Shortly after the velvet collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the world waited with bated breath to see what kind of nation would emerge out of the ashes.
Stumbling through the inebriated leadership of Boris Yeltsin the mantle was eventually handed down to what was then a 47-year-old unknown KGB agent named Vladimir Putin. His rise to power over the last few decades and his subsequent looting of the state, both politically and financially, has alarmed the West and has been widely documented through the work of the well-known disenfranchised Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen.
A best-selling author and National Book Award recipient for her latest novel The Future Is History, Masha remains fearless in the eye of an increasingly totalitarian leader. She carries the message of Russia’s depressing predicament and unknown future throughout her work. Although her writing relates to the specific case of Russia, Masha’s message remains a powerful and prescient forewarning to anyone who takes democracy for granted.
It feels as if we’re in this trance-like state with regards to Russia. To the West, Russia remains an enigma, almost like a matryoshka doll concealed within itself. In the UK media Russia is persistently portrayed as running amuck; infiltrating our ideal of democracy under what is called a ‘thug leadership’.
But having said that, across the pond, the US has this kind of awkward ‘bromance’ with Russia under the guidance of Trump. Do you think Russia exploits this narrative of ostracisation to fuel the fire?
Yes. What you are describing is politics of resentment, which I actually think Westerners, certainly Brits and Americans, should certainly have a much easier time recognising now than a couple years ago. Both countries have had a really interesting taste of how the politics of resentment works; the fact that Trump has been able to ride this wave of resentment that feeds on the idea that the whole world has slighted America, the most powerful country in the world, is fascinating but it’s also instructive in how easy it is to create a sense of resentment by using people’s personal hardships to create an entirely false national narrative.
That’s exactly what Putin has done, which goes to the question of whether it’s wrong to ostracise Russia when Russia is going to use that ostracism to feed the resentment? The thing is, Russia will use anything to feed the resentment so it doesn’t matter what the West does. But ostracising Russia to the extent that it has been done is exactly the right thing to do in my mind because it is wrong to do business with a dictator who jails the opposition in his country, who has taken over the national media, cracked down on basic freedoms and continues to crack down on civil society.
It is wrong to enable Russians to use the global economic system to enrich themselves, Russians who are inevitably implicated in the atrocities of the Putin regime because otherwise, they wouldn’t have access to that kind of wealth and they wouldn’t have access to the global systems. Those are much bigger wrongs than the perceived wrong of feeding into Putin’s ‘resentment’ narrative.
“Russia feels a loss of territories because it still wants to be an empire.”
I don’t even remember a time when the West had a particularly amicable or affectionate relationship with Russia. I feel like America enjoys this sort of arch-nemesis relationship – excluding Trump – as if we need this grand theatre as much as Russia does in order to proliferate an international story of meddling. Do you agree with that at all?
I would somewhat agree with that. From the sounds of it you are younger than I am because the 1990s was a period of great affection and a worldwide sentiment of visualising a calm, quiet and peaceful future with Russia. I think that was a break in the sort of Cold War narrative, and I think it would be right to say that this break was problematic because nothing really came to replace it.
I think the US and certainly Tony Blair’s government were very much behind the curve in trying to understand who Putin was. For his first term in office, there was this kind-hearted, happy go lucky character all while he was dismantling the electoral system and taking over the media.
But at the same time, once that story of friendship and progress broke down, I think we did fall back very comfortably into this Cold War narrative; it was familiar and all the old tropes came back.
That’s not a great thing because, as horrible as Russia is, that kind of narrative is the opposite of illuminating and anything that’s not illuminating is probably not good for us in the long run.
Some people describe your work as depressing in the way that it sums up Russia’s predicament, but you vouch for its advancement eventually, you want Russia to move forward?
Yes, the book is depressing because the situation I’m describing is depressing. But I’ve also heard that it’s riveting, easy to read and it reads like a novel. Some novels are depressing because the stories they tell are sad. The story I tell of Russia is heartbreaking and tragic, and I decided to tell it through people to show how that tragedy works. If people found it depressing then hopefully that means they felt some empathy for the people in the book.
Do you ever fear for your life in the work that you do, considering the amount of nefarious activity conducted by the Russian government?
I’d rather not answer that question.
So in your book The Future Is History you use several characters to infiltrate the psyche of Russia’s somewhat torn history right up until the Putinism that we see today. Can you give us the reason why you chose these particular characters and what they tell us about Russia now?
I chose these characters because I wanted to write the story largely of the crackdown in the last 5 years, and in order to explain the last 5 years I had to go all the way back to the mid-1980s.
I was looking for people whose lives have been profoundly affected by the crackdown, so that meant I wasn’t going to be writing about Putin supporters; I was going to be writing about people who at some point found themselves in opposition to the regime, for one reason or another. Their stories are pretty complicated in how they came to be that way – none of them was born an activist or opposition member.
I’ve also been very interested in the idea of growing up in the 1990s for a long time and that predicament of seeing your parents perhaps hopeful and exhilarated or perhaps very scared, in any case, profoundly destabilised. That can be a very productive state for adults but I think it’s never a good thing for their children.
Children feel instability very acutely, but there was also an island of stability in the perceived reality of the 1990s and that was first Soviet propaganda that was still on television and then Soviet nostalgia that began proliferating in the mid-1990s. It was all so lovely, so clear and stable, and it provided an alternative to the very chaotic existence of the 1990s, although I don’t subscribe to the idea that the 1990s was the worst time in Russian history and the chaos killed people; it didn’t. It was an extraordinary, dynamic decade actually.
In addition to that, I needed people who were somewhat economically and geographically diverse, so the socioeconomic range is really huge. For example, there is Lyosha who grew up very poor in a tiny depressed town in the middle of nowhere in the Ural Mountains.
Then there is Seryozha who was the grandson of a member of the Central Committee, so the highest level of privilege. I needed that in large part to show how the stratification of Soviet society, which I think is not sufficiently understood, still persists in Russia 30 years later.
“Do you ever fear for your life in the work that you do? I’d rather not answer that question.”
In a previous interview you said that we now live in a world that has effectively dispensed of empires. Yet it seems as if Putin wants to bring back the empire status that Russia once had. Don’t you think that created a sense of awkwardness in the modern world?
Absolutely. One of the things that didn’t happen in the 1990s was that Russia did not find a post-imperial story – something not about greatness but about something else, maybe goodness. So instead of becoming something other than an empire, Russia became a truncated empire, and that is what a lot of the resentment feeds on; Russia feels a loss of territories because it still wants to be an empire.
Putin has weaponised that and I think you are absolutely right that his regime is fundamentally anti-modern. He wants to go back to a pre-modern time. He has created these narrative arcs that go back all the way to Ivan the Terrible, a tyrant and until recently unambiguous character in Russian history, who we are now seeing monuments to across Russia.
You’ve mentioned this idea that the Russian people always need to be mobilised against a greater threat, in a ‘forever war’. Can you elaborate a bit more on this?
Well, that’s how empires have always mobilised their populations for expansion. The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote quite extensively on how that imperial expansionist impulse is a necessary condition for totalitarianism. Before the Bolshevik revolution, Russia was a pre-totalitarian empire – just an empire with your regular garden-variety tyrant at the top. Then it had 70 years of totalitarianism, and so now again that expansionist impulse and mobilisation feeds into recreating totalitarian behaviours.
Are there pockets of people in Russia who go about their lives oblivious of Putin, perhaps in the more liberal and intellectual cosmopolitan bubble?
I think that’s a primary mode of survival and it was certainly possible for a large number of people for a while. It enabled them to make a kind of peace with the Putin regime where they could say, ‘Yes, maybe the Putin regime is repressive but I’ve carved out my bubble and in my bubble I actually have more freedom than someone who lives in a properly regulated Western society.’ I think that has really broken down in this past year because of the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov, the leading Russian theatre director. He is accused of some really absurd trumped-up charges of embezzlement for which he is facing prison time and several of his colleagues are already in prison. I think that has really shaken up the Moscow cosmopolitan circles more than anything else.
What does the majority of the Russian population think of the Western claims regarding meddling in the US elections – do you think they discredit it or there might be some who believe it to an extent?
You know it’s very difficult to talk about ‘a Russian public’. In fact, I would argue that ‘a Russian public’ as such doesn’t exist. For a public to exist you have to have a public sphere, modes of free communication, a flow and exchange of ideas and opinions, you have to have the opportunity to form your own opinion and the resources to do that. None of that exists in Russia.
I think it’s more useful to look at the television, and what the television tells us is that Russia is both tickled and empowered by this narrative, and finds it a bit ridiculous.
“[Putin] was once asked what his biggest mistake was, and he answered with complete sincerity that he has never made a mistake.”
You call Russia a totalitarian state but others have disagreed with you on this definition. Can you elaborate on that discrepancy?
There is an entire chapter that breaks down the various definitions of totalitarianism, therefore making the argument for why I’m using that term to describe Russian society. I’m not talking about the Putin regime because he certainly didn’t set out to build a totalitarian state. What he set out to do was build a mafia state, and he has succeeded in doing that. But he was building his mafia state on the rulings of a totalitarian society, and so once the mafia state started breaking down the habits and behaviours of formal institutions that were brought forward were those of a totalitarian society.
So the lived experience of being in Russia now is the lived experience of a totalitarian society in the absence of what used to be thought of as the mechanisms of a totalitarian state, which are ideology and terror.
So we’ve talked about people growing up in Russia in the 1990s but what about the generation growing up in Putin’s Russia now? Is that psychological repression institutionalised once again or is there a way to break away from it post-Putin?
Well, the tragedy of contemporary Russian history is that so much fear and lack of freedom is passed on from generation to generation, meaning that Russia hasn’t been able to move forward. I don’t have a lot of hope for what happens after Putin, which isn’t an argument for keeping Putin but simply an expression of my own sadness.
For a generation to move forward it needs to have some sort of reckoning and it needs to have a new story; a story that Russia can tell itself that acknowledges the tragedy and absolute horror of what has passed and allows it to somehow cope with it, maybe blame it on someone else. That’s the only way and that may not be possible. So far no other country has had to deal with a history that fraught and murky that you can’t say, ‘These are the perpetrators and these are the victims.’
I think there is a sense of sadness that Russia can’t seem to get out of its unfortunate predicament.
Yes. I think at some point we also have to acknowledge that what the West thinks of Russia and what they want for Russia may not be terribly relevant to how Russia develops. There’s this very weird residually imperial narrative of ‘Oh if we had only acted differently Russia would be different today’. I don’t think that’s true.
“Russia is both tickled and empowered by this narrative [election hacking], and finds it a bit ridiculous.”
Putin presents himself as this ‘alpha male’. Do you think behind closed doors he ever has doubts about what he is doing or where he is leading the country, an emperor with no clothes in a sense?
I don’t know; Putin is a very stable genius. He was once asked what his biggest mistake was, and he answered with complete sincerity that he has never made a mistake.
Sounds awfully familiar…
Exactly, and we understand this about Trump but we don’t quite understand it about Putin. That extreme lack of self-doubt is just extreme limited intelligence. The man is stupid, just as Trump is. He has a different temperament so instead of tweeting out that he’s a stable genius he has a question posed to him about mistakes he has made and says that he has never made one. It’s a sign of something terribly limiting and frightening.
The reports we get show that Putin is becoming increasingly paranoid. Is that true and if so what potential trouble will that lead to in the coming years?
I don’t know if he’s more paranoid because he has always been paranoid. There are certain things that frighten him and have consistently frightened him. He’s scared of what he perceives as disorder, any kind of democracy or protest. He’s always believed that he is under threat and that Russia is under siege and he is the only person who can save it. If anything ever happens there is always a story behind it, which is a very paranoid idea.
I don’t know if it has become worse but maybe we are just seeing it better.
Have you ever met Putin?
Yes I have. I spent about 20 minutes with him, which is probably the longest he has ever spent in an informal meeting with a journalist actually.
Were they the longest 20 minutes of your life?
No, in fact, I would have stayed much longer to talk to him. He is my subject so I’m fascinated by him.
You talk about the end of Putin’s reign, and it seems that what would ensue becomes very blurry, maybe even the breakup of Russia, but you’re not certain what would take its place.
I’m not really in the business of making predictions so I try to stop at the idea of a redrawing of Russia’s borders, which I think is almost a foregone conclusion. There is a whole lot of tension in Russia and that tension is tamped down by both money and force, and all of that rests with the presence of this one man in the Kremlin. I think the tension will erupt at the moment of a reshuffling, especially because I think the changeover will be chaotic; I don’t think there is a succession plan because I think he plans to live forever.
Do you mean that literally?
I do mean that literally. I think if you asked him he would admit that everyone is mortal but I think he kind of plans to live forever, yeah.
There’s a wonderful book by Joshua Rubenstein called Last Days of Stalin, which describes what happened after the death of Stalin. There was also no succession plan for Stalin and he planned to live forever, so you see how just anything was possible at that point. I think this is what happens in Russia and at that point, the empire has to start breaking up because there is so much built-in tension and because there won’t be that kind of centralised power or the perception of it.
What happens after that? I have no idea. Nobody does.
If Russia was a patient on a therapist’s couch it feels like it would be in a constant state of denial.
I think the problem is more that Russia would never be a patient on the therapist’s couch. That’s a better place to start.