Hailed for her "fearless indictment of the most powerful man in Russia" (The Wall Street Journal), award-winning journalist Masha Gessen is unparalleled in her understanding of the events and forces that have wracked her native country in recent times. In The Future Is History, she follows the lives of four people born at what promised to be the dawn of democracy. Each of them came of age with unprecedented expectations, some as the children and grandchildren of the very architects of the new Russia, each with newfound aspirations of their ownas entrepreneurs, activists, thinkers, and writers, sexual and social beings. Gessen charts their paths against the machinations of the regime that would crush them all, and against the war it waged on understanding itself, which ensured the unobstructed reemergence of the old Soviet order in the form of todays terrifying and seemingly unstoppable mafia state. Powerful and urgent, The Future Is History is a cautionary tale for our time and for all time.
While Russians were tired of thinking of themselves as inferior, Gessen suggests, they didn’t have a positive national self-concept other than as what she dubs a “blank mirror of the hostile and violent regimes under which Russians had long lived”: open, simple, and patient (which is to say, tolerant of violence). A totalizing ethos of Russianness gained currency, along with a resurgence of contempt for the US, which Gessen attributes in part to “a sort of habitual insensitivity Russians as a society had developed in response to the wars, the terror, the violence, and poverty of its own twentieth century” and in part to a history of defining themselves specifically in opposition to Americans. Putin deliberately suppressed civil society to prevent dissension from effecting change, aided by “political technologists” who created faux opposition parties and positions giving an illusion of actual debate. The new government-funded groups “had training camps and cool T-shirts, and in some smaller cities they organized dances and other leisure activities where none had been available.” New rules required independent candidates—those not already members of Parliament—to submit two million voter signatures to be a candidate, with no more than 50,000 from any one region of the country. This made a joke of democracy, and everyone knew it—that was the point.
Meanwhile, trumped-up criminal charges as a means of control spread from a defined class of people who’d ventured into the public sphere (“entrepreneurs engaged in property disputes, select politicians (who were also, more often than not, entrepreneurs engaged in property disputes), and radical political activists”) but beyond, meaning that choosing to disengage from the state wasn’t sufficient protection. Criminalization became the means to protect children from abortion, from drugs, from pedophiles (conflated with homosexuals). Homosexuality was apparently the key to all the other prejudices: One lieutenant tells one of Massen’s subjects that an antisemitic book linking homosexuality and Judaism had been distributed to every soldier in his platoon. ussian nationalists could both praise the National Organization for Marriage in the US, claiming the moral leadership of European Christianity, and tout sexual liberalization as an aberration from outside. By the way, neo-Nazi Richard Spencer is married to a Russian woman who served as English translator and American popularizer for a Russian theorist of nationalism who’s heavily influenced Putin.
Putin constantly connected the idea of political protest to sexual perversion, for example “joking” that he thought that white-ribbon-wearing protestors had pinned condoms to their jackets and referring to US imperialism with a term that translates as “they had everyone up the ass,” which could keep a Freudian busy for a while. And of course the classic move: the government blames protest on paid outside agitators (from the US), because that’s how it gets its own business done. Censorship, both of books and of increasingly risky public gatherings, increased due to vague laws that could be enforced at will. The contrast between “traditional values” and “foreign influence” allowed the regime to purport to act in the name of a real ideology, rather than in service of the constant churn that makes totalitarianism hard to fight. “[A] constant state of low-level dread made people easy to control, because it robbed them of the sense that they could control anything themselves.”
This is more than a modern history lesson. Gessen makes good use of her characters allowing the reader to see how universalities such as personal relationships, employment, accommodation, personal liberties, and the availability of common commodities are affected as the structure of government changes. Through the lives of her four central characters, their families, friends, and associates, Gessen also examines the Russian psyche during the post-Soviet era, the use of disinformation and propaganda, corruption, and the legal system.
This is not a book that I wished to finish quickly. I found greater satisfaction in reading a section and then spending a bit of time digesting and reflecting upon what I’d read. Overall, I quite enjoyed Gessen’s book as her real characters allow the reader to peer into a society which defines Kafkaesque. Not only did I find it illuminating, but the book also made me reflect upon the use of disinformation and propaganda (particularly in relation to social media) by not just Russia, but also western governments. If you are interested in the history and politics of Russia then I would consider reading The Future Is History.