If words like Chechnya and Nemtsov are not familiar to the reader, Gessen’s book is a good primer for understanding the rise of Putin.
Since the Revolutions of 1917, Russia has held a strange fascination for Americans, its citizens frequent villains in both popular entertainment and on the world stage. In many ways, Communism is antithetical to “American values” and because of this ideological difference, Russia has been perceived as a threat since the ‘30s, and remains so today, even long after the thawing of the Cold War. As more and more evidence of meddling in the 2016 election emerges, despite Donald Trump’s frequent denials, Russia is once again thrust into the role of enemy of the American public. But how much do we actually know about the Russians and how they think? In Masha Gessen’s excellent new book, The Future is History, the journalist traces the rise of the totalitarianism that now holds the nation in it grip.
Beginning with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gessen tells the story of modern Russia through the eyes of several people, ranging from dissidents to a sociologist to a psychoanalyst. We mainly follow four young people, extraordinary Russians who decide to stand up against the mafia state created by president Vladimir Putin. Except for philosopher Alexander Dugin, the other characters are staunchly anti-Putin, a position Gessen also unapologetically adopts. Despite the book’s obvious slant, Gessen unspools a story that is a terrifying warning for the United States should we ignore some of the rhetoric pouring from Washington, D.C.
Gessen sets the stage by giving the reader a crash course on modern Russian history. From the thaw under Gorbachev where Russians appeared ready to embrace Western values to the return of Cold War thought under Boris Yeltsin, Gessen understands that it is imperative we know about the past to understand the present. If words like Chechnya and Nemtsov are not familiar to the reader, Gessen’s book is a good primer for understanding the rise of Putin.
Between some very in-depth sections of history, The Future is History traces the early years of its subjects. While the Soviet Union falls apart, we read about summers at luxurious dachas and trips to the Crimea. These sections put a human face on Gessen’s subjects, something many films and texts about Russia fail to do. They also provide some relief from some of the denser segments of the book. By the time we reach the cataclysmic end, we actually feel for these characters.
Beyond the four younger characters, Gessen also follows Lev Gudkov, one of only a handful of sociologists in Russia. Via Gudkov’s research, Gessen introduces us to the idea of homo soveticus, a Russian personality type that sprung from years living under the Communist government. This sort of person has lived in fear so long that he actually desires an oppressive regime to feel secure. Prior to Perestroika, a good percentage of Russians identified as homo soveticus, but in the early ‘90s the number declined.
However, with Yeltsin in charge, Gudkov found the idea of homo soveticus on the rise again. Once banished from polls of Greatest Russian, Gudkov saw that Stalin was once again ranking higher than more liberal-thinking leaders. Also, ideas such as the “liquidation” of homosexuals were gaining popularity. Russians actually wanted things to return to the old way. Gessen speculates that Russians had been so perverted by the Soviet regime that the notion of hope no longer applied. The future in the book’s title did not exist for them. Riding on this wave came Putin.
Gessen portrays modern Russia as a terrifying place, one where anyone who contradicts the Kremlin could be either jailed or assassinated. Many of the people she interviewed discover that with dissidence comes a price. One, a member of the protest collective Pussy Riot, is beaten and jailed numerous times while another, a professor of homosexual studies, is constantly threatened with losing his job and worse. Gessen furnishes us with examples of maddening injustice where even a simple accusation can lead to years of imprisonment.
Gessen’s efforts on The Future is History earned her a National Book Award. Although she is Russian and formerly a longtime resident of Moscow, Gessen now lives in New York City. Based on the stories she tells about Putin and his regime, fleeing Russia seems like the right choice. Americans take heed. A military parade and public attacks on the press may seem like bluster and grandstanding, but we don’t want our own country to slip into the same sort of mire Gessen presents us with in The Future is History.