Masha Gessen's The Future is History is the work of a Russianists' Russianistby Vanora Bennett / November 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Masha Gessen, raised in Moscow and now working in America, is a Russianist’s Russianist—an expert who straddles east and west and can explain her home country’s complexities in a user-friendly way. Her latest book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, is a big canvas—an examination of what has happened to Russia in the past generation, from the partial or at least apparent dismantling of totalitarian structures as the Soviet Union collapsed, to their reconstruction under the Putin regime.
You can work out Gessen’s conclusion from the red cover, which features Vladimir Putin walking out of the frame, leaving behind a long Lenin shadow. She tells her story through the lives of several well-chosen young people born around the Mikhail Gorbachev era of the 1980s (along with a few older Russians). One is Seryozha, grandson of Alexander Yakovlev, the man behind perestroika. Another is Zhanna, the daughter of Boris Nemtsov, the longest-active of the liberal reformers of the 1990s, who reinvented himself as an opposition activist in the 2000s, and was murdered outside the Kremlin in 2015.
One older subject, Marina Arutyunyan, is a psychologist, highlighting the lack of study of the individual in the collectively-focused Soviet Union. A third young man, Lyosha, is gay, calling attention to current anti-gay policies. Then there’s Masha, who ultimately becomes an anti-regime activist, threatened with jail.
The biographical details are set out in the first half of the book, but they don’t feel very real. The focus is instead on the politics and history of ideas of the period—a much more Russian and theoretical approach. It’s only later on that you realise you need the theory to understand the personal stories. The liberal hope was that “‘Homo Sovieticus,’ a fearful kind of human born in mental serfdom, would die out once Russia was free.” But Homo Sovieticus refuses to die.
Eventually, Gessen’s personal and political stories come together—with a vengeance—to create the most insightful and depressing history of post-Soviet Russia I have read.
The Future is History: How Totalitarianism reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen is published by Granta (£20)