Josephine von Zitzewitz reviews ‘The Future is History’ by Masha Gessen

9 October 2020

By Josephine von Zitzewitz, UiT The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, and a trustee of Rights in Russia

Josephine von Zitzewitz reviews: Masha Gessen, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism reclaimed Russia, Granta, London, 2017. pp. 528 ISBN 9781783784004

Masha Gessen has set themselves an ambitious task: to explain why, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia embarked on a path that led it to become what Gessen calls the “leader of the anti-modern world”. Their focus is not so much on what is happening in Russia but on why certain odious phenomena – a faceless KGB agent who ended up wielding near-absolute power, the ever more murderous violence against dissenters, the obsessive persecution of sexual minorities – have become so ingrained. Examining these phenomena, Gessen warns against applying Western models and methodologies to Russia, because it has evolved very differently from the societies for which these models were created. The implied conclusion seems to be that if Westerners stopped expecting Russia to function like a Western democracy, current developments would be no less deplorable, but they might be less of a surprise. But dispensing with Western-developed models is very difficult, as ideological prescriptions during the Soviet era prevented individuals, and Russian society as a whole, from developing adequate mechanisms of self-reflection. Gessen argues that the systematic eradication of the social sciences during these years has resulted in a society that lacks the tools for understanding itself, and the creation of these tools takes time and is fraught with many difficulties.

This volume’s ingenious structure is one factor that makes it such a riveting read despite its considerable size and complex subject matter. Gessen dispenses with strict chronology, taking us on a whirlwind tour through 35 years of Russian history, with heavy emphasis on the last ten years. Their narrative is based on the life stories of seven protagonists; these represent the Russia whose future looks so bleak. Some were born in the 1980s, the children of Perestroika. Sergei Yakovlev is the grandson of Perestroika architect Alexander Yakovlev, who was active in various democratic parties in the 1990s and devoted his final years to promoting the rehabilitation of the victims of state repression. Zhanna Nemtsova is the daughter of the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who had a stellar career under Yeltsin and who figures in the book as a protagonist in absentia. Aleksei Gorshkov is a gay academic who attempted to develop gender studies as an academic discipline and ended up having to emigrate. Maria Baronova, a journalist and political activist, was heavily involved in organising the anti-Putin protests following the presidential election in 2011 and implicated in the notorious Bolotnaya case. Marina Arutyunyan began training as a psychologist in the 1970s and then set out on an arduous journey to qualify as a psychoanalyst. The Levada Centre, which has become a byword for independent sociological research and opinion polls, features through its present director, Lev Gudkov. And then there is Alexander Dugin, the influential fascist thinker who advocated the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine.

Six of Gessen’s protagonists represent various hopeful developments that were gradually stifled as the Putin years wore on: a comprehensive re-building of political power structures (Yakovlev); effective political opposition (Nemtsov); independent media and the right to political protest (Baronova); equal rights for sexual minorities (Gorshkov); and a society whose members leave behind the “homo sovieticus” model (Levada/ Gudkov). The fate of the Levada Center echoes that of many institutes run by people who are patriots in the best sense of the word, burning to make a positive contribution to their society. Founded by Yurii Levada, who adapted Western sociological methods for the Russian context, the Center rose from its grassroots origins to official status as the All Russian Center for Public Opinion Research, but came under increased political pressure in the 2000s. Having reinvented itself as the Levada Center (see p. 224) it is now forced to operate under the defamatory label of “foreign agent”.

The stories Gessen tells are not evenly weighted. At the heart of this book are two stories: one of an individual and the other of an entire social stratum. They seem particularly close to Gessen’s heart, but are also symbolic of the path Russia has taken under Putin: the life story of the charismatic Boris Nemtsov, whose brazen assassination in 2015 in sight of the Kremlin signalled a new level of terror from above and shocked the Russian public, and the story of how LGBT people became public enemy No 1. Indeed, the fate of LGBT in Russia features heavily, and not just in the example of Gorshkov’s thwarted academic career. The legislation created to target this group is expounded in great detail, while other discriminatory practices, such as discrediting NGOs who apply for foreign grants to compensate for the absence of funding opportunities in Russia as “foreign agents” (the law was enacted in 2012) – an issue that deserves nuanced consideration – are not afforded nearly the same amount of space.

Gessen is a visible queer activist. But the focus on LGBT rights here is used to highlight bigger issues. Not only does Gessen expose the deep-running connections between Russian nationalist politics, institutionalised homophobia and the current obsession with paedophilia, which has become an additional tool for silencing critical voices (as seen in the recent case of the historian Yurii Dmitriev). Their elucidation of the convoluted social and legal processes that led to the status quo also demonstrates how a society can be turned against a (small, non-belligerent) minority. Moreover, casting homosexuality as a hostile “ideology” has become a trademark move of anti-modern regimes (see for example the systematically homophobic pronouncements at government level in Poland and Hungary), but also a mainstay of the rhetoric of far-right groups and parties across Europe and the USA. The myriad links between Russian and Western far-right forces – from the evangelical World Congress of Families (USA) counselling Russian anti-gay activists to the contacts between the French far-right Front National and the structures controlled by Alexander Dugin – is where Gessen’s narrative has the potential to genuinely shock the Western reader. The figure of Dugin, whose real influence on Kremlin policy remains a subject of debate, haunts the book as a foil to Gessen’s positive heroes. We first encounter him as a geeky youth who gobbles Nietzsche and Heidegger and whose early ideas bewitch an older, radical dissident with whom he has a son: Evgenia Debryanskaya, who now campaigns for LGBT rights. The resulting portrait somewhat strips the magic out of the idea of the “Kremlin mastermind” and adds a cynical note – perhaps Dugin is evil, perhaps he is indeed an evil genius, perhaps he is a genius seduced by the wrong ideas; but then again, perhaps he is simply a very clever man who has succumbed to the banal desire to gain maximum influence while bearing a minimum of personal responsibility.

Whenever Gessen charts political developments, from Putin’s rise to power to the war in Ukraine, their focus is on the psychological mechanisms behind, for example, Putin’s enormous popularity (they carefully deconstruct the evolution of the term “stability”) or the collective anxiety that prompts a majority of Russians to support ever more restrictive legislation. Their portrait of twenty-first-century Russian society is partly based on a comprehensive, well-referenced evaluation of the terminology habitually used for describing Russia’s political system, including, but not limited to, “totalitarian” and “authoritarian” (chapter 14) and “illiberal democracy” (p. 384 ff.). They also draw on the findings of the Levada Center and the insights gained by Arutyunyan as she talks to her patients, and on psychoanalysis more widely. Initially, Gessen seems hesitant about their own attempts at reading a society in the way an analyst reads an individual, but they fully commit to this approach in the final chapter, in their discussion of the lasting effects of trauma. Psychologists now widely agree that trauma can be passed on through generations, and the physiological traces associated with hereditary trauma, at least in individuals, are an object of keen interest to scientists. Gessen’s experiment in doing collective psychology through individual stories seems convincing; in any case, it adds urgently needed complexity to the Russia debate. Of course, the issue with psychological, or indeed psychiatric, conditions and diagnoses is their vagueness: there is often no way of identifying them other than observation, which will not satisfy sceptics. They remain interpretations, and different experts might return different verdicts. But perhaps turning the spotlight on a nation’s emotional state is warranted for a different reason, too – for a long time now, emotions, which are often related to questions of identity (for example, the concept of a value-based “Russkiy mir”, a “Russian World”), have been a major driving force in politics, in Russia as much as elsewhere. They arise independently of factual evidence, and understanding how and why they come about is vital for engaging with them.

Gessen has written a truly pessimistic book, charting the lives of people who were denied the opportunity to be themselves. Most of their protagonists fall into despair or depression, two have to emigrate, and Nemtsov is murdered – a terrible brain drain that once again deprives the country of its most gifted minds. Of course, Gessen themselves is a victim of the processes they describe. Born in Russia, an émigré to the USA as a teenager, they moved back to Russia in 1991 but felt compelled to return to the USA in 2013, fearing for their safety and for their family as a queer person bringing up children. Their analysis is informed by their intimate knowledge of Russia, but is presented in a way that is clearly modelled on the reading habits of Westerners. If we bear in mind that the book was published in 2017, we must now conclude that unfortunately, their choice of title is spot on: the future is history.

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