Robert Cottrell

The Fu­ture Is History: How To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism Re­claimed Rus­sia by Masha Gessen

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Robert Cottrell

The Fu­ture Is History: How To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism Re­claimed Rus­sia by Masha Gessen. River­head, 515 pp., $28.00

Early in Vladimir Putin’s first pres­i­dency I spoke to a Moscow banker, with rea­son to care on this point, who said he de­tected no trace of an­tiSemitism in Putin per­son­ally, but that Putin would en­cour­age pop­u­lar an­tiSemitism in a sec­ond if he thought that do­ing so would serve his in­ter­ests. So far, Putin has not felt the need to de­mo­nize Rus­sia’s Jews. He has in­stead iden­ti­fied the en­emy within as Rus­sia’s ho­mo­sex­u­als, whose per­se­cu­tion is one of the main themes of The Fu­ture Is History, Masha Gessen’s re­mark­able group por­trait of seven Soviet-born Rus­sians whose chang­ing lives em­body the chang­ing for­tunes and char­ac­ter of their coun­try as it passed from the end of Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ship under Mikhail Gor­bachev to im­pro­vised lib­er­al­ism under Boris Yeltsin and then back to what Gessen sees as re­newed to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism under Putin.

Two of Gessen’s cen­tral char­ac­ters, Masha* and Lyosha, were born into the ed­u­cated mid­dle class of the 1980s. Two more char­ac­ters of the same gen­er­a­tion have lives touched by great priv­i­lege: Sery­ozha is the grand­son of Alexan­der Yakovlev, who was Gor­bachev’s close ad­viser and a long­time mem­ber of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee; Zhanna is the daugh­ter of Boris Nemtsov, a min­is­ter under Yeltsin and a dis­si­dent mur­dered under Putin. All four are en­coun­tered first in childhood and re­ferred to through­out by their childhood names. Three char­ac­ters ap­pear first as adults, with pri­vate and pub­lic lives. Alexan­der Du­gin is a philoso­pher who de­vel­ops an ide­ol­ogy of Rus­sian ex­cep­tion­al­ism that wins him fame and fa­vor under Putin. Lev Gud­kov is a so­ci­ol­o­gist who seeks to model the emerg­ing new Rus­sia. Ma­rina Aru­tyun­yan is a psy­chol­o­gist who reestab­lishes the prac­tice of psy­cho­anal­y­sis in Rus­sia after its dis­ap­pear­ance under com­mu­nism.

Gessen’s deft blend­ing of these sto­ries gives us a fresh view of re­cent Rus­sian history from within, as it was ex­pe­ri­enced at the time by its peo­ple. It is a wel­come per­spec­tive. In tur­bu­lent pe­ri­ods, any­thing seems pos­si­ble. Only with hind­sight does causal­ity creep in, and with it the il­lu­sion of in­evitabil­ity. The in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties of the mo­ment are lost. Through the eyes of her char­ac­ters, Gessen man­ages to re­store those pos­si­bil­i­ties, to con­vey how it felt to imag­ine that life in the new Rus­sia could go in any di­rec­tion.

The ten­sion be­tween ex­pe­ri­ence and hind­sight is there within Gessen’s writ­ing. She al­ter­nately zooms in on the lives of her char­ac­ters and zooms out to give more gen­eral ac­counts of the ma­jor events of the time—the putsch against Gor­bachev in 1991, Yeltsin’s shelling of the Rus­sian White House in 1993, *Masha is Maria Niko­layevna Baronova, later a jour­nal­ist and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, not Masha Gessen. the re­elec­tion of Yeltsin as pres­i­dent in 1996, the han­dover of power to Putin in 2000, and so on. How fa­mil­iar these events ap­pear when Gessen ar­ranges them in their his­tor­i­cal order, and how un­fa­mil­iar they ap­pear when we see them as frag­ments of ex­pe­ri­ence. On one side is the his­to­rian ex­plain­ing the rise of Putin as a log­i­cal re­ac­tion to the fail­ings of Yeltsin. On the other is Masha’s mother, won­der­ing how on earth that dull man she met while sell­ing in­sur­ance in St. Peters­burg a few years back is now the prime min­is­ter.

Gessen was born in Moscow, em­i­grated to Amer­ica with her fam­ily as a teenager in 1981, and re­turned to Rus­sia ten years later to pur­sue a dis­tin­guished ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist and LGBT ac­tivist. She came back to Amer­ica in 2013, fear­ing that if she stayed in Rus­sia, of­fi­cial hos­til­ity to­ward ho­mo­sex­u­als could re­sult in her chil­dren be­ing seized by the state. Rus­sia’s per­se­cu­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­als is the strand of Gessen’s book that shows Putin at his cru­elest. She ar­ranges this nar­ra­tive around Lyosha, who was born near Perm in 1985, and who was fif­teen, on holiday in Crimea, when he rec­og­nized him­self as gay:

When he saw other boys, teenagers like him­self or young men, dressed, like he was, in only a pair of small black bathing trunks, he felt heat shoot ex­cru­ci­at­ingly through his body and a thrilling in­vis­i­ble shiver set in. It hap­pened ev­ery day after that first time . . . . I am a per­vert, he thought. I am sick. I am the only per­son in the world who feels this way.

The early post-Soviet pe­riod was not the very worst of times to be gay in Rus­sia. Be­tween 1989 and 1994, ac­cord­ing to sur­veys con­ducted by the Rus­sian so­ci­ol­o­gist Yuri Le­vada, sup­port for “liq­ui­dat­ing de­viants” fell from 31 per­cent to 23 per­cent. It fell again to 15 per­cent in 1999, shortly be­fore Lyosha had his re­al­iza­tion. Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was no longer il­le­gal. Teach­ers and doc­tors could talk about it if they wanted to. Lyosha did not much want to talk, but after a hor­ri­ble beat­ing from a lo­cal thug who was tipped off by a sus­pi­cious class­mate, he opened up to a school coun­selor and dis­cov­ered the lib­er­at­ing power of a sym­pa­thetic ear. He re­turned en­er­gized to his stud­ies, grad­u­ated with dis­tinc­tion, and came out.

Lyosha built an aca­demic ca­reer as a pioneer of gen­der and LGBT stud­ies at Perm Univer­sity, but when gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned hate cam­paigns made his work im­pos­si­ble and put his life in dan­ger, he left the coun­try. The sadis­tic mur­der in 2013 of a young gay man in Vol­gograd made a deep im­pres­sion on him, and Gessen’s ac­count of it will make a deep im­pres­sion on you too. Whatever Putin’s legacy, it in­cludes—among other re­sults of his state-ap­proved ho­mo­pho­bia—three bloody beer bot­tles and one dead boy. De­mo­niz­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is, most ob­vi­ously, a way for Putin to as­sert Rus­sia’s su­pe­ri­or­ity over the West. The West’s ac­cep­tance of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is given as proof of its moral and so­cial collapse. Putin also sees, cor­rectly, that the equal­ity of all sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions is widely pro­claimed in the West but not uni­formly ac­cepted, al­low­ing Rus­sia to pose as a bea­con of hope for West­ern re­ac­tionar­ies. To make ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity seem truly evil even to Rus­sians who had ceased to think of it as such, Putin con­flated it with pe­dophilia. If, in the age-old anti-Semitic nar­ra­tive, “they” were con­spir­ing to steal the na­tion’s money, in Putin’s anti-gay nar­ra­tive “they” are con­spir­ing to steal the na­tion’s chil­dren.

As Gessen re­counts, Putin en­coun­tered few ob­sta­cles in sell­ing this no­tion to the pub­lic. Politi­cians com­peted to imag­ine new crimes with which LGBT peo­ple could be charged and new pun­ish­ments for them. Even to con­test the con­fla­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity with pe­dophilia marked the ob­jec­tor as a friend of the pe­dophile con­spir­acy. The crude­ness and vi­cious­ness of views ex­pressed in par­lia­ment and the me­dia verged on the me­dieval. Ac­cord­ing to Dmitry Kise­lev, a host on state-owned tele­vi­sion: “If [gays] should die in a car ac­ci­dent, we need to bury their hearts un­der­ground or burn them; they are un­suit­able for the aid­ing of any­one’s life.” I sup­pose it is worth point­ing out that just as my banker friend did not think Putin to be per­son­ally anti-Semitic, so I doubt that Putin hungers to mur­der ho­mo­sex­u­als with his own bare hands. He might even en­joy the com­pany of a gay grand­son. When Oliver Stone asked him a question about gay rights in a re­cent se­ries of in­ter­views, Putin re­sponded much as a mid­dle-aged West­ern male might have re­sponded forty years ago, joc­u­larly and gin­gerly:

Putin: Some­times I visit events where peo­ple pub­licly de­clare that they’re ho­mo­sex­u­als, these events are at­tended by such peo­ple and we com­mu­ni­cate and have good re­la­tions.

Stone: Is that true in the mil­i­tary as well?

Putin: There’s no re­stric­tion.

Stone: No re­stric­tion in the mil­i­tary? I mean, if you’re tak­ing a shower in a sub­ma­rine and you know he’s gay, do they have a prob­lem with that?

Putin:[laughs] Well, I pre­fer not to go to the shower with him. Why pro­voke him?

At such mo­ments, think­ing of a young man on a park bench in Vol­gograd with three beer bot­tles up his rec­tum, you have to won­der about the mix­ture in Putin’s char­ac­ter of the stupid, the bril­liant, the evil, and the naive.

While Lyosha very wisely gets out of Rus­sia, Sery­ozha gets by there, Zhanna gets on, and Masha gets in­volved with the 2011 protest move­ment or­ga­nized by Boris Nemtsov—Zhanna’s fa­ther—and by Alexei Navalny, a younger dis­si­dent. It is an un­easy al­liance. Navalny is a na­tion­al­ist, whereas Nemtsov is the last and best sur­vivor of Yeltsin-era lib­er­al­ism, per­haps the

last true lib­eral to have held any mean­ing­ful po­lit­i­cal power in Rus­sia. When Nemtsov is mur­dered within sight of the Krem­lin in 2015, ap­par­ently for his op­po­si­tion to Rus­sia’s war in Ukraine, Zhanna blames the killing squarely on Putin. Oth­ers re­port that Putin is both sur­prised and an­gered by Nemtsov’s mur­der, less be­cause he has any af­fec­tion for Nemtsov than be­cause a high­pro­file as­sas­si­na­tion in the cen­ter of Moscow is a di­rect chal­lenge to his own mo­nop­oly on vi­o­lence.

The out­lier among Gessen’s seven is Alexan­der Du­gin, the only one to fa­vor re­pres­sion, to re­ject free­dom, to want more and bet­ter Pu­tin­ism. He is too big and too strange to fit eas­ily into the story, and in­stead haunts its mar­gins. Du­gin has al­ways seemed to me a bo­gus thinker, a fan­ta­sist, an op­por­tunist. But oth­ers take him se­ri­ously, and he emerges from Gessen’s ac­count as a prodi­gious con­sumer and ma­nip­u­la­tor of phi­los­o­phy and po­lit­i­cal sci­ence. Du­gin was ex­pelled from col­lege and has been deeply in­flu­enced by Hei­deg­ger and Hitler. He’s al­legedly ca­pa­ble of learn­ing a new Euro­pean lan­guage in two weeks merely from read­ing books in that lan­guage. He ap­pro­pri­ates the ar­gu­ments of the Rus­sian Eurasian­ists, in­clud­ing the émi­gré lin­guist Niko­lai Tru­bet­skoy and the Soviet ethno­g­ra­pher Lev Gu­milev, to the ef­fect that Rus­sia’s ge­o­graph­i­cal sprawl be­tween Europe and Asia gives the na­tion a unique, non-West­ern char­ac­ter. Rus­sia is not a coun­try, but a civ­i­liza­tion. The Rus­sian iden­tity belongs not to the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion but to the “Rus­sian World,” and the West is the nat­u­ral en­emy of the Rus­sian World. Du­gin had his wilder­ness years in the 1990s, but with the ar­rival of Putin his in­flu­ence rock­eted. His Eurasian Youth Union marched through Moscow. He was given a teach­ing job at Moscow State Univer­sity. When, after Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, Putin re­ferred on tele­vi­sion to “a Rus­sian per­son, or, to speak more broadly, a per­son of the Rus­sian World,” Du­gin’s hap­pi­ness was com­plete. He was putting words into Putin’s mouth that ar­tic­u­lated in a suit­ably lofty man­ner their com­mon vi­sion of eth­nic, cul­tural, and re­li­gious Rus­sian supremacy. Du­gin wants his Rus­sian World to be to­tal­i­tar­ian, which is to say, a world in which the state po­lices ev­ery­body’s thoughts as well as ev­ery­body’s ac­tions. He op­poses univer­sal hu­man rights and the rule of law as alien ideas from the hos­tile West. Gessen claims in her ti­tle that Rus­sia is al­ready to­tal­i­tar­ian. I imag­ine that Du­gin would disagree. And from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, so would I. Take, for ex­am­ple, Gessen’s ac­count of a mo­ment after Masha has been ar­rested as a po­lit­i­cal pro­tester in 2012. Under pro­longed po­lice investigation, she goes to stay in her mother-in-law’s dacha out­side Moscow. The neigh­bor­ing dacha belongs to a se­nior po­lice of­fi­cer called Natalia. The two fall into con­ver­sa­tion:

“Hey, you are part of the Bolot­noye case, aren’t you,” she asked when they were hav­ing a cig­a­rette Masha’s first night at the dacha. It was cool and quiet and you could see the stars.

“Yeah,” said Masha.

“Who is your in­ves­ti­ga­tor?” “Grachev.” “Ah, Timokha!” Natalia’s voice sang with the joy of recog­ni­tion. “He is one of mine. I had to send three peo­ple. It’s a big case. He do­ing his job?”

“Oh, he is do­ing his job, all right.”

“Good. Say hi to him there.”

That is not my idea of how life pro­ceeds in a to­tal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety. I sense in this brief ex­change hu­man­ity and sin­cer­ity on both sides. I do not want to gen­er­al­ize too much from this. Many hor­ri­ble things hap­pen in Rus­sian po­lice sta­tions. But to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism ought surely to be to­tal, if only among the po­lice. The idea of cat­e­go­riz­ing dic­ta­tor­ships as ei­ther au­thor­i­tar­ian or to­tal­i­tar­ian is a twen­ti­eth-cen­tury one. To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism took as its ex­am­ples Nazi Ger­many and Stal­in­ist Rus­sia. The dis­tinc­tion was of practical sig­nif­i­cance dur­ing the cold war, when there was a po­lit­i­cal need in the West to dis­tin­guish be­tween cruel regimes that the US sup­ported (Pinochet’s Chile, the Shah’s Iran) and cruel regimes that the US op­posed (China, the USSR). The for­mer were deemed au­thor­i­tar­ian, the lat­ter to­tal­i­tar­ian. To­tal­i­tar­ian regimes were be­yond hope of im­prove­ment; au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes were not. If we ac­cept the dis­tinc­tion be­tween an au­thor­i­tar­ian de­sire to control be­hav­ior and a to­tal­i­tar­ian de­sire to control thought, then, as Gessen shows, Rus­sia crossed that line some time ago under Putin. But what if you set Rus­sia along­side North Korea? Putin wants all Rus­sians to think like him, whereas Kim Jong-un would rather his sub­jects not think at all. That is not a very en­cour­ag­ing dis­tinc­tion, but at the darker end of gov­ern­ment, it is surely one worth main­tain­ing.

One prob­lem with try­ing to un­der­stand to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism is that, to the ex­tent it suc­ceeds, it is im­pen­e­tra­ble to out­siders. Ev­ery­thing that is said and thought is the prod­uct of pro­pa­ganda. Lev Gud­kov, the so­ci­ol­o­gist in Gessen’s book, has a lu­cid ac­count of this prob­lem that mer­its quot­ing at some length, in Gessen’s para­phrase:

Look­ing from the out­side in, one can­not see, for ex­am­ple, whether peo­ple at­tend a pa­rade be­cause they are forced to do so or be­cause they so de­sire. Re­searchers gen­er­ally as­sumed one or the other: ei­ther that peo­ple were pas­sive vic­tims or that they were fer­vent believ­ers. But on the in­side, both as­sump­tions were wrong, for all the peo­ple at the pa­rade . . . and for each one of them in­di­vid­u­ally. They did not feel like help­less vic­tims, but they did not feel like fa­nat­ics ei­ther. They felt nor­mal. They were mem­bers of a so­ci­ety. The pa­rades and var­i­ous other forms of col­lec­tive life gave them a sense of be­long­ing that hu­mans gen­er­ally need . . . . They would not be ly­ing if they said that they wanted to be part of the pa­rade, or the col­lec­tive in gen­eral— and that if they ex­erted pres­sure on oth­ers to be a part of a col­lec­tive too, they did so will­ingly.

An­other prob­lem with try­ing to ar­rive at an ac­count of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism—at least from a West­ern point of view—is that to­tal­i­tar­ian so­ci­eties are by def­i­ni­tion the en­emy, so we are not

ter­ri­bly in­ter­ested in what their bet­ter points might be. “After the fall of the Soviet Union made it eas­ier to study the coun­try that had been,” Gessen writes, re­fer­ring to the work of Sheila Fitz­patrick and oth­ers, “academics be­gan not­ing how much richer pri­vate life had been in the USSR than they had once thought, how in­con­sis­tent and how widely dis­re­garded the ide­ol­ogy, and how com­par­a­tively mild po­lice en­force­ment be­came after Stalin’s death.”

This seems to be borne out by the lives of Gessen’s older char­ac­ters. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, long be­fore Gor­bachev cracked open the old cer­tain­ties, Aru­tyun­yan the psy­chol­o­gist and Gud­kov the so­ci­ol­o­gist were find­ing that Soviet academia al­lowed them a fair amount of room to ma­neu­ver, as long as this was ex­er­cised dis­creetly and de­ni­ably. For ex­am­ple, although you could not study the prob­lems of Soviet so­ci­ety (Soviet so­ci­ety had only so­lu­tions), you could still study so­ci­ol­ogy so long as you pre­tended to be de­nounc­ing West­ern so­ci­o­log­i­cal the­o­ries, or if you called it some­thing else. Gud­kov’s men­tor, Yuri Le­vada, was al­lowed to set up a depart­ment within the Academy of Sciences called the In­sti­tute for Con­crete So­cial Stud­ies. I also ad­mire Gessen’s line that “the Soviet sys­tem of­fered not a vi­sion of the fu­ture but the abil­ity to know one’s fu­ture, much as trades­men did in feu­dal times, and to make very smallscale, man­age­able de­ci­sions about the fu­ture.” If this was to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism, you start to see why so many Rus­sians wanted Putin to turn the clock back.

Gud­kov ar­gues that, in fact, the clock never moved. It was al­ways strik­ing thir­teen. In­sti­tu­tions and sys­tems de­signed for a to­tal­i­tar­ian Soviet Union sur­vived with lit­tle or no change into the new Rus­sian state, en­cour­ag­ing to­tal­i­tar­ian be­hav­ior to re­turn through them. Elec­tions be­came pub­lic dis­plays of sup­port for the regime, just like pa­rades. Pub­lic protest was more fre­quent in Putin’s Rus­sia than it had been in the Soviet Union, but only be­cause the regime had reached a new un­der­stand­ing that street demon­stra­tions changed noth­ing—on the con­trary, they helped to main­tain the ex­ist­ing order. Dis­si­dents re­vealed them­selves and were ar­rested. The rest of so­ci­ety was re­as­sured by the regime’s show of power in shut­ting the demon­stra­tions down. Gud­kov fears that the Soviet sys­tem has re­shaped the Rus­sian national char­ac­ter to such an ex­tent that Rus­sians can will­ingly recre­ate a to­tal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety among them­selves even with­out com­pul­sion from the state to do so. A corol­lary of that ar­gu­ment is that Rus­sia can have a to­tal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety even with­out a to­tal­i­tar­ian state—a use­ful for­mu­la­tion if one takes the view that the ul­ti­mate aim of the Putin regime is the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of wealth even more than the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of power. Thus Gessen, when she dis­cusses the ideas of the Hun­gar­ian po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Bálint Mag­yar, can speak of Rus­sia as a “mafia state rul­ing over a to­tal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety.”

With all due re­spect to Gessen and to Gud­kov, the term “to­tal­i­tar­ian” is be­ing used loosely here. It may be use­ful to in­voke the prospect of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism as a rhetor­i­cal way of alert­ing Rus­sians to the fact that their gov­ern­ment is a dan­ger to them­selves and to oth­ers. But to claim that Rus­sia is al­ready to­tal­i­tar­ian is to ab­solve Rus­sians in gen­eral from what is done in their name by propos­ing that they have been in­doc­tri­nated into ac­qui­es­cence. One risks imag­in­ing a Rus­sian na­tion which, freed from thought control, re­veals it­self to be lib­eral and free­dom-lov­ing. This is ex­actly the mis­take that Western­ers made when Soviet com­mu­nism was on its last legs thirty years ago— and when, as Gessen so poignantly shows, what was re­vealed was the ap­petite for a newer and bet­ter dic­ta­tor. My own view of Putin is that he came to power fully in­tend­ing to be an au­thor­i­tar­ian leader but also to al­low some small de­gree of plu­ral­ism in pol­i­tics and some larger de­gree of lib­er­al­ism in pri­vate life and busi­ness, on the purely prag­matic grounds that he knew from Soviet times the weak­ness of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism. He would rather be Lee Kuan Yew than Robert Mu­gabe. But he found it per­son­ally in­tol­er­a­ble to be crit­i­cized, let alone thwarted, so free­dom to op­pose him po­lit­i­cally soon dis­ap­peared. Eco­nomics was a closed book to Putin when he took power, but he came to un­der­stand that a thriv­ing mar­ket econ­omy re­quired a well-func­tion­ing rule of law ca­pa­ble of con­strain­ing even gov­ern­ment—and that was the death knell for the mar­ket econ­omy. Free­dom in pri­vate life lasted rather longer, but was even­tu­ally cur­tailed, most ob­vi­ously in the sex­ual do­main, when the stag­nat­ing regime needed new ways to mo­bi­lize pop­u­lar sup­port.

The theater and film di­rec­tor An­drei Kon­chalovsky, quoted by Chris­tian Neef in Der Spiegel, sees roughly the same tra­jec­tory in Putin’s ca­reer, but at­tributes it to pres­sure from below:

Putin ini­tially thought like a Westerner, but ul­ti­mately re­al­ized why ev­ery Rus­sian ruler strug­gles to lead this na­tion: Be­cause its in­hab­i­tants, in ac­cor­dance with an un­shak­able tra­di­tion, freely del­e­gate all their power to a sin­gle per­son, and then wait for that power to take care of them, with­out do­ing any­thing them­selves.

We are close here to the dilemma of Ber­tolt Brecht’s poem “The So­lu­tion,” about the anti-Com­mu­nist up­ris­ing in East Ger­many in 1953, and a thought that must have struck ev­ery ob­server of Rus­sia at some time or other:

Would it not be eas­ier

In that case for the gov­ern­ment To dis­solve the peo­ple

And elect an­other?

Masha Gessen

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