The Future is History

Like many political dissidents from totalitarian states, at least the living ones, Masha Gessen fled her homeland – twice. Born during the height of the Soviet Union, Gessen first fled her native Russia as a teenager in 1981 along with her family. In addition to being political dissidents themselves, Gessen’s family were also Ashkenazi Jews. During the latter years of tight Soviet control, prior to Gorbachev’s reforms, anti-Semitism was at an all-time high in Russia. The Gessens, fearing for their lives, emigrated to the United States. Masha, however, would return to Russia just a decade later following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December of 1991. Despite having no formal training, Gessen began working as a reporter. She hoped to chronicle the death of the totalitarian state of her childhood, but instead Gessen found herself covering Vladimir Putin’s meteoric rise to power. In 2012 Gessen released her controversial book, The Man Without a Face. This scathing biography of Putin was published while Gessen was still living and working in Moscow. Not six months later, Gessen fled Russian for the second time along with her wife and their three young children, citing both fear of government retaliation for her book and concern about the rise of anti-LGBT sentiment spurred on by Putin’s regime.

Her latest book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, was released in October of 2017 to great critical acclaim; in November Gessen was awarded the National Book Award in nonfiction for this work. Gessen steps away from analyzing Russian leaders themselves, and instead investigates the society that keeps them in power.

Despite being nonfiction, the structure of The Future is History is not unlike that of a classical Russian novel. Gessen chooses seven characters whose lives she follows throughout the book; historical events are both explained in detail and shown as a backdrop for the characters’ lives.  Three of these characters – Maria Arutyunyan, Lev Gudkov, Alexander Dugin – are introduced as adults. These individuals are peripheral members of the Russian Intelligentsia that began to gain traction in the early 90s.

Arutyunyan is a psychoanalyst, educated during a time when the study of psychology was seen as a threat to the USSR and as a distinctly Western interest. During Gorbachev’s perestroika period and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR, Arutyunyan was able to bring Western lecturers to speak to psychologically traumatized Russian Society. Arutyunyan watches these opportunities close under Putin’s government and her hope for the future well-being of Russian citizens dwindles. She becomes obsessed with the Freudian concept of a death drive: the inevitable human desire for death and destruction. Arutyunyan begins to apply this concept nationally and to believe that Russia itself is actively seeking its own destruction.

Lev Gudkov is a sociologist and data scientist. He worked extensively under the famous sociologist Yuri Levada founder of the Levada Center, once a state sanctioned institute for sociological studies but currently labeled by Putin’s government as a “foreign agent.” Their area of interest was a phenomenon that they coined “homo sovieticus.” Homo Sovieticus, as they identified it, was a creature that functioned as a mindless puppet of the state. Their support for all governmental rhetoric and policy was enthusiastic and their ability to agree with even the most logically incongruous government reasoning was boundless. They were the perfect subjects of a totalitarian state. Levada and Gudkov adapted American personality tests to allow them to test a sample of the Soviet population and determine what portion of the people qualified as Homo Sovieticus. After the first study was conducted in the late 80’s, Levada and Gudkov were quite optimistic. Very few Russians fit the model of Homo Sovieticus. The study appeared to confirm their initial hypothesis: that the existence both Homo Sovieticus and consequently the Soviet Union would be short lived. Levada died in 2006 with this hope still somewhat intact. Gudkov, however, continues their work today. He has witnessed the rise of Putin along with the resurrection of Homo Sovieticus. As his recent studies show, Russians of today feel rising levels of fear and contempt for the West and they nearly categorically support the Russian government. Most alarmingly however is the new surge of adoration for iconic Russian despots. In a study Gudkov conducted in the spring of 2017, Vladimir Putin polled second when participants were asked to name “the greatest person to have ever lived.” The first place spot went to Joseph Stalin.

Alexander Dugin is as close as this book comes to an antihero. He begins as sympathetic character similar to his two counterparts: an outcast intellectual who defies government restriction in favor of the free dissemination of ideas. Gessen describes his days as a student where Dugin would scrounge through libraries and archives for tidbits from western books or studies. On one occasion Dugin went as far as to read an entire book by projecting slides taken of its pages onto the wall in his kitchen. He initially has nothing but admiration for western ideals and the thinkers behind them. However, without a grounded education Dugin floats freely from ideology to ideology without fully understanding any of them. Eventually he develops a sort of far-right nationalism that he calls National Bolshevism. This is more commonly referred to today as Putinism. Dugin comes full circle as the intellectual father of the current regime and now finds himself arguing for the very kind of intellectual regulation that he loathed in his youth.

The four other focal characters – Lyosha, Masha, Seryozha, and Zhanna – play a much larger role in the narrative, but nearly nonexistent roles in Russian politics. Born in the mid 1980’s they are introduced to the reader as young children being raised at the dawn of a new era in Russia. Lyosha and Masha have no connections to power whatsoever, while Seryozha and Zhanna are only connected thought their family members. All of them, however, find themselves at political cross roads as they come of age in a changing Russia.

Lyosha grows up in a very conservative Russian community in which he struggles to identify himself as a gay man. Originally it seems that sexual society advocated by the soviets will make Lyosha life easier. However, as Putin rises to power he shapes the Russian Orthodox Church into an instrument of political power. Putin is thus able to brand homosexuality as not just sinful, but as a danger to the state. Members of the LGBT community are seen as anti-Russian and therefore deserving of persecution. Lyosha gives the reader a first-hand account of dangers and trials of life as a gay man in totalitarian Russia.

Masha was similarly born in a much more secular society than she now lives in. During the 1980’s the Soviet government, who had still not been successful in replacing the male population that they lost during the Second World War, instituted a number of policies meant to encourage women to have children outside of wedlock. Masha was one such child. She was raised largely by her grandparents while her mother worked as a tutor in Moscow. Their family was of the first to oppose the Soviet’s, something that Masha took to hear even as a small child. The fall of the USSR is a time of great joy for Masha’s family, however over the next two decades watches as her mother and grandmother, both highly educated women fall in status as a new brand of totalitarianism, steeped in hyper-masculinity, takes hold of the country.

Seryozha and Zhanna are significant because of their family. Seryozha is the grandson of the great Soviet thinker Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, architect of Gorbachev’s reform policies attempting the avoid the breakdown of the USSR. Zhanna comes of age on the opposite side of the political spectrum as the daughter of the political activist Boris Nemtsov. These characters represent the crux of Gessen’s argument – without active resistance a society will always fall into totalitarianism. Unlike their politically engaged families, both Seryozha and Zhanna distance themselves from the world of politics when they are young. This does not appear dangerous while Russia is opening itself up to democracy during the 1990’s. As Putin comes to power, however, both characters are forced to reexamine their intentional distance from the government because of the way in which the nefarious actions of the Putin regime effect their lives.

Through these characters Gessen’s novel is accessible to both those who vividly remember the days of the Soviet Union and young students who loathe the tumultuous political landscape. Moreover, it is a remarkably timely book for all American’s. For the first time in half a century, Americans have decided that Russian makes a fine bedfellow. Regardless of political affiliation, or their feeling on Russian, all American’s should at least face the truth – the evil empire that we fought under Reagan is alive and well in Russian today.