Masha Gessen: The Future is History. How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia ISBN 978-0-525-53406-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Masha Gessen’s book intends to draw a psychogram of the Russian society, a fascinating endeavour for anyone interested in current political affairs and a must-read for anyone interested in the future of the West’s relationship with Russia. I cannot judge how close Gessen gets to draw an accurate and complete picture of how the Russian society ticks today, but by following the fate of four former Soviet and now Russian citizens from the terminal stage of the USSR until today, she gave me a highly valuable insight into the soul of the Homo Sovieticus, a species that did outlive its natural habitat.
The lives of Zhanna and Masha, both born in 1984, Seryozha, born in 1982, and Lyosha, born in 1985, are the four lenses through which different steps of contemporary Russian history are examined. They represent different social backgrounds, different ways of education and socialization, but they share a common fate: They are crushed by the weight of an ever more oppressive political system and their wishes for a life in a free society did not find fulfillment.
Gessen basic theory is that the Homo Sovieticus had learnt to be ruled by ruthless rulers without complaining too much and that any new ideas – i.e. those imported by the West like democracy, liberalism, the rule of law – will not be met with enthusiasm by the Russian society. Modern Russian society functions both at the level of the rulers and at the level of the ruled according to the norms of the USSR.
Basic pillars of social cohesion in the USSR were the narrative of a glorious Soviet victory in World War II, a certain ideal of presumed Russian traditions (xenophobia), the opposition to the United States and great power status. The Homo Sovieticus thrived on these, and modern Russia looks back with nostalgia according to Gessen. The capacity for “doublethink”, the admission of contradictory experiences in one mindset, a capacity well-developed among Soviet citizen, was of great help to adjust to the situation then and now.
President Vladimir Putin, an old hand in the art of manipulation, exploits this nostalgia by promising Russians the return of the apparently golden times. This, and the Russians’ longing for “stability” after the turmoil that signaled the end of the USSR, made it possible for Putin to turn Russia into an authoritarian state. He succeeded in petting a complacent, silent majority against minorities: students pursuing a liberal society, foreign NGOs, non-ethnic Russians and the LGBT community. And he succeeded in creating the illusion that Russia is under threat from all sides, a situation that requires an active defense which he alone can lead.
Obviously Putin did not succeed simply by coming to power. He needed the backing of the rich elite, that is the oligarchs who managed to gain control over large parts of the Soviet economy when Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin broke up the state monopolies to fill the government’s purse. Putin had them choose between two options: a) accept political control under Putin’s leadership and retain the majority of their wealth b) oppose Putin’s policies and face detention and the loss of all their wealth. For most oligarchs the choice was easy. They backed Putin, had their second residence in Switzerland and were left alone.
Ordinary Russians, who could not choose between two residencies, had another choice. They could rebel openly, demonstrate in Moscow, distribute flyers or stage protest actions like the Punk group Pussy Riot. They would have to face arrests, beatings by the police, psychological harassment and the loss of their job. Or they could tacitly agree with Putin’s policies, participate in pseudo-elections and be left alone too. Many chose the latter option since this was what had guaranteed the Homo Sovieticus a more or less untroubled life. It proved to be a good survival strategy once more.
True, human rights abuses under Putin are minimal compared to the totalitarian rule of Stalin. But Putin does not need Stalinist terror. A little pressure here and there seems sufficient, especially when his policy has elements the Homo Sovieticus can agree wholeheartedly: Yes to Russian grandeur, no to foreign interference. Yes to traditional family values, no to pedophiles (i.e. homosexuals in Putin’s propaganda). Yes to a strong ruler, no to democratic experiments that lead to anarchy.
By exploiting the deep-seated fears of the Homo Sovieticus, Putin has imposed his idea of a “guided democracy” upon Russia. More and more dissidents leave the country, the silent majority stays. Putin benefitted from a booming economy, but even successive political and economic disasters like the sinking of the submarine “Kursk” and the banking crisis have not paved the way for a leadership change and a different, more open society. The few years of relative freedom under Yeltsin were not enough to foster western ideas about a modern, liberal and democracic society in Russia. And by now it is too late as Putin exercises sufficient control over what the Homo Sovieticus reads, hears, sees and thinks to make any revolt a hopeless endeavour.
But let’s turn to our four dramatis personae. Zhanna is the daughter of the longtime politician and activist Boris Nemtsov, murdered in Moscow. As such she is an eye-witness to the gradual worsening of the human rights situation in Russia. Masha for her part grew up with an admiration for the Soviet Union’s strength. She wanted to become a military officer. At the end of day however we find her marching with thousands of protesters in Moscow against the manipulation of elections in Russia.
Seryozha grew up in a privileged part of Soviet society, the nomenklatura. He had his political awakening in 2008 at the presidential elections, which he recognized as what they were: a farce. Finally Lyosha. He knew he was in trouble as soon as he had discovered he was gay. Even before Putin started to blame the LGBT community for making Russia weak in every aspect, be it demography, the field of national defence or the political arena, living homosexuality in the open was problematic in Russia. Under president Putin it became life-threatening.
Gessen paints a depressing picture of today’s Russia, and Western leaders and businessmen should not be trusted when they present Russia as an opportunity and try to persuade us that closer political and economical ties would benefit ordinary Russian in pursuing their dream of a free society. That dream is dead, and the formula “change through interaction” has already failed with China.
Gessen has written a good book, an important book, nevertheless some of the last chapters irritated me. She emphasizes the persecution of the LGBT community as this is a good indicator of the degree of individual diversity the rulers and the vast majority of Russians are willing to tolerate. Needless to say that by now the tolerance is zero. Putin and his propaganda masters have turned the population into enforcers of discriminating laws, mainly by equating gay men with pedophiles, foreign agitators, spies and Jews. As important as this part of Putin’s policy may be, is it the only indicator of an authoritarian state worth mentioning?
Gessen sees Russia in the fangs of totalitarianism, but she offers not enough elements to substantiate this claim. The take-over of most media outlets would have been an example, the selective access to the internet another. Gessen remains rather silent about this. Putin’s ideas on economical autarky, useful if you want to limit exposure to foreign ideas, is not mentioned at all. The militarization of youth movements like “Nashi” and the growing budgets for defence expenditures are subjects omitted in Gessen’s book.
These elements may have little to do with the soul of the Homo Sovieticus, but a lot with Gessen’s claim that Russia is a totalitarian state. By focusing on the LGBT community, Gessen suggest that their persecution is the biggest problem of Russia. It clearly isn’t. It’s part of what is wrong in Russia, but it’s not the key issue. The key issue is the question whether Putin’s idea that Russia is different from the US and from Europe and thus not suited for democracy and an open society is echoed by a majority of the Russian population. This is crucial for us who live outside Russia.
What does Putin’s vision of Russia mean for Poland and for Hungary whose leaders do not look like they share the fundamental values of the European Union? What does it mean for our dependency on Russian gas? And what does it mean for the United States under the presidency of Donald Trump? Gessen offers no answers except personal indignation. Am I unfair towards the author? She’s an LGBT activist and has a substantial journalistic talent, she is not a political scientist after all. To this I would like to object that totalitarianism in the shape of National Socialism and Stalinism is too serious an issue to serve as selling argument for a book.
The Soviet composer Edison Denisov once complained about “fossilized academicalism” in the Soviet Union. He was a student of Dmitry Shostakovich, one of the greatest Russian composers of all times, and in 1954 he wrote a wonderful Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano:
A Student’s Reverence to Dmitry Shostakovich