Fear and loathing in Putin’s Rus­sia

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - NEWS - By Mick Brown

One of the fiercest crit­ics of the Rus­sian leader, Masha Gessen, talks US elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence, ho­mo­pho­bia and nu­clear war with Mick Brown

Vladimir Putin has gov­erned Rus­sia for the past 17 years and yet we know so lit­tle about the man said to have helped Pres­i­dent Trump to power. Masha Gessen may be a dis­si­dent jour­nal­ist but she has had pri­vate meet­ings with him and knows his flaws, van­i­ties and the rea­son he now con­sid­ers Trump a ‘dis­ap­point­ing clown’.

IN Septem­ber 2012 Masha Gessen was sit­ting in her Moscow apart­ment when she re­ceived a tele­phone call from a man pur­port­ing to be Vladimir Putin.

Gessen is a jour­nal­ist, author and ac­tivist. Born in Moscow in 1967, she em­i­grated to Amer­ica as a teenager. In 1991, as the Soviet Union was break­ing up, she re­turned to Rus­sia on a mag­a­zine as­sign­ment, re­port­ing on the coun­try ’s fledg­ling women’s move­ment. Over the next three years she would re­turn fre­quently on sto­ries, fi­nally mov­ing back in 1994, and later tak­ing a job as chief cor­re­spon­dent on a news weekly, Itogi.

She be­came a per­sis­tent critic of Putin’s regime, re­sult­ing in her be­ing ha­rassed, threat­ened; hav­ing her phone tapped, her home watched.

In 2012 her bi­og­ra­phy of Putin, The Man Without a Face: The Un­likely Rise of Vladimir Putin, was pub­lished in more than 20 coun­tries, but not Rus­sia. She had be­come the edi­tor of the pop­u­lar-sci­ence and na­ture mag­a­zine Vokrug Sveta, but in Septem­ber of that year was fired for re­fus­ing to send a re­porter to cover a cel­e­bra­tory set-piece story about Putin hang-glid­ing with en­dan­gered Siberian cranes. Vokrug Sveta is af­fil­i­ated to the Rus­sian Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety, whose board of trustees is chaired by Vladimir Putin.

And that’s when the man pur­port­ing to be Putin called.

‘He said, “I’ve heard you got fired and would you come in and talk about it?”’ she re­mem­bers. ‘I was think­ing, I’d bet­ter think of some­thing bril­liant to say be­cause this is go­ing to go on Youtube. It wasn’t bril­liant, but I said, “Sure, I’m will­ing to come and meet and talk, but how do I know you are who you say you are?” He ac­tu­ally cracked up and said, “Af­ter we hang up the deputy head of my ad­min­is­tra­tion is go­ing to call you and sched­ule a meet­ing, and then you’ll see.”’ It re­ally was Putin. A few days later, Gessen bi­cy­cled to the Krem­lin. She was greeted by a woman from the press of­fice, who asked if she knew the way to the in­ner sanc­tum. ‘I said, “No, I’ve been black­listed for the last 12 years.” She said, “That ’s too bad, I was hop­ing you could show me how to get there…”’

Af­ter a wait of two hours she was ush­ered into Putin’s of­fice. Her for­mer pub­lisher was also there.

‘I wasn’t ner­vous,’ Gessen says. ‘I was just ex­cited. It was like hav­ing a char­ac­ter from your own book come to life and call you.’

Putin shook her hand and asked why she had de­clined to send some­one to cover his ex­cur­sion with the Siberian cranes. She ex­plained that while his photo op­por­tu­ni­ties with wild an­i­mals drew at­ten­tion to wor­thy con­ser­va­tion projects, they also caused un­for­tu­nate things to hap­pen to the an­i­mals. In or­der for him to be pho­tographed putting a satel­lite col­lar on a Siberian tiger, the tiger had been bor­rowed from a zoo. And when he put a sim­i­lar col­lar on a po­lar bear, the bear had to be se­dated for some days be­fore Putin turned up. ‘It was as if he didn’t know any of this,’ she says. She ex­plained that she was afraid some­thing was go­ing to hap­pen to one of the birds, and did not want to put a re­porter in the po­si­tion of hav­ing to re­port some­thing her pub­lisher would for­bid her from print­ing.

‘Putin said, “What I want you to know is that I like kit­ties and pup­pies and lit­tle an­i­mals” – mean­ing that he’s se­ri­ous about na­ture con­ser­va­tion.

‘He asked me, “Did you like your job or are you just happy to get some cre­den­tials as an op­po­si­tion jour­nal­ist now you’ve been fired.”

‘I said, “I don’t think I need any more cre­den­tials as an op­po­si­tion jour­nal­ist.” He had no idea what I was talking about.

‘He said, “I don’t un­der­stand why you didn’t

send a re­porter, but I do un­der­stand why the pub­lisher fired you be­cause there should be dis­ci­pline in a mag­a­zine like there is in an army, but I think the pub­lisher over­re­acted.”’

Putin then turned to the pub­lisher – who ‘was just sit­ting there and dy­ing’ – and in­structed him to of­fer Gessen her job back. Gessen po­litely re­fused the of­fer. The meet­ing was over.

Gessen has thought long and hard about what lay be­hind this en­counter. ‘I think he just loved the mag­a­zine,’ she says.

In one sense she was vin­di­cated. She later learnt that two Siberian cranes had died as a re­sult of Putin’s stunt. But the most bizarre as­pect of this en­counter was that Putin, it was clear, had no idea about Gessen’s hos­tile bi­og­ra­phy, or her long his­tory of antagonism to­wards his regime. Nor had he been briefed that she was an Amer­i­can ci­ti­zen. ‘I know this be­cause our meet­ing took place on Septem­ber 11 and he made no men­tion of it, and I as­sure you that if he had known he would have done, be­cause it’s very im­por­tant for him to show what he knows. The whole story is just a saga of mind-bog­gling in­com­pe­tence.’

Gessen, 50, now lives in New York, where we meet in a Wall Street ho­tel. She has a boy­ish as­pect, with a finely chis­elled face, neatly cut black hair, a sports jacket, jeans and horn-rimmed glasses. She talks in a soft, clipped ac­cent, with the di­dac­tic brisk­ness of a pro­fes­sor. As well as be­ing a jour­nal­ist and author, she teaches po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Amherst Col­lege in Mas­sachusetts.

Gessen has writ­ten a new book, The Fu­ture Is His­tor y: How To­tal­i­tar ian­ism Re­claimed Rus­sia, which she de­scribes as both pre­quel and se­quel to her bi­og­ra­phy of Putin. It ex­am­ines how, of­fered a glimpse of lib­eral democ­racy in the years fol­low­ing per­e­stroika and glas­nost, Rus­sia, un­der Putin’s rule, has in­stead re­verted to what Gessen de­scribes as ‘a Mafia-state regime built on the ru­ins of a to­tal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety’.

This process, she be­lieves, has ac­cel­er­ated in the past five years, since Putin was elected pres­i­dent for the third time.

His regime, she says, has no ob­jec­tive but to ‘plun­der and stay in power’ – an ob­jec­tive that is helped by a largely ac­qui­es­cent so­ci­ety con­di­tioned by years of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism.

‘There’s a na­tional-char­ac­ter ar­gu­ment, which sug­gests there is some­thing es­sen­tial, per­haps some­thing ge­netic, that makes Rus­sians want to be en­slaved, but I re­coil from that,’ Gessen says. ‘I think it’s largely a story of trauma. You can put it very sim­ply that you can’t ex­pect a per­son who has just left an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship to be ca­pable and will­ing and de­sir­ing of nor­mal re­la­tion­ships. We know that kind of per­son needs a lot of help and a lot of in­ter­ven­tion, and very likely won’t suc­ceed. We don’t have that at­ti­tude to­wards coun­tries, but I think that is what has hap­pened with Rus­sia.’

Gessen cites the Ger­man so­cial psy­chol­o­gist Erich Fromm, who the­o­rised that cer­tain times and con­di­tions in hu­man de­vel­op­ment have cre­ated in­tol­er­a­ble psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tions for a crit­i­cal mass of peo­ple, pre­sent­ing them with a choice of whether to seize the pos­si­bil­ity of per­sonal free­dom or re­treat from it.

Fromm ap­plied his the­ory to the un­cer­tain­ties of Ger­many in the 1920s and ’30s, which gave rise to Hitler, a leader to whom the Ger­man peo­ple will­ingly gave up in­di­vid­ual agency. ‘And I think some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pened in Rus­sia in the 1990s,’ Gessen says. In the new book, she tells the story through the lives of four peo­ple in their 30s, from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and cities in Rus­sia, who grew up in

Putin’s regime has just one ob­jec­tive: to plun­der and to stay in power

the era of re­forms, and whose lives il­lus­trate the trans­for­ma­tion of Rus­sian so­ci­ety in the years since Putin’s re-elec­tion to the pres­i­dency in 2012.

Zhanna is the daugh­ter of Boris Nemtsov, the op­po­si­tion leader who was gunned down in Moscow in 2015. She be­came a go-get­ter in the fi­nan­cial world be­fore work­ing in tele­vi­sion.

Her sec­ond sub­ject, also called Masha, is the grand­daugh­ter of a rocket sci­en­tist, who went on to be­come a jour­nal­ist and a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist.

Sery­ozha is the grand son of Alexander Niko­lae­vich Yakovlev, the Soviet politi­cian who was con­sid­ered to be the in­tel­lec­tual force be­hind Mikhail Gor­bachev’s re­form pro­gramme and is some­times called the ‘god­fa­ther of glas­nost’.

Lyosha is the son of a school­teacher from the pro­vin­cial town of So­likamsk, who be­came a lec­turer and gay ac­tivist.

‘I wanted them to be chil­dren of the 1980s, be­cause I had the hy­poth­e­sis that be­ing shaped by the events of the ’90s was a very im­por­tant part of the story,’ Gessen says. ‘I needed them to be from dif­fer­ent so­cio-eco­nomic strata, to il­lu­mi­nate how strat­i­fied Soviet so­ci­ety was – which I think is some­thing peo­ple in the West don’t gen­er­ally ap­pre­ci­ate. And I needed their lives to have changed dras­ti­cally as a re­sult of the crack­downs of the last five years, be­cause I wanted to be able to con­vey the hu­man cost of that.’

The re­main­ing cri­te­rion, she says, was that they be pre­pared to talk ‘for hours and hours and hours’, about every as­pect of their lives, from what they watched on tele­vi­sion when they were six years old to their sex­ual ad­ven­tures.

The re­sult is a bril­liant study of a so­ci­ety in flux, re­plete with en­gross­ing de­tail about the facts of ev­ery­day Rus­sian life, from the ar­rival in 1990 of ‘legs of Bush’, the parts of the chicken Amer­i­cans didn’t like, which were shipped to Rus­sia un­der loans agreed by Ge­orge H Bush, to the rise of a ‘Wild West’ econ­omy that saw the pro­lif­er­a­tion of pyra­mid schemes and scams, and the en­rich­ment of a new class of oli­garch and en­tre­pre­neur.

The Fu­ture is His­tory is as much a psy­cho­log­i­cal study as a po­lit­i­cal or cul­tural one.

Soviet Rus­sia, Gessen writes, was a so­ci­ety for­bid­den from know­ing it­self. So­ci­ol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy had no place. The to­tal­i­tar­ian rule of com­mu­nism was pre­sented as an in­evitable ‘law of his­tory’.

With per­e­stroika came the pos­si­bil­ity of self­ex­am­i­na­tion, not least in the per­son of the so­ci­ol­o­gist Yuri Le­vada, who in 1987 helped found the first in­de­pen­dent polling and pub­lic-opinion com­pany in Rus­sia. Le­vada the­o­rised that every to­tal­i­tar­ian regime forms a type of hu­man be­ing on whom it re­lies for its sta­bil­ity. In the case of the Soviet Union this was Homo so­vi­eti­cus, whom it bred over decades by re­ward­ing con­form­ity and sub­servience. Homo so­vi­eti­cus’s sole aim was sur­vival, his strat­egy con­stant ne­go­ti­a­tion with the de­mands of the state.

Le­vada hy­poth­e­sised that Homo so­vi­eti­cus, forged in the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion, and the ‘Great Ter­ror ’ of Stalin, would fade away, and as that gen­er­a­tion died, the Soviet ide­ol­ogy would die with it. But in 1999, the year Putin be­came prime min­is­ter of Rus­sia, a sur­vey by Le­vada’s team showed a strong sense of nos­tal­gia for the dis­tant past, with a grow­ing num­ber be­liev­ing that Stalin’s rule had been good for the coun­try, and ex­press­ing dif­fi­culty in ac­cus­tom­ing them­selves to the changes brought about by democrati­sa­tion.

Homo so­vi­eti­cus lived on. But the Le­vada Cen­ter may not. In Septem­ber of last year, af­ter it pub­lished the re­sults of a poll that had found a sig­nif­i­cant de­cline in sup­port for the rul­ing United Rus­sia party, the Min­istry of Jus­tice de­clared that the or­gan­i­sa­tion was ‘per­form­ing the func­tions of a for­eign agent’ – a des­ig­na­tion, Gessen says, that with its con­no­ta­tions of ‘spy’ or ‘sabo­teur ’ has made its work all but im­pos­si­ble.

‘ Their out­put is less and less. The state is clearly in­tent on shut­ting them down or starv­ing them to death.’

I last met Gessen in Moscow in Jan­uary 2012. It was a pe­riod when Rus­sia had been gal­vanised by mass protests against the Putin regime. Tens of thou­sands had taken to the streets of the cap­i­tal and cities across the coun­try in the big­gest antigov­ern­ment ral­lies since the fall of the Soviet Union. Gessen de­scribed the demon­stra­tions as the har­bin­ger of ‘a rev­o­lu­tion’, and ‘the be­gin­ning of the end for Putin’ – an end she thought was likely to come in ‘a mat­ter of months rather than years’.

Two months later, Putin was re-elected as pres­i­dent, and be­gan crack­ing down in earnest on any form of dis­sent and tight­en­ing his grip on power.

In May of the same year, thou­sands took part in a protest in Moscow against his re-elec­tion. More than 25 peo­ple – in­clud­ing Masha, one of the sub­jects of Gessen’s book – faced charges of al­leged riot and vi­o­lence against the po­lice, in what be­came a land­mark case, draw­ing wide­spread in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. Many of those ar­rested were kept on re­mand, sev­eral un­der house ar­rest. One es­caped abroad, while oth­ers who had not been of­fi­cially ac­cused left the coun­try and were granted asy­lum in Spain, Swe­den, Lithua­nia, Es­to­nia and Ger­many.

Gessen says the case was sig­nif­i­cant for an­other rea­son, as an illustration of how so­cial con­trol now works in Rus­sia.

‘None of these peo­ple were prom­i­nent or­gan­is­ers… They were es­sen­tially rankand-file pro­test­ers cho­sen at ran­dom. And that sends out the mes­sage that protest it­self, just go­ing to a march, is ex­tremely dan­ger­ous. You stand to lose ev­ery­thing if you go to a protest in Rus­sia.’

Such ‘se­lec­tive en­force­ment ’, Gessen says, is a more ef­fi­cient in­stru­ment of con­trol than the mass ter­ror of the Stalin era, in which hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple seen as en­e­mies of the state were ‘dis­ap­peared’. It taps into the fear car­ried over, or in­her­ited, from the era of state ter­ror.

But protest is not com­pletely dead. In June, on Rus­sia Day – the na­tional hol­i­day of the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion – a protest was or­gan­ised by the op­po­si­tion politi­cian Alexei Navalny. What was ‘fas­ci­nat­ing and dis­turb­ing’, Gessen says, was the high pro­por­tion of teenagers tak­ing part – an in­di­ca­tion, she be­lieves, of an older gen­er­a­tion of pro­test­ers hav­ing lost heart. ‘A lot of the peo­ple now in their early 30s have al­ready writ­ten them­selves off and given up on cre­at­ing change in their coun­try. They’ve gone back to their reg­u­lar lives, and they now talk about the next gen­er­a­tion as be­ing there to save Rus­sia, and they hope the teenagers are go­ing to do it. So now it ’s a gen­er­a­tional in­fla­tion, and I don’t know what’s next – the five-year-olds are go­ing to do it?’ What she is de­scrib­ing, I say, is de­featism. ‘Yes, I am. And I think that’s how ter­ror works.’ A key part of Putin’s tac­tic of con­trol has been a reimag­in­ing of Rus­sia’s glo­ri­ous past, a harken­ing to faith and tra­di­tional val­ues, in which the West is de­picted as deca­dent and Rus­sia the de­fender of moral pu­rity. His cam­paign for ‘tra­di­tional val­ues’ has found a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus in le­git­imis­ing ho­mo­pho­bia, cre­at­ing a cli­mate, Gessen says, in which gay peo­ple be­come syn­ony­mous in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion with pae­dophiles, and char­ac­terised as trou­ble­mak­ers. ‘ It works as a kind of se­man­tic short­hand – call

Gessen com­pares the Rus­sian peo­ple to a woman in an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship

pro­test­ers “queer ” and you im­me­di­ately mark them as Western, as “other”.

‘In this urge to go to an imag­i­nary past, the pro­tec­tion of chil­dren is some­thing that al­ways finds trac­tion. If you… read Nazi pro­pa­ganda, Jews were de­picted as a dan­ger to Aryan chil­dren. So gays are por­trayed in Rus­sia as en­dan­ger­ing chil­dren.’

The in­cite­ment to ho­mo­pho­bia has par­tic­u­larly per­sonal res­o­nance for Gessen, who is her­self gay. Nei­ther same-sex mar­riages nor civil unions of same-sex cou­ples are al­lowed in Rus­sia. In June 2013 Putin signed into law a ban on ‘ho­mo­sex­ual pro­pa­ganda’. At the same time a law ban­ning adop­tion of Rus­sian chil­dren into same-sex house­holds in other coun­tries passed through par­lia­ment.

Gessen and her part­ner, Darya, a car­tog­ra­pher, have three chil­dren: a son who was adopted as a baby, a bi­o­log­i­cal daugh­ter born to Gessen, and a bi­o­log­i­cal son born to Darya. Prior to the pas­sage of the sec­ond law, Gessen and her fam­ily had been sin­gled out in an ar­ti­cle in Kom­so­mol­skaya Pravda, Rus­sia’s most read news­pa­per, as an ex­am­ple of the un­ac­cept­abil­ity of chil­dren be­ing adopted into same-sex house­holds.

So­cial ser­vices in Rus­sia have vir­tu­ally an ab­so­lute power to re­move chil­dren from a fam­ily if they be­lieve it is detri­men­tal to their wel­fare to con­tinue to live there. ‘I could see the writ­ing on the wall.’ Within five days of the pas­sage of the law, Gessen’s 16-year-old son was on a plane to Amer­ica. Gessen, Darya and their other two chil­dren fol­lowed shortly af­ter­wards.

By co­in­ci­dence, at ex­actly the same time Rus­sia was pass­ing laws puni­tive to gay peo­ple, the Supreme Court in the US struck down key parts of the De­fense of Mar­riage Act, forc­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to recog­nise same-sex mar­riage in those states where it was le­gal, which meant that af­ter Gessen and her part­ner were mar­ried Darya was able to ob­tain a green card.

There is ‘great irony’, she says, in the fact that her fam­ily found sanc­tu­ary in Amer­ica, where the new ad­min­is­tra­tion is ‘vir­u­lently anti-im­mi­grant, and pretty ma­lig­nantly anti-queer’.

Gessen draws strong par­al­lels between Putin and Trump, both of whom she be­lieves are driven by ‘op­por­tunism and in­stinct’. Putin, she says, is ‘an id­iot. He is an un­e­d­u­cated, un­cu­ri­ous man who has par­tic­u­lar in­stincts in terms of hold­ing on to power, and is a tal­ented ma­nip­u­la­tor. But that doesn’t make him have even av­er­age in­tel­li­gence. I think the same is true of Trump. They’re re­ally dumb, both of them.

‘I think Trump gen­uinely adores Putin. [The his­to­rian] Ti­mothy Sny­der put it best, be­fore Trump was elected, when he said Putin is the dic­ta­tor Trump plays on TV… When Trump talks about Putin he ex­presses ad­mi­ra­tion for con­trol­ling the pop­u­la­tion and hav­ing sky­high pop­u­lar­ity rat­ings. I think he re­ally be­lieves that is what po­lit­i­cal power is – it’s raw power. He is very much an as­pir­ing au­to­crat be­cause he thinks that’s strength.

‘Putin, on the other hand, thinks that Trump is a clown. And I think at this point a pretty dis­ap­point­ing clown. I think Trump’s in­ept­ness is wear­ing on the Krem­lin, be­cause it has led to a de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of Rus­sian-amer­i­can re­la­tions that is not par­tic­u­larly in Rus­sia’s in­ter­est. Putin would like Trump to be more pre­dictable, and more mal­leable.’

And what of the US elec­tion? Gessen is scep­ti­cal about whether the in­ves­ti­ga­tion by spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller will find any con­crete ev­i­dence of out­right col­lu­sion between Trump and Rus­sia.

‘I have been very crit­i­cal of the con­spir­acy-mon­ger­ing that has gath­ered around it, be­cause I think it’s dan­ger­ous to the po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. Amer­i­cans have elected a con­spir­acist so the equal and oppo-

site re­ac­tion to him is to en­gage in our own con­spir­acy the­o­ries, which keeps us from en­gag­ing in the real­ity of the dam­age he’s do­ing out in the open.

‘I don’t have a lot of con­fi­dence that in­ves­ti­ga­tion is go­ing to pro­duce a co­her­ent pic­ture, in large part be­cause I know what a mess Rus­sia is, and I’ve also ob­served that Trump can’t hold a thought for more than 30 sec­onds, so how could he pos­si­bly have main­tained the on­go­ing se­cret re­la­tion­ship nec­es­sary for that type of col­lu­sion?’

More likely, she be­lieves, is that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion will pro­duce ev­i­dence of cor­rup­tion, and ‘a lot of loose ends and un­savoury con­tacts, but not the thing that peo­ple are dream­ing of that will just mag­i­cally end our na­tional night­mare.’

She cites as an ex­am­ple the re­cent rev­e­la­tion by Face­book that a shad­owy Rus­sian com­pany linked to the Krem­lin spent $100,000 on ad­ver­tis­ing to in­flu­ence the out­come of the elec­tion.

‘A lot of Amer­i­cans saw that news item and thought, “Aha, the Rus­sians have been caught red­handed!”’ Gessen says. ‘My first re­ac­tion was, that’s a 90-per-cent kick­back: $100,000 worth of ad­ver­tis­ing? That’s noth­ing. Some­body got a mil­lion dol­lars from the Krem­lin to place the ad­ver­tis­ing, kept $900,000, and then re­ported back that they’d had this huge in­flu­ence… These guys are all crooks who deal in smoke and mir­rors.’

The great­est threat in Putin and Trump’s re­la­tion­ship, she be­lieves, is the ul­ti­mate threat to the world, of nu­clear holo­caust. The prin­ci­ple of mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion, which kept the world (rel­a­tively) safe through the cold war, is no safe­guard when it comes to Putin and Trump. ‘MAD works on rea­son­able peo­ple, and I’m not con­vinced they’re rea­son­able peo­ple. They have no con­cept of the fu­ture, and I think both have an ex­ag­ger­ated enough sense of their own abil­ity to be con­vinced they’d sur­vive.’

To write the new book, Gessen re­turned to Rus­sia to in­ter­view its prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters, although she de­clines to give de­tails of how or when. Of her four sub­jects, Zhanna now lives in Bonn, where she is a tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist; Lyosha lives in New York and works for an Aids char­ity; Masha con­tin­ues to live in Moscow; Gessen as­sumes Sery­ozha is still in Rus­sia, but he has not re­sponded to her mes­sages or phone calls in two years.

Gessen says she is pes­simistic about Rus­sia’s fu­ture. ‘I think you can tell that from the ti­tle of the book. But Pu­tin­ism is go­ing to end at s ome p oint,’ she go e s on, ‘ just be­cause ev­ery­thing does.’

Rus­sia is still an em­pire, she says, but it is a smaller em­pire than it once was, with grow­ing ten­sions within. Not only has Putin ‘plun­dered the coun­try ’, but his stri­dent na­tion­al­ism and xeno­pho­bia, and align­ment with the Rus­sian Or­tho­dox church, have alien­ated mi­nori­ties per­ceived as ‘non­white’ and ‘non-chris­tian’ – ‘non-rus­sian Or­tho­dox even’ – giv­ing rise to nascent na­tion­al­ist move­ments at the em­pire’s fur­thest flung cor­ners. ‘Even places like Bashko­r­tostan [a Rus­sian repub­lic in the Urals with a pop­u­la­tion of just four mil­lion] have a cred­i­ble na­tion­al­ist move­ment now.’

Pu­tin­ism will end. ‘And then I think there will be a pe­riod of dis­ar­ray, be­cause Putin thinks he will live for­ever so there won’t be a suc­ces­sion plan. And that, I think, will lead the em­pire to fi­nally start fall­ing apart.’

She only hopes, she says, that we all live to see it hap­pen.

The Fu­ture is His­tory, by Masha Gessen (Granta, £20), is out now. To or­der your copy for £16.99 plus p&p call 0844-871 1514 or visit books.tele­graph.co.uk

‘Putin thinks Trump is a clown. And I think at this point a pretty dis­ap­point­ing clown’

From top Vladimir Putin tags a Siberian tiger in 2008; Gessen (in white) protests anti-gay laws in Moscow, 2013

Top Op­po­si­tion leader Boris Nemtsov was shot in 2015. Above His daugh­ter, Zhanna, and her mother at his fu­neral

Top Putin with Trump at a G20 sum­mit in Ham­burg in July. Above Anti-putin protests in Moscow, May 2012

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