Do you ever read a book so good you are calling your friends to read a bit to them? That is the kind of good The Future Is History by Masha Gessen is. It’s a big book, dense with information and ideas. It demands careful reading but rewards the reader with good writing, careful reflection on ideas, and a deep and necessary history of Russia.
It begins with so much hope when Gorbachev is the President, the era of glasnost and perestroika and the stirrings of freedom and incipient democracy and continues to the present where that abortive hope has died and a new totalitarianism has gained control of Russia. How did that happen?
Gessen made the brilliant decision to build her history around the lives of four young people, (Zhanna, Masha, Seryozha, and Lyosha) who were children when Gorbachev was leading Russia, children who would not have internalized the rigors and strictures of totalitarianism yet. As they grow to adulthood and begin their careers Russia journey toward a more open society takes an about-face and rushes back to the safety of totalitarianism.
Yes, safety. One of the more startling arguments in this book, ably demonstrated by sociologist Lev Gudkov, is that people whose personality is formed in totalitarianism lack coping skills for the uncertainty and risk of liberation. Freedom, after all, includes freedom to fail.
Gessen also follows three adult professionals through their careers during this same time. Gudkov, the sociologist is one. Another is Marina Arutyunyan, whose ambition to be a psychologist is made difficult by the erasure of psychology during the Communist era. There is this shared vocabulary that is not part of the Russian experience. And then there is Alexander Dugin who begins so sympathetically, desperate to learn everything about philosophy, so desperate he rigs up a microfilm reader to project onto his desk in order to read a text on film by Heidegger that was missed in the many purges of ideas. He is dumped by the woman he loves who becomes a lesbian activist, a libertarian-anarchist anti-Soviet. So, he lurches in the opposite direction, embracing fascism, nationalism, and becoming in the end, a deep influence on Putin (and incidentally on Trump neo-Nazi supporter Richard Spencer).
This book is fascinating. The personal details make it come alive, but the writing is what makes it so very readable. Gessen writes in this almost deadpan way that makes the absurdist ideas and events even more striking. For example, she describes the development of this theory of ethnogenesis, an explanation for Russian exceptionalism: “ An ethnic group, or an ethnos, as Gumilev called it, was shaped by two major forces: the geographic conditions in which they lived, and radiation from outer space.” She doesn’t snicker, but she knows we will. Of course, that idea will seem less ridiculous in Russia where Lysenkoism, the belief that acquired characteristics can be passed to progeny, triumphed over Darwin to the detriment of their science and medical research.
The Russian embrace of Russian exceptionalism should disturb Americans who see opinion leaders in America insist that embracing American exceptionalism is a mandatory requirement for political success. There are many disturbing elements that should set us on edge. The way accusations of pedophilia were used against political enemies recalls the Rocket Pizza allegations against Clinton. There is the active collaboration of American evangelicals in advancing repression in Russia in the hopes that Russia will help lead them to power in the US. There is the frequent use of cyber tools against other countries, the promotion of traditional family values as an organizing principle for repression. It’s all there, as plain as day, but will we go along with it?
I received an e-galley advance copy of The Future Is History from the publisher through Edelweiss.
- The Future Is History at Penguin Random House (Riverhead Books)
- Masha Gessen at The New Yorker
- Masha Gessen at The New York Review of Books
- Masha Gessen on Twitter