Masha Gessen: The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

2017/10/11 13:03:50

Self-exiled from Russia, Masha Gessen continues to write about her homeland with unique perspective and understanding. Her books have considerable interest for Ukraine since Russia seems utterly incapable of considering Ukraine a truly independent state, with the subversion of Ukraine the major building block of Vladimir Putin’s obsession of empire.



Following her 2012 biography of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the author and journalist Masha Gessen turns her focus to the social traumas and disappointed hopes of her native country, as seen through the perspectives of the seven characters in her latest non-fiction book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, which was published on Oct. 3.


Three of the book’s characters – a psychoanalyst, a sociologist and a nationalist philosopher – possess what Gessen calls the “tools of knowing” that are required to analyze Russia’s transition from Soviet communism to Putin’s brand of state capitalism. The other four are young people, born during the final years of the Soviet empire, who feel the lingering effects of its dissolution on their own skin: one through the murder of her father, another through her struggle with Russia’s system of political repression.

Gessen spoke to TIME on Sept. 26 about the roots and faults of the system Putin built – and its similarities to President Donald Trump’s America. Below is a transcript of the conversation, shortened and edited for clarity.


TIME: One of the Russian phrases at the center of your book is budushchevo net – “There is no future.” What does that mean to you and to the characters in the book?


GESSEN: I started out trying to tell a story of Russia’s trauma. And one of the hallmarks of trauma is the loss of the ability to plan for the future. It’s really about the loss of control. This sense of having no control over your own life is very important to creating a totalitarian subject. People express that with the phrase budushchevo net.


Q.The word “totalitarian” is usually reserved for the most repressive regimes, like North Korea or Hitler’s Germany. Why do you believe Russia has reached that level of state control?


I’m not using that word in relation to Putin. The regime that exists in Russia is not a totalitarian regime. Putin has created the regime of a mafia state. But because he created this regime on the ruins of a totalitarian society, totalitarian habits have kicked in. It’s a bizarre situation, where the regime sends out signals that aren’t about establishing totalitarian control. The regime just wants to plunder and stay in power. But society, which has been conditioned by so many years of totalitarianism, responds by creating totalitarian mechanisms, [like] when people start raiding bookstores in their own neighborhoods to make sure there is de facto censorship.


Q. So Russian totalitarianism comes from the grassroots, not from the top down?

A. What we have is neither of those things. The Kremlin just sends out signals that are actually not that different from Trump’s dog whistling to his supporters, to the people who share his idea of this imaginary past. Trump did this after the violence in Charlottesville and after the athletes began kneeling during the national anthem. He sends out these signals to his supporters. And in America the response comes from both sides of the debate, often with people showing solidarity with each other, like the athletes taking a knee.


But Russian society responds to such signals in a very different way. In Russia the dog whistle does not elicit cries of protest. Because of its history with totalitarianism, Russian society responds with mobilization.


Q. What are they mobilizing towards?


A. Scholars of totalitarianism talk about the importance of this constant movement, this forever war, this need to do battle on behalf of something that needs protection. In Russia, this something has been postulated as faith and traditional values.


Q. At least one of the characters in your book also mobilized against Putin during the protests in 2011 and 2012. How important is this form of political awakening in Russia today?


A. I’m pessimistic about such political awakenings. For most people these awakenings are very short-lived. As the protests died down in 2012, there was no contradiction for them in returning to their regular lives and finding nothing about the regime objectionable.


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