The Future is History : How Totalitarianism Reclaimed
In The Future is History Masha Gessen follows the lives of four Russians, born as the Soviet Union crumbled, at what promised to be the dawn of democracy Each came of age with unprecedented expectations, some as the children or grandchildren of the very architects of the new Russia, each with newfound aspirations of their own as entrepreneurs, activists, thinkers and writers, sexual and social beings Gessen charts their paths not only against the machinations of the regime that would seek to crush them all censorship, intimidation, violence but also against the war it waged on understanding itself, ensuring the unobstructed emergence of the old Soviet order in the form of today s terrifying and seemingly unstoppable mafia state The Future is History is a powerful and urgent cautionary tale by contemporary Russia s most fearless inquisitor A well written window into Russia in the past 30 years Masha Gessen s work is thoroughly engaging And frightening. Bought this on the back of an online recommendation, but it s a bit too large to read in the tube, so it was gathering dust on my shelf for the better part of a year.A month ago, it was officially banned in Russia Naturally, and hopefully this is representative of how others will react, I was immediately overcome by an urge to drop whatever else I was reading and pick it up To say that I was very richly rewarded is an understatement The Future is History is as close as we will ever get to an insider s account of the domestic resistance movement to Vladimir Putin From the fall of Communism, all the way to 2016, it traces the lives of six Russians who one way or another were entangled some deliberately and some by destiny in the losing battle against the emergence of the modern Russian kleptocratic dictatorship A cheerleader of the new regime is thrown in for free.Let me get out of the way upfront the one thing that s negative about this book with the best of intentions, and with a post it note affixed to page XII that lists the cast of characters, I found it impossible to remember who is who Yes, Masha is the girl on the inside cover and Zhanna is Boris Nemtsov s daughter and Lyosha is the fellow who finds out early on in the book he s gay, but it s still a bit of a mess Like, I finished this and I needed to be reminded that Gudkov is the Levada center and frankly I m not sure I ever figured out what the psychologist s deal was Perhaps all the analysis of totalitarianism comes under the chapters that refer to her And perhaps not.No matter, this is THE BOOK about what happened in Russia The history itself was very confusing, the author explains She, a native Russian, had to sit down and figure out how the 1991 coup was different from the 1993 coup, because she was too young when all that happened and because it really all followed no rhyme or reason So perhaps the confusion about the characters merely serves to condition the reader to leave the detail to one side and focus on the important stuff The important stuff is made crystal clear After providing an excellent, self conatained, summary of Russia s post 1985 history, and as much as possible by association to the experiences of her book s many heros and anti heros, Masha Gessen picks through Putin s methods, tactics, and intentions like a surgeon She rifles through an extensive bibliography of authoritarianism and totalitarianism and the efforts made by previous thinkers to explain the similarities and differences between the two and how they all apply to both the Soviet Union and Putin s rule, and leads us to the conclusion that what we have here is entirely sui generis Russia is run by a post communist mafia that is better understood by exploring how the underworld works rather by referring to your sources from your PPE course at Oxford.In short, you ve got to belong to the family The inner circle are the man s buddies from his judo days, the slightly further out circle are his colleagues from the KGB and you can still join if you are a pliant billionaire or an ardently pro Putin apparatchik But you can never leave.The story is also told, brilliantly, of how Putin manages to pull on the heartstrings of his subjects he keeps digging up enemies of the state, and they come straight from the list Goebbels totted up half a century before him it s the gays, the Jews, the liberals etc The Ukrainians get thrown in at some point, with a side order of Nazis, and it really works the mom of the author or is it the mom of some other character I told you this was confusing joins in in cheering against the Ukraine people who talk sense become traitors first and dissidents second.The other aspect that gets covered well is the utterly unmoored, disconnected from reality, disconnected from science cacophony of superstition and fausse erudition that characterized turn of the millennium Russia In a world where common sense was decidedly not shared among the righteous because nobody possessed it a very well respected thinker believed radiation from space formed the Russian people, for example a true moral compass was the only common thread binding them together Nothing and nothing less.It s very very good And very raw There s beatings in here and persecutions and lots of torture, at many levels physical and worse Kafka s got nothing on the Soviet honed reflexes of Russian bureaucracy Or on the system s way to hold hostages The activist brother gets fifteen well timed days in jail His brother gets three years in jail The heroes are brave, but they re real and flawed multiple lives, multiple wives, sometimes The tyranny, most importantly, is arbitrary, but random it could hit you anytime, anywhere and you don t need to be in the resistance to face the full force of the regime You merely need to be unlucky.If you do happen to actually belong to the resistance, of course, then you will be eliminated.I have absolutely no idea what drives the resolve of these mad people, but I m grateful Masha Gessen decided to make her ninth book an autobiography of both herself and her movement. Gessen uses an innovatory approach by focusing on individuals, mostly not well known, and how the changes in Russia impacted them It doesn t surprise me that, like many of those she writes about, Gessen has moved to the USA to protect herself and her family. This is an important book.Its purpose is to explain how, and why, Russia returned to a state of totalitarianism despite the initial hope and democratisation of the Yeltsin period Why did the Russian people not fasten on to their new freedoms in the way that the citizens of the Baltic republics and, to a lesser extent, those of Ukraine did Masha Gessen s explanation explores, via the lives of seven individuals and through three disciplines which did not exist in the Soviet period sociology, psychoanalysis and opinion polling the persistence of what she calls Homo Sovieticus.This character, the opinion polling and a bit less plausibly the psychoanalysis suggest, did not fade away after the collapse of the Soviet Union, nor even with the passing of generations Putin era youth groups like Nashi differ little from their Soviets equivalents Most citizens fear the open expanse of liberal freedom, preferring the narrow corridor of the authoritarian State.Most Russians, the book says, yearn not for change and opportunity and the responsibility and anxiety that may go with them , but for order, imposed from above, and strength and stability Strong and stable where have we heard that lately The book contains a discussion of the precise meaning of totalitarianism Hannah Arendt is quoted, along with other writers But the precise meaning is largely beside the point In 2017, opposition politics in Russia is all but impossible If you oppose Putin, you may be murdered, like Boris Nemtsov Elections are rigged, even if Putin opponents are excluded and rigging is therefore unnecessary Academics are monitored for ideological conformity Demonstrations are all but impossible to stage Protesters may be arrested by the hundred Justice is arbitrary and controlled by the executive Corruption abounds.Gessen discusses whether a totalitarian state needs an ideology The answer appears to be not necessarily, but it helps especially when you are getting started, and you can change it as circumstances demand And the ideology should be a single, simple idea Like MAGA or Brexit , perhaps The current ideology is Eurasia or Greater Russia as people in Ukraine are well aware and its high priest is Alexander Dugin Dugin is the Steve Bannon or Nigel Farage of Russia only worse According to this book, Dugin has a personal connection to the American neo Nazi Richard Spencer the Hail Trump guy Dugin s ideology is all about traditional family values , which are threatened by Western liberalism There are no such things, he says, as universal human values Liberal social, but not economic ideas are to be abhorred they are Western and an affront to white Christian civilisation, as epitomised by the Russian World Putin is thus the leader of a movement to restore European Civilisation.This is where it gets really scary LGBT people are deviants who deserve to be liquidated the Russian opinion polling on this is devastating And a warning this book contains descriptions of homophobic vigilante violence, tacitly state sanctioned, that may cost you sleep To what extent do people like Bannon, Spencer, Farage, Le Pen and Trump buy into Dugin s despicable ideology How intent are they on spreading it outside of Russia They may seem like comic villains, but we should ask ourselves this question before we laugh too much.Apart from Nemtsov, the characters in Gessen s book survive, though most of them leave Russia The book leaves you feeling, firstly, that Russians do not deserve their fate, Homo Sovieticus notwithstanding and, secondly, that neither do we, in Europe or America and we d better think about that.Towards the end of the book, Gessen notes that, in June 2017, a Russian opinion poll reported that Russians choice for most outstanding person of all time in the entire world was Joseph Stalin.