Any American who has watched the news this year, absorbing –first skeptically and, latterly, with outraged acceptance — the agglomerating hulk of evidence of Kremlin interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election can see that reports of the death of the Cold War were grossly exaggerated. And so, argues a magisterial, panoramic overview of Russia under Putin, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen (she holds both nationalities) were reports of the death of what might be called the Soviet mind-set. That way of thinking, the author suggests, has endured for a quarter century, as the country formerly known as the USSR sought to regain its footing and its superpower status, with the support of a majority of its citizens.
After the Soviet Union officially expired on Christmas Day, 1991, when the hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered from the Kremlin and replaced by the Russian tricolor, Russia retreated significantly from international headlines. When Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet president, retired from politics on New Year’s Eve, 1999, he said in his departing address, “Russia will never go back to the past. From now on, Russia will be moving forward.” Many Kremlinologists — and businessmen excited by the prospect of a new frontier for investment — were tempted to agree with him. But three months later, in March 2000, a former KGB man, Vladimir Putin, became Russia’s president. Swiftly, Gessen writes, “He moved to reassert executive-branch control not only over the media but also over the judiciary and, broadly, the economy.” Rising oil prices brought the country new wealth, and some of the richest and most influential men in the New Russia — “oligarchs”– soon found themselves exiled or imprisoned, their assets seized, while Putin consolidated power. As Putin’s years in office extended, the reforms that Yeltsin and his democratizing predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, had tried to implement began melting away. But it wasn’t until February 2014, when the then three-term President Putin swaggeringly presided over the Olympic Games in Sochi, broadcasting his nation’s reclamation of imperial pretensions (which he would soon assert in Crimea and Ukraine) that the world woke up to the fact that Russia had other plans than Yeltsin had anticipated, and that they were well underway.
For outside observers in the 1990s, and long after, it had been convenient to think that, under the reins of perestroika, with the carrot of a market economy, the wayward troika of Russia at last would take a new direction. But in The Future Is History, Gessen shows that the Russian troika did in fact take a new direction: backward. To explain how this happened, Gessen relays the stories of inside observers — actual Russians, of three intertwined generations, who have struggled to chart a course through a landscape of endlessly shifting signposts. While the people she singles out are often vociferous opponents of the rearward direction of the New Russia, she gives at least equal time to the group the perestroika historian Yuri Afanasyev dubbed “the aggressively obedient majority” and to the tens of millions of ordinary Russians who would be happy to go back to the USSR, more or less. Why would such a large proportion of the populace support this turnabout? Do they miss the gulag? Not exactly, Gessen explains. Rather, they have been overtaken by “epidemic nostalgia” for the paternalist “stability” of the iron-fist Soviet past — the sort of totalitarian stability that, Gessen writes, uses “periodic purges or crackdowns” to create what Hannah Arendt described as “a state of permanent instability” that keeps the populace pliant. But Russians weren’t thinking of such constraints when they went to the polls, she contends. To borrow a contemporary American rallying cry, they yearned for a leader who could Make Russia Great Again. In Putin, they found that leader. Gessen reports that in a public opinion poll released in June 2017, conducted by Moscow’s Levada Center (a creditable institution that has been harassed by the Kremlin and labeled a “foreign agent”), Russians named Putin the second “most outstanding person of all time in the entire world.” More telling is who came in first: Stalin.
The deep-set Russian passion for dictators — vozhdizm, the “leader principle,” it’s called — bewilders the West and, Gessen shows, also bedevils progressive-minded Russians who hoped for a more democratic outcome of the upheavals of the 1990s. “We are afraid of freedom. We don’t know what to do with it,” the late Alexander Yakovlev, once a senior advisor to Gorbachev, told a journalist in 2005. Five years earlier, on New Year’s Eve, 1999, watching Yeltsin’s farewell speech with his grandson, Seryozha, Yakovlev had told the boy that Putin had some good ideas; his main worry was that Putin might fall prey to “the nomenklatura monster” — the grey cadres who controlled Soviet life and who remained, under new titles, in the post-Soviet hierarchy. By 2005, Yakovlev saw that his fears had been misplaced. Putin had been the head of the monster all along. For twenty years, progressive-minded Russians hoped that the first generation born, like Yakovlev’s grandson, with no memory of Stalin’s terror would fight the resurgence of a Soviet-style nomenklatura and overcome Russia’s totalitarian legacy. But by 2017, as members of that generation either emigrated or found a way to get by in Putin’s notional “illiberal democracy,” diehards began putting their hopes in activist Russian teenagers from “the generation of kids born under Putin.” Seryozha, no rabble-rouser, had ceased communicating with the author.
Seryozha Yakovlev is one of the young characters in Gessen’s tri-generational recapitulation of the last thirty years. Understanding that the transformations of this epoch are dizzyingly complex and difficult to interpret — even for reporters who worked in Yeltsin’s Russia in the 1990s and returned to Putin’s Russia in the 2000s (I am one such reporter) — Gessen has endeavored to put a human face on the tick-tock, attempting to make felt emotionally what cannot be easily reconciled intellectually. Her cast is divided into three contingents. The first is the youngest: four children, Zhanna, Masha, Seryozha, and Lyosha, who were born amid the reformist tumult of the mid-’80s but came of age as the nation was slipping back into authoritarianism. Call them Generation P: young people shaped by the collision of perestroika and Putin.
The next group Gessen weaves in is members of their parents’ generation — like Boris Nemtsov (Zhanna’s father), the reformist politician and activist who was murdered in sight of the Kremlin on February 27, 2016; wary oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Prokhorov, and Mikhail Fridman; and sociologists like the psychoanalyst Marina Arutunyan, whose clients began suffering from “anxiety” and “panic attacks” in Putin’s last two terms, as limits on their freedoms multiplied; the sociologist Lev Gudkov (who now works for Moscow’s Levada Center); and the idiosyncratic nationalist fulminator Alexander Dugin, who opposes Western values, publicizes revanchist visions of effective ideologies for the New Russia, and is known as a “Putin whisperer.”
The third contingent is mostly represented by Yakovlev, the Soviet- and Gorbachev-era official whom Gessen identifies, in formal Russian style, by his first name and patronymic: Alexander Nikolaevich. As the book unfolds, the characters’ experiences thicken, melding with the signal acts that favored Putin’s rise and assured his hold: the thwarted 1991 attempt by hard-liners to overthrow Gorbachev; the siege of the Russian White House and Moscow’s central television station by hard-liners in 1993 (Yeltsin quelled it, with help from the army); the wars in Chechnya; the 2002 Chechen terrorist takeover of a Moscow theater; the 2004 Beslan school massacre; assassinations of anti-government journalists and activists; mass arrests of protestors; the demonization of LGBT community by the Russian parliament; the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. The characters’ personal histories add life and nuance to Gessen’s narrative. But it takes a while to get a handle on all of the players, who are as numerous as the cast of a Tolstoy novel, if less romantically clad.
But portraying the politics of totalitarianism does not call for a romantic filter. Gessen’s reconstruction of the ongoing saga of Russia’s reversion to vozhdizm makes for thrilling and necessary reading for those who seek to understand the path to suppression of individual freedoms, and who recognize that this path can be imposed on any nation that lacks the vigilance to avert it. In the Soviet era, Gessen writes, “Not only did the country shield all essential and most nonessential information behind a wall of secrets and lies,” it also “waged a concerted war on knowledge itself.” This book, in laying out the essential knowledge that is so hard to synthesize, represents a victory for knowledge, a tank shell fired at the wall that hides truth.
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