Books

book review

Lessons for American in Putin’s rise

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while answering questions at a press conference in Sochi, Russia.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while answering questions at a press conference in Sochi, Russia.

It is difficult not to view Masha Gessen’s “The Future is History’’ through the scrim of concerns about Russian tampering in the recent US presidential election.

Continuing investigations of Russian e-mail hacking and leaking, fake news, targeted Facebook ads and the like give Gessen’s latest project, on that country’s regression to totalitarianism, particular urgency. What kind of government, we wonder, would devote itself to that sort of mischief, and what kind of society would tolerate it?

“The Future is History,’’ a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction, suggests answers. But its interest and reason for being extend beyond our national preoccupations to broader questions about the power of history and the malleability and resilience of the human psyche.

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The Russian-born Gessen, whose previous books include a 2012 biography of Vladimir Putin and a 2015 account of the Boston Marathon bombers, is passionately invested in the fate of Russia and its people. But she also aims to be a dispassionate chronicler of the historical currents and leaders (from the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to the autocratic Putin) responsible for shattering first the Soviet Union, then Russia’s fledgling democracy.

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Gessen tells her ambitious tale of liberation, upheaval, and repression primarily through seven characters. All are identified by their real names. They include two women and two men born amid the hope and chaos of the 1980s, as well as three professionals — a female psychoanalyst, a male sociologist, and a male political philosopher (a Putin ally and the only one to decline an interview).

“The Future is History’’ is several books in one, a complexity that accounts for its weaknesses and its strengths. It is, first of all, an intimate nonfiction narrative that shows how individuals are buffeted by the forces of history and, to a lesser extent, help shape those forces through (for example) protest, political involvement, and journalism.

The clever title evokes the power of the past to determine the future, Gessen’s conviction that totalitarian ideologies tend to be backward-looking, and her sense that the bright future forecast by the perestroika and glasnost of the early post-Soviet era has slipped away.

Gessen also offers a provocative, if necessarily fragmentary, account of how the Soviet (and, later, Russian) social sciences were crippled by demands for intellectual conformity, leaving academics and others without “the tools and even the language for understanding” their own society. Finally, Gessen discourses periodically on the nature of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.

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Both Jewish and lesbian, Gessen has moved back and forth between Russia and the United States. Along the way, she has become a master of restrained, wry English prose. She is sensitive to the contradictions of the Russian and Soviet character, to the traumas of war and terror that forged it, and to the perils of Orwellian propaganda and doublethink. Her gift is to be at once critical and sympathetic toward her compatriots — except, perhaps, for Putin, whom she dismisses as a man of “no history and no presence.”

The number of characters in “The Future is History’’ can make her narrative hard to follow. The story that reverberates most powerfully is that of Lyosha Gorshkov, a gay man who teaches gender studies at Perm State University. Both his work and personal life are constrained by the homophobic hysteria engulfing Russia, and he ultimately seeks asylum in the United States.

Another figure, Masha Baronova, after a stint as “a broker of kickbacks and bribes,” becomes an activist and a journalist — roles often intertwined in Russia. Gessen vividly conveys the courage required to engage in mass demonstrations against a regime that illegally beats and imprisons even peaceful protestors.

Her other principals are the television journalist Zhanna Nemtsova, whose assassinated father, Boris Nemtsov, was a democratic politician and, fatefully, a Putin critic, and Seryozha Yakovlev, an activist whose reformer grandfather, Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, was tasked by Gorbachev with rehabilitating the reputations of victims of Stalinist terror.

Playing supporting roles are Marina Arutyunyan, a psychoanalyst whose patients are unsettled by new democratic freedoms; Alexander Dugin, a political philosopher and purveyor of fake news; and Lev Gudkov, a progressive sociologist. Gudkov predicts the eventual demise of the authoritarian-friendly character type he dubs “Homo Sovieticus,” but is discouraged by its persistence.

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Gessen describes contemporary Russians under the Putin regime as afflicted by both “low-level dread” and “high anxiety.” They live, she suggests, in a corrupt, post-communist “mafia state” where war and conquest feed nationalism, and elections are expressions of acquiescence in dictatorship. Our own imperiled democracy needs to take notice.

THE FUTURE IS HISTORY:

How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

By Masha Gessen

Riverhead, 515 pages, $28

Julia M. Klein’s book reviews have appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. She was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.