Gessen has written about the politics and culture of her home country for decades, not only as a journalist and author, but also as a prominent LGBT rights advocate. In these capacities, she’s one of the leading voices of opposition to the Putin regime and illiberal and often Putin-fawning political leaders and their movements in the West today. In The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, she writes brilliantly about the weight of history and the precariousness of Russian nationhood in grimly kaleidoscopic detail. Beginning around perestroika and glasnost and ending with Putin’s totalitarian consolidation, Gessen’s book admirably weaves the soul-searching of post-Soviet Russia into a tapestry of remarkably distinct narratives — each of which is a coming to terms not only with the traumatic memory of the Soviet Union and its fall, but also with a Russia that’s now culturally opaque at best or beyond repair at worst.
The most compelling of the narratives are those of four Russians coming of age as the Soviet Union is collapsing, and each develops a different perspective through which to consider what it means to be Russian now. There’s Zhanna, the daughter of prominent democracy activist Boris Nemtsov; Lyosha, an academic and LGBT rights advocate; Seryozha, the grandson of the late Soviet politician and reformer Alexander Yakovlev; and Masha, who, after many personal and professional incarnations, becomes an activist and journalist devoted to resisting Putin’s regime. Throughout, they each feel a creeping (and sometimes more than creeping) sense that there’s no future in Russia. The state and the culture — whatever those precisely might be or have been — are gone, or at least it feels that way. The ambience Gessen evokes here — one of palpable, elusive menace and cultural fragility — is breathtaking in the most literal possible way: you can feel the air being drawn out of the country now so unsure of itself.
But still, each of the primary figures Gessen writes about resists the thrall of Putin’s regime. Masha “went to every action, protest, planning meeting, and related social occasion” after becoming galvanized by the regime’s extremism and repression. When Putin mockingly refers to protesters’ white ribbons as looking curiously liked pinned condoms, Seryozha, infuriated, “found wholesalers and bought large heavy rolls of ribbon, an inch wide and hundreds of yards long” to make more ribbons. Lyosha, marching in Kiev on International Women’s Day, witnesses for the first time “police protecting protestors rather than threatening them. He felt oddly inspired, despite having had to march through a tunnel of police in riot gear.” What’s possible in Ukraine should be possible in Russia too.
Of the narratives, however, Masha’s is especially compelling. It traces the arc of her life from her early exposure by her clever mother to the broader world to her political awakening and activism against the Putin regime. After actively participating in the many antigovernment protests in Russia, she works as a journalist covering the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, which topples the wildly venal, Kremlin-approved president, Viktor Yanukovych. Following the uprising on the Maidan, she’s drawn back to Ukraine to cover a new development: Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Gessen exposes Putin at his most insidiously suggestive as he defends his usurpation of Crimea, once a multiethnic enclave comprised heavily of ethnic Tatars. Putin acknowledges “a time when Crimean Tatars, like some other peoples of the USSR, were subjected to injustice.” Yet, he adds, “millions suffered from repression in those times and most of those people were, of course, Russian.” This sense of exaggerated grievance is essential to ethnic nationalism: yes, other people have suffered, but no one has suffered quite like the group of truly unique people I’m part of. With great suffering, imagined or real, comes great virtue, imagined or real; all other groups need not apply.
Gessen is highly adroit too in layering the cultural implications of Russia’s descent into Putin’s rule. She tells the stories of prominent cultural figures of the post-Soviet era like the psychoanalyst Marina Arutyunyan, the sociologists Yuri Levada and Lev Gudkov, and the philosopher/activist Alexander Dugin. To begin to get a better sense of the cultural condition of late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, it’s important to start with a consideration of the work of Levada. Levada’s research gives rise to the idea that every totalitarian regime molds a type of person essential to its survival. What he terms the “New Man” has its particular Soviet expression in “Homo Sovieticus,” a type Gessen goes on to explain is socially engineered to believe in “self-isolation, state paternalism,” and what Levada calls “hierarchical egalitarianism.” The Soviet state, he says, was not a vast web of institutions but, rather, a “universal institution of a premodern paternalistic type, which reaches into every corner of human existence.”
Homo Sovieticus came to see itself as endangered because it was. In the early 1990s, Levada’s research partner, Lev Gudkov, develops a means for assessing just how much Russians were still under the sway of the state: a survey of how tolerant they were of so-called “deviant” groups. The more tolerant they were, the more open to social complexity they were, and what he finds surprises him: a significant cross-section of the Russian population — particularly those between 20 and 50 — were relatively tolerant, or at least sympathetic, to homosexuals, alcoholics, and “rockers,” rather than favoring their “liquidation.” Gudkov concludes then the state’s influence is waning, but whether he is confident in Russia’s opening-up continuing in the long term is another question.
Similarly, when Levada surveys Russian opinion on Marx and Lenin, he finds it to be tepid. On this, Gessen provides a critical insight:
Homo Sovieticus was not indoctrinated […] [he] did not seem to hold particularly strong opinions of any sort. His inner world consisted of antinomies, his objective was survival, and his strategy was constant negotiation — the endless circulation of games of doublethink.
She concludes that “the system destroyed the individual and the fabric of society: nothing was possible in the absence of everything. […] If the Soviet person was ultimately an absence, then he could not reproduce.”
And as Homo Sovieticus seemed to wane, the Yeltsin years saw the Russian state devolve more and more into what would become a kind of mafia state for well-connected oligarchs already in a position to appropriate state industries for private gain and turn government transparency into a sick joke leveled against the dignity of the Russian people. This new kind of Russian elite is as gaudy and status-clamoring as any vulgar nouveau riche could be.
Given how unsettled Russia was in the 1990s, it’s clear why Gessen seems to have a special place in her heart for Marina Arutyunyan, whose narrative serves as the grounds for Gessen’s psychological exploration of the darker corners of the Soviet and post-Soviet psyche. By 1994, Arutyunyan has been attending conferences on psychoanalysis abroad, and she gets to thinking about the difference between envy and jealousy and how they relate to Russia’s transformation during the Yeltsin years. She concludes that envy could be good in some cases, the stuff of aspiration, but jealousy is raw and destructive: it’s the feeling that what is someone else’s is really yours. She comes to view jealousy as an increasingly menacing and destructive emotion in post-Soviet Russia.
Reflecting on her youth, she recalls how things have changed when it comes to wealth and status in Russia. While studying at Moscow State University alongside Stalin’s daughter, Arutyunyan remembers her to be among the least well-dressed students there because, then, wealth was seen as something to hide, something to be ashamed of. But now in Russia a new, tiny elite flaunt their ill-gotten gains and rub it in the faces of the have-nots. Worse yet, a negative feeling such as jealousy will often take on other forms as it percolates in the vast multitudes who lack access to wealth and the connections required to obtain it. This jealousy is pervasive in the culture, and it morphs into pervasive anger and fear.
It’s also likely that that anger and fear, that jealousy, feed an ascendant ideology: Alexander Dugin’s ultranationalism. Dugin begins as an aspiring philosopher taken by Heidegger and others and, in time, becomes increasingly interested in more and more stridently anti-Western ideology. In Gessen’s work, he’s unfiltered and, consequently, comes across like an evil, pseudo-sophisticated clown — and one whose ideology has drawn a horde of sympathizers, Putin notable among them. In 1997, Dugin writes that his ideology is one for “all enemies of open society” and is “built on the total and radical negation of the individual and his centrality.” Chilling indeed, but for many like those figures Gessen so powerfully depicts who grew up in the Russia of the 1980s and 1990s, the present and the future don’t admit such an absolute ideological fix as Dugin proffers. Rather, ambivalence, frustration, despair, and, eventually, resolve rise and complicate her real life historical characters. But still, Dugin raves on, and ethnic nationalist movements around the world rage on, and where this all ends no one knows.
For all of the great cultural insight Gessen’s accounts of Arutyunyan, Levada, Gudkov, and Dugin provide, it’s the final part of Zhanna’s story that brings Gessen’s work to a tragic climax. Zhanna’s story becomes the story of the death of hope, the death of reality in Putin’s Russia. Throughout, Boris Nemtsov, her father, presses on in his leadership of the pro-democracy movement, but he comes under increasing harassment and threat from regime figures and their sycophants. Moved to action after an arrest which happened to coincide with Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Nemtsov issues a fiercely defiant statement on his Facebook page against Putin:
Putin has declared war on Ukraine. This is a fratricidal war. Russia and Ukraine will pay a high price for the bloody insanity of this mentally unstable secret-police agent. Young men will die on both sides. There will be inconsolable mothers and sisters. There will be orphaned children. Crimea will empty out, because no one will vacation there. There will be billions, tens of billions of rubles taken from the old and the young and thrown into the fire of war — and then even more money will be needed to support the thieves in power in Crimea. He must see no other way to hold on to power. The ghoul feeds on the people’s blood. Russia will face international isolation, the impoverishment of its population, and political crackdowns. God, what have we done to deserve this? And how long will we continue to put up with it?
Nemtsov could read the writing on the wall, but it doesn’t deter him. He also writes two critical, damning reports: one on the massive corruption and fraud in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics and the other on Putin’s war in Ukraine, which includes proof of Russian culpability in downing a Malaysia Airlines plane in 2014 and a detail in the Minsk peace negotiations that acknowledges Russia to be a party in the conflict. But, tragically, while walking near the Kremlin on February 27, 2015, Nemtsov, like so many of Putin’s critics, is assassinated. The next day, there’s a massive march. Gessen recounts how “[f]ifty thousand people walked through central Moscow without a permit. They carried Russian flags and portraits of Nemtsov and a giant banner with the words ‘Heroes Don’t Die.’ No one stopped them.”
Nemtsov’s words continue to reverberate: how long will Russians continue to put up with this? It’s clear, though, the question isn’t that simple. Writing poignantly on Russia’s current state, Gessen shows her predilection for the psychological in noting that “[t]raumatic experiences that affect entire societies could include natural disasters, catastrophic wars, genocide, revolution, and lives spent in a situation of chronic oppression.” She cites Kosovo as an example, where therapists working there “discovered that people who had for years been victimized by being told what to do now longed to be told what to do.” It’s a chilling reality, but for those living in totalitarian or even just repressive circumstances, “becoming victims of familiar abuse was indeed comforting.”
As noted earlier, Freud developed the concept of a death drive, which he thought was a self-destructive tendency resulting from trauma and thwarted destructive impulses. Its presence, he thought, reinforced and repeated the pain of thwarted desires in the mind of the sufferer, which in turn made life unbearable and death desirable. The idea that Russia is caught in the pull of a Freudian death drive tragically makes sense, in that the brief window of democratic promise after the fall of the Soviet Union and the uncertainty it produced gave way to a familiar form of trauma, a totalitarianism much like the old Soviet versions. Maybe then Putin is the inevitable reinforcement of Russia’s trauma under Soviet rule. Maybe his despotism is really Russia’s inexorable will to negate itself.
All totalitarian regimes want to negate history to rewrite the past and control the future. They also all eventually fall, but the trauma and the memory of them remain to obscure the path forward. Living under totalitarianism means forward is backward and backward is forward, and the will of the tyrant at the top is the only thing that’s real. Or so it seems. It’s remarkable how shatteringly real Masha Gessen’s great book is. It’s not merely a journalistic or historical account of national collapse and the Putin regime’s strangulation of Russia. It’s also a profoundly novelistic account that should be considered part of the great Russian literary tradition — a tradition through which Russians could possibly pierce the obscuring trauma of their past and trace possibility on the void of their future.
Nicholas Cannariato is a writer and teacher living in Chicago.