Fear and loathing in Putin’s Russia
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