Does Putin’s Russia Have a Death Drive? A Q&A with Masha Gessen

Does Putin’s Russia Have a Death Drive? A Q&A with Masha Gessen

“There’s been so much damage done to Russian society, both from seventy years of totalitarianism and now by Putinism, that there’s no roadmap for recovery.”

Masha Gessen © Tanya Sazansky

Masha Gessen has written a number of books about Russia and the former USSR, but her most recent, The Future is History, is the one that she has in a sense been working on her entire life. The book tells the story of a critical moment in Russian history—the fall of the Soviet Union and the early stirrings of a democratic transition in the early 1990s—and the subsequent loss of possible futures as Putin rose to the presidency and consolidated his power. Gessen documents this period primarily through the lives of four characters, all of whom came of age in the nineties and grew up in different socioeconomic strata within Soviet—and later Russian—society. In telling their stories, Gessen not only provides rich and textured accounts of a world opening and closing, but also details how individuals who were not necessarily politically inclined found themselves personally entangled with the state. Through figures such as ultranationalist Alexander Dugin and Lev Gudkov, a sociologist, she sketches a broader portrait of the forces that were then shaping the nascent political culture.

In her preface, Gessen notes that she wanted to write about the wars being waged in Russia’s name, the crackdown on civil liberties under Putin, and also “what did not happen: the story of freedom that was not embraced and democracy that was not desired.” The Future is History does so beautifully, and last month it was awarded the National Book Award for Nonfiction.


Jessica Loudis: I want to start by asking about process. How long did it take you to write the book?

Masha Gessen: Actual writing time was a year. The reporting was about a year and a half, but there were things I drew on that went back to the 1990s. It was a very unusual process because there were so many strings to pull together. The structure was gestating for a while and then by the summer of 2016 I had it in place. I had been under general anesthesia before that, so maybe the structure came to me while I was under.

Loudis: It was interesting to realize while reading that some of the characters would go on to become familiar names. What were your criteria for selecting the people you wrote about?

Gessen: They needed to be born in the mid-1980s, because I wanted to explore the condition of having grown up in the nineties. I’ve been obsessed with that for quite a long time. Whenever I came into contact with people in that age group I would ask them about it. To me that tension—between seeing your parents alternately confused and exhilarated and terrified, and seeing Soviet movies on television—was a key to a whole generation. They also needed to be people whose lives had changed drastically as a result of the crackdown of the last five years. The niche of the story is that something huge happened around 2012/2013. I needed them to come from different socioeconomic strata. That was very important because the class stratification of Soviet society is something that is very little understood both outside and inside the country. And one of them had to be gay, because that was the only way to really plumb the depths of the anti-gay campaign. And finally they needed to be willing to sit with me for a minimum of thirty hours, which really narrows down the candidates.

Loudis: Speaking of the inclusion of a gay character, you write about a study by the Levada Center, an independent polling organization, which found that after the fall of the Soviet Union Russian society took a more open-minded stance towards alternate sexualities. It seems that that is now reversing somewhat radically. What do you think is going on there?

Gessen: The thing about the study that the sociologist Lev Gudkov articulates very well is that people’s level of aggression seems to decrease around issues that are not used for state mobilization. So if the state is not talking about queers, then people don’t feel particularly homophobic. But there are reservoirs of aggression, and the moment the state engages with them they come into focus. We see that very clearly with the anti-gay campaign. I think it’s fair to say that most Russians didn’t give homosexuals another thought until the state started talking about them, and that was also part of what made the campaign so effective, because there has never been a public conversation about sexuality in Russia. When the rest of the world was having the sexual revolution we had the Soviet Union, so there wasn’t even the language to push back against the anti-gay campaign.

Loudis: It seems like a lot of Putin’s overseas activities in the past couple of years have been focused on talking about Western values as a counterpoint to his idea of Russia. What are the Russian values that Putin wants to advance? And do you think he cares about having a coherent ideology or does he just want to stay in power?

Gessen: I think that we misuse the word “ideology.” Most of the time we learn about ideology from history books, and historians tend to make ideologies sound more coherent than they were in real life. But if you read contemporary accounts even of regimes that we think of as very strongly ideological, like Hitler’s—well, Erich Fromm wrote that Hitler didn’t have an ideology at all. Hannah Arendt wrote that part of the reason why the rest of the world was so slow to recognize the threat posed by both Hitler and Stalin was that what passed for ideology seemed preposterous. It was impossible to imagine that millions of people could be killed in the name of something as absurd and underarticulated as the hatred of Jews, or the hatred of a particular race, or the idea that certain classes were doomed to extinction. Only with hindsight could we see that they have killing power. In that sense, Putin isn’t that different. He is opportunistic. His ideas are preposterous, but we’re watching them unfold in real time. Putin has as much ideology as it takes to hang on to power, which is normal for that kind of leader.

Loudis: How do you think ethnicity functions within Russia today? It’s obviously used as a wedge issue in certain regions, but do you think that ethnic groups within the Federation see themselves as Russian, or as Russian and something else?

Gessen: In the Russian language there are two distinct words, one meaning “Russian by ethnicity” the other “Russian by citizenship.” Most people consider themselves to be Russian by both citizenship and ethnicity. But it’s not really a matter of self-identification: For the entire Soviet period everybody’s identity document specified a person’s ethnicity, and you couldn’t self-identify. If your parents had different ethnicities you couldn’t choose which one you wanted. The idea that ethnicity is assigned to you has remained constant even though people no longer have to identify the ethnicity on their passports.

Loudis: You spend a lot of time considering the role of Russian universities, and particularly social science departments, in Soviet society. What did you hope to learn by looking into these institutional histories?

Gessen: My deepest conviction is that in order for a person or a society to move on, it has to have language and the intellectual tools to understand itself. Soviet society was robbed quite purposefully of those tools, and so I wanted to talk about how that worked and how that influenced what people were able to think and know.

Loudis: How do you think this has played out in the universities? If certain generations of knowledge are missing, do you think they’re being recuperated?

Gessen: No. Especially sociology. What’s happened to the Sociology Department at Moscow State University is just incredible. It’s become this hotbed for constructing the ideology of so-called “traditional values” and it’s this profound anti-intellectual enterprise.

Loudis: You dedicate several sections to protests under Putin’s rule. How do you think the protest culture has changed in the past five years or so, and do you think it’s still an effective tactic for opposing the regime?

Gessen: I guess it depends what you mean by “effective tactic”—if you mean effecting regime change, absolutely not; it’s a closed system that is pretty much impervious to outside pressure. That said I think it’s extremely important for people to survive with their psyche and sanity intact in Russian society. In that sense there’s no knocking protest. But the point of protest is partly to see other people who think like you, to assert your individual rights, to speak out collectively. Arendt wrote that we’re only free when we act with others. Freedom to act alone is not real freedom; freedom to act in cooperation with others is actual freedom. At this point Russian protests don’t meet that standard, but they are a way for individuals to come together. They fall short of being collective action because there’s no collective organizing happening between those protests. Now it’s basically [Russian lawyer and political activist Alexei] Navalny putting out a call and people showing up and protesting and then going home if they’re lucky enough to not get arrested.

Loudis: I’ve read accounts of younger Russians taking more of a critical stance toward Putinist propaganda. Do you think media consumption is changing among the generation coming of age now?

Gessen: I don’t think that we have enough information about it. We know that people under forty aren’t watching television. But they basically don’t engage in any kind of public communication, so I think their skepticism is a symptom of the destruction of the public sphere and not at all a sign of hope.

Loudis: The book ends on a very dark note—with this Freudian idea that Russian society has a force within it that compels it towards death. Do you think there’s going to be a future for the generation you write about?

Gessen: I am not terribly hopeful. And then I think that Putinism is not going to last forever, just because Putin won’t last forever. I don’t think this generation will overthrow Putinism because I don’t think that it’s going to come from the outside; I think the system will eventually collapse, most likely when Putin dies, less likely when something else happens. Now, the question is what happens after. The thing that makes me really sad is that I think there’s been so much damage done to Russian society, both from seventy years of totalitarianism and now by Putinism, that there’s no roadmap for recovery. I think that recovery for nations begins with a new story. It seems very unlikely that a new Russian story would appear—it would have to be a post-imperial story, a story that productively engages with the legacy of terror . . . that’s an awful lot to ask. Where there’s a little bit of hope is that there are all sorts of tensions pulling on the Russian Federation borders, and once Putin goes, borders are going to have to be redrawn. If that happens, the parts of Russia that become not-Russia have the chance to create their own narratives.

Loudis: What do you think is the most significant legacy of the Soviet Union in Russia today?

Gessen: I think it’s trauma, trauma that stems from the terror and the experience of living under totalitarianism, and having developed the necessary survival skills to do so. At this point it’s almost a self-perpetuating story. We don’t know how the society is going to recover.

Jessica Loudis is the editor of World Policy Journal, and a writer living in Brooklyn.