produce biography. For Gessen, the challenge is finding people who can narrate the self: “The Soviet regime robbed people not only of their ability to live freely but also of the ability to understand fully what had been taken from them, and how.” As such, the characters who complement the young figures born in the 1980s were chosen to “capture the larger tragedy of losing the intellectual tools of sensemaking”, including a sociologist, a psychoanalyst and a philosopher.
According to Gessen, these too are neither “regular people” nor “powerful people”: rather, “they are the people who try to understand”. The most significant of these figures are Alexander Dugin, an extreme-right fascist ideologue and sometime adviser to Putin, and Yuri Levada, the first sociologist to practise in a Russian university. At the fall of the Soviet Union, Levada believes that Homo sovieticus, “formed by the one-two punch of the Revolution and the Great Terror”, is a “dying breed”. It seemed the children and grandchildren of this double-thinking kind of person, ideally suited to survival under Stalin, would be different.
But Gessen shows meticulously why and how this was not so – how historical events under Yeltsin and then Putin bleed together until the years are undifferentiated for different characters, and they are all just “politics”. Throughout it all Levada’s sociological studies tick like some ominous clock – he reminds me of a scientist in a disaster movie who has access to surprising data that nobody heeds. Most troubling, he suggests that perestroika was not really a change, but was instead one end of a pendulum’s swing, which followed “a pragmatic logic”. “The periods of liberalization allowed pent-up frustrations – and, more important, the people who would articulate them – to bubble to the surface,” Gessen explains. “With the potential troublemakers visible and active, the crackdown that inevitably followed eliminated them. In the long run, the cycles ensured the stability of the regime.”
The subtitle of the book is “How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia”, and Gessen returns often to well-selected quotes from Hannah Arendt to articulate the hard and soft ways in which modern Russia has returned to this dangerous state. But through the stories of her subjects, it becomes possible to see that no real change of outlook ever took place. CR
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 11, 2017 as "Masha Gessen, The Future Is History". Subscribe here.