Susan B. Glasser is chief international affairs columnist for Politico. She and her husband, Peter Baker, former Moscow bureau chiefs for The Washington Post, are co-authors of “Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.”
Vladimir Putin has now served as Russia’s supreme leader longer than anyone since Joseph Stalin. With 17 years in office and counting, Putin last month surpassed the record of Leonid Brezhnev, the bushy-browed Politburo chief whose seemingly endless tenure from the 1960s to the early 1980s became a byword for Cold War stagnation. And Putin shows no signs of giving up power anytime soon; the former KGB lieutenant colonel who became president on New Year’s Eve in 1999 at age 47 faces certain reelection to another six-year term next year.
By now, Putin has inspired, provoked and otherwise provided fodder for shelves of books seeking to explain his remarkable rise — and even more his remarkable hold on power. Few are as ambitious, timely, insightful and unsparing as Masha Gessen’s latest, “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.”
Gessen is a Russian-born journalist and author who returned to Moscow to cover its brief democratic opening after the collapse of the Soviet Union, only to emigrate once again to the United States amid Putin’s crackdown. She has already written several chronicles of Putin and his era, including a best-selling biography, “The Man Without a Face.” Her scathing essays in the New York Review of Books warning of President Trump’s flirtation with Putin and his creeping authoritarianism have made her a public intellectual with a viral following.
But this is by far Gessen’s best book, a sweeping intellectual history of Russia over the past four decades, told through a Tolstoyan gallery of characters. It makes a convincing if depressing case that Homo Sovieticus, that unique species created a century ago with the Bolshevik Revolution, did not die out along with the Soviet Union.
If that part of her case seems inarguable, Gessen’s provocative conclusion that Putin’s Russia is just as much a totalitarian society as Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany may not convince all readers. Many will register skepticism about the terminology, given its association with murderous 20th-century despots whose victims outnumbered Putin’s by many millions. Gessen seeks to head this off by quoting theorists of totalitarianism such as Hannah Arendt and Erich Fromm and arguing that, as one of her characters puts it, Russia’s is a “recurrent totalitarianism, like a recurrent infection; as with an infection, the recurrence might not be as deadly as the original disease, but the symptoms would be recognizable from when it had struck the first time.”
Whatever you call Putin’s Russia, you don’t need to agree with Gessen’s inflammatory label to find her book a sad, compelling indictment of the country where she was born, a country so traumatized by its monstrous past that it seems intent on repeating it.
The death of the Russian future was anything but preordained, a fact that is hard to remember now that Putin has reigned for so long and looms so large in our American politics amid the investigations of his intervention in the 2016 U.S. election.
But it is worth remembering nonetheless. Because Putin in fact started out as the unlikeliest of Russian presidents, one few thought might one day challenge Stalin for the modern record in the Kremlin.
I reported from Moscow for The Washington Post during Putin’s first term (overlapping with Gessen, then at U.S. News & World Report, though we met only a couple of times years later), and those years turned out to be a key period as Putin consolidated power and eliminated sources of opposition, real and potential. Yet it was by no means certain at the time how the experiment would come out. Many, including Gessen’s characters, hoped for the best, a yearning I often heard expressed as the wish that Russia might finally be on its way to becoming a “normal, civilized country.”
“The Future Is History” is the story of how that hope died.
To tell it, Gessen offers up a nonfiction Russian novel of sorts, a sprawling narrative with four main characters and three intellectual protagonists. Their stories unfold over nearly 500 pages, from “the privations of the 1980s” and “the fears of the 1990s” through “the sense of shutting down that pervaded the 2000s.” Then it is on to the Putinist present, characterized by “a constant state of low-level dread.”
It’s a bit of an unwieldy structure, and at times it’s hard to keep track of everybody, but Gessen has an eye for interesting people, from Lyosha, a young gay man in a toxically anti-gay provincial town, to Masha, the scrappy daughter of a single-mom Moscow businesswoman, to Seryozha, grandson of the architect of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. By the time Gessen’s story reaches its dramatic conclusion in the protests and crackdown that follow Putin’s 2012 reelection, we share the heartbreak of Zhanna Nemtsova when her father, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, the last of the ’80s young democrats to keep protesting Putin, is murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin.
What makes the book so worthwhile for me are its keen observations about Russia from the point of view of those experiencing its return to a heavy-handed state. It helps that Gessen is a participant, and not just an observer, able to translate that world adeptly for Western readers. Her footnotes are filled with Russian-language sources that distinguish Gessen from her peers whose first language is English, and the book has many insights that could come only from Gessen’s living in Moscow.
Early on, for example, she hits on the perfect metaphor for how Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms were greeted in the stifling intellectual environment of Moscow in the 1980s: She imagines them as a blast of air coming through the tiny fortochka windows found in every city apartment in Russia, a fresh burst of oxygen injected into an otherwise hermetically-sealed-for-winter Soviet room.
At its heart, this is a book about the Moscow intelligentsia by one of its own, and Gessen manages to write compellingly about the wonky academic types who tried to understand the seismic changes in their country, while trying to imagine a new one. One of the three intellectuals she follows is Marina Arutyunyan, who brings Western psychoanalysis to a Russia sorely in need of therapy; another is Aleksandr Dugin, who dabbles in what he calls National Bolshevism before becoming Russia’s leading right-wing nationalist ideologue and promoter of what we now think of as Putinism.
The third is the book’s unlikely star, sociologist Lev Gudkov, who remains stubbornly data-driven even as the numbers tell a story he doesn’t want to hear. We first meet Gudkov as a young disciple of the late Yuri Levada, the pioneer of independent survey research in the Soviet Union, and together they set out to document the end of Homo Sovieticus. But as the book proceeds, Gudkov confronts instead the resilience and resurrection of what he comes to believe is a totalitarian mind-set in the people as well as their rulers.
The data did not lie. Even as early as 1994 — a full decade before Putin would call the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century — polls found that just 8 percent believed that the Soviet collapse had been a positive development, and 75 percent thought it had done more harm than good.
And it was Gudkov — whom I also came to rely on in many of my stories from Russia as a dispassionate numbers guy at a time of great political uncertainty — who produced what may be the most telling and depressing sign of this revanchism: the Stalin barometer. In the revolutionary year of 1989, as Soviet newspapers were filled with long-buried revelations of Stalin-era atrocities, 12 percent of those polled told Gudkov’s center that Stalin was among the “greatest people who have ever lived.” By 2003, the number had climbed to 40 percent. Not coincidentally, Stalin now shares a place on the list with Putin himself; after years of adulation in the state-controlled media, 32 percent in Gudkov’s survey think Putin should be counted among the planet’s greatest-ever people.
Arutyunyan may be the shrink, but Gudkov the data analyst came up with the diagnosis of “recurrent totalitarianism” to explain these alarming numbers. It is a disease that seems to have no cure.
By far the freshest and most revelatory parts of “The Future Is History” are those when Gessen takes us deep inside these past few years, as it becomes clear that Putin’s Russia is now what scholars call an aggressive, revisionist power, invading neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine and squelching dissent at home.
Gessen argues that two events stand out as decisive moments in Russia’s return to totalitarianism: the Bolotnaya Square protests of 2012 and the Crimea takeover of 2014. Her reporting on these events is particularly strong, and you feel right there on the streets with characters such as Masha and the two Nemtsovs as they realize, finally, that “budushchego net” — “there is no future” of the book’s title.
Boris Nemtsov’s killing is in many ways the tragic denouement of the book, and I can’t read his daughter’s experience of that loss without remembering Nemtsov as I knew him: the handsome, indefatigable politician who always had time for another interview.
The last time I saw him in Moscow was in the winter of 2013. It was just after the Bolotnaya protests, and Nemtsov chose to meet at a cafe near the square. Afterward, he insisted on walking the few hundred yards to where the protests had played out. Here is where the police lined up; here is where I was arrested. Nemtsov was eager to relive the dramatic events, and he treated the square as if it were hallowed ground, reveling in the almost-miraculous, not-soon-to-be-repeated sight of tens of thousands on the streets saying no to Putin. For a few hours at least. Nemtsov would die less than two years later, just a short walk away on a bridge crossing the Moscow River, with the Kremlin’s unmistakable domes as the backdrop for the execution-style hit.
As I finished reading Gessen’s book, I happened upon a headline linked on Twitter. It read: “Activist guarding a makeshift memorial to Boris Nemtsov dies after attack by pro-Putin thug.”
This may be Russia’s future, but it seems an awful lot like its past.
By Masha Gessen
Riverhead. 515 pp. $28