BOOKS: Masha Gessen’s The Fu­ture Is His­tory. Matthew Weiner’s Heather, the To­tal­ity. Roz Chast’s Go­ing into Town.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents|The Week -

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 mid1980s, 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 ex­tremeright 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 onetwo punch of the Revo­lu­tion and the Great Ter­ror”, is a “dy­ing breed”. It seemed the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of this dou­ble­think­ing 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

Granta, 528pp, $49.99

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