Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen’s most recent book spans the lifetime of an entire generation, drawing a narrative line from the Soviet Union through modern day Russia.
It is ambitious in scope, with shifting stories weaving together to make a whole picture. Told from a bird’s eye view, it feels like one of Tolstoy’s grand novels, appropriately enough. Only Gessen hasn’t written a novel. Instead, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Riverhead Books)—the winner of the 2017 National Book Award for Nonfiction—is a detailed, meticulously-researched piece of journalism. It guides the reader through the social, economic, historical and psychological forces of totalitarianism in Russia and shows how we got from Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin.
A frequent contributor to the New Yorker, Gessen has written numerous books, including The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Riverhead Books, 2012) and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot (Riverhead Books, 2014).
Her depth of knowledge of 20th- and 21st-century Russia is unmistakable. In this latest effort, she introduces us to seven people who were young at the time of perestroika and builds this account on their personal and professional journeys from the time of Gorbachev to the present day. In doing so, Gessen pulls at all the threads that lead to Putin’s Russia.
When she spoke with the Current recently, she described the conditions that undergird a totalitarian state. “The mechanisms of control in a totalitarian society: isolation, the credible threat of violence that’s omnipresent, but not necessarily applied evenly at different times, unpredictable reward and punishment,” Gessen said. “And having your ability to plan for the future taken away. That was the key concept.”
Masha Gessen will speak at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland on November 5th at 7:30 pm, for the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series.
Totalitarian regimes promise that most of the people will be safe most of the time. Assuming, of course, that those people abide by certain rules and boundaries set up by the regime. But those boundaries and rules shift. There is a constant adjusting and re-adjusting and reading of the tea leaves. Simply put, living under terror and caprice changes people. It fragments them. The learned survival mechanisms do not just simply fade away over time. In this way, totalitarianism changes not just individuals, but entire societies and what the reader starts to understand is the effect of intergenerational trauma.
With unflinching and clear prose, Gessen illuminates some of the quantifiable effects of this particular Soviet/Russian despair when she writes about the detrimental effects on the health of the nation: “What Russians were calling a ‘demographic crisis’ had in fact been going on for decades—birthrates and life expectancy had been falling for most of the second half of the twentieth century. Only two periods stood out as exceptions to this trend: Khrushchev’s Thaw and Gorbachev’s perestroika, the brief spells when Russians anticipated a better future. The rest of the time, it seemed, Russians had been dying for lack of hope.”
It is important to note how both the USSR and modern Russia position themselves in the world, or, as Gessen said, “How Putin personally sees himself in opposition to western values and what he thinks of as western values.”
Putin portrays himself as strong, while he characterizes the west as weak. Putin asserts that he will provide stability to the nation, but he has more than once crashed the markets by saying or doing something reckless or ill-advised. The Russian President’s image is a literal pose; one doesn’t have to do a deep dive into Google to find an overabundance of macho shirtless photos of Putin.
“Putin didn’t set out to build a totalitarian society or to resurrect a totalitarian society,” Gessen explained. “Putin basically wanted to build a mafia state. He would never put it that way. He just wants to hold onto power and be rich. In order for him to hold onto power and, especially after he started cracking down in 2012, all those old adaptation strategies from the Soviet period really kicked in. Basically, the totalitarian society kind of reconstituted itself. Even though Russia doesn’t have a ‘totalitarian’ regime, the lived experience of being there is the lived experience of living in a totalitarian society. So it’s a mafia state presiding over a totalitarian society.”
The book takes its title from the understanding that totalitarian regimes don’t rest on the promise of a glorious future, but rather on the promise of a return to a mythical but glorious past. It is all posture with no political philosophy underneath. Make Russia great again.
Jody DiPerna is a Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer. Contact Jody at firstname.lastname@example.org.