BOOK REVIEW: Homo Sovieticus cowed by Putin’s devious grip
Masha Gessen traces the rise of 21st century totalitarianism in Russia
Historian Andrei Amalrik, in his 1970 essay Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984, predicted that it wouldn’t. He was wrong — but only by seven years.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, followed by Boris Yeltsin’s radical revocation of communism, dislocated most citizens of the erstwhile USSR summarily into Amalrik’s predicted state of confusion and near-chaos.
The void would be filled by an opportunist, a man rising from the ranks of the KGB. Now, as Sana Krasikov phrases it in her 2017 novel, The Patriots, "Vladimir Vladimirovich and his judo partners have everyone in their chokehold."
Myriad books and articles have documented Vladimir Putin’s ambiguous amalgamation of Stalin and czar, exposing him as the master puppeteer behind outright malevolence both domestically and in many corners of the globe.
And Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia is a noteworthy addition, with a structure that sets it apart. Her approach is to focus on four people born in the 1980s, narrating the imprints upon their childhoods of the heady days — the shattering birth pangs of freedom — between 1991 and 1993 and then diarising their young adult experiences and disillusionment during Putin’s retreat and crackdown since taking power in 2000.
Gessen has deep connections among Russia’s politicians, senior business leaders and its dissident community. All four of her characters are from privileged backgrounds, which is a minor disappointment in that it offers an imbalanced perspective. The corollary is that through Seryozha — grandson of Alexander Yakovlev, a Politburo member who became Gorbachev’s instrumental reformer, the godfather of glasnost — and Zhanna, the daughter of Boris Nemtsov, Yeltsin’s deputy and subsequently the leading opposition politician for a decade — she is able to saturate the book with credible behind-the-scenes detail of seminal events in recent Russian history.
Gessen unravels strands of complexity in the hearts and minds of the Russian people — what Churchill termed "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma". Four generations of repression, overlaid with epic historical triumphs and terrible traumas as well as cultural and educational isolation, have blunted Russian mindsets into what Gessen calls Homo Sovieticus. It seems that older Russians are in love with their suffering. But even among younger generations, something deep within the Russian psyche beats only to the drum of a strongman’s cult of personality.
Putin’s authoritarianism may be the accepted price for today’s improving living standard.
But is his regime totalitarian, which — as defined — incorporates institutionalised terror? Gessen addresses this question in different ways. She skirts the lack of terror in Putin’s modus operandi by referencing the power of intergenerational post-memory. She clarifies in a podcast with The New Yorker that modern Russian society is "an economy of repression. [It was] developed in the late Soviet period [but] it turns out you don’t have to jail millions of people to keep them in line."
Irrespective, the records are ominous. Her book chronicles multiple stories of activists or opposition politicians whose lives have been destroyed by the apparatus of the state, whether forced into exile, jailed on trumped-up charges of tax evasion or mysteriously poisoned. Or worse: Nemtsov was assassinated outside the Kremlin in 2015, a crime that may never be satisfactorily solved.
Gessen’s point is that the 21st century needs an updated definition of totalitarianism. On a February 2016 night in Moscow, 97 buildings were demolished with almost no notification to residents. All media are vetted for political content and risk being harassed. Smaller things: pedestrian pavements are routinely torn up to make way for more eight-lane arterial roads. Today, the Russian John or Jane Doe need not fear the dead-of-night knock on the door of Stalin’s Great Terror, but Gessen portrays a state of "constant anxiety", a "low-level dread, which makes people easy to control because it robs them of the sense that they could control anything themselves".
This is the context for Gessen’s exasperation with Russians’ passive acquiescence. Putin’s popularity rating is in the high 80s. Partly, an ideology rooted in resurgent Russian nationalism, orthodox religion and conservatism — manifesting in aggressive foreign policy and sporting aggrandisement — accounts for this.
But Gessen also believes that western terminology cannot be superimposed on Russia’s psychological canvas; it makes little sense to probe public opinion in a society where views are voiced with trepidation, and where there is "no public". She means that the public sphere, the exchange and debate of unfettered information, is entirely compromised.
Yet courageous protest does occur. Performance artist Petr Pavlensky, in an act called Fixation, nailed his scrotum to the ground in front of Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square as a metaphorical commentary and rebellion against fatalism and political indifference.
And Gessen’s book is another in a body of work that represents her own impactful form of dissent. In a 2008 profile for Vanity Fair, while living in Moscow, she bravely profiled Putin as a "thug" and claimed the "backward evolution of Russia began with his inauguration". She has become one of the primary commentators shaping western views of 21st century Russian politics and society.
However, The Future is History falters in its insistence on the pessimism of ordinary people. Despite Putin’s strategy of subjugation, Russians today do not lead quotidian lives of drudgery and they have a greater combination of wealth, opportunities, consumer choices and freedoms than at any time in the last century.
But this does not invalidate the conclusion inherent in the book’s subtitle. It is a warning as to the negative forces of nationalism, insularity and hegemonic political power, and despite the monumental changes in post-Soviet society, Russians are fated to undergo another generation of control over their lives.
Legend has it that the architects of Moscow’s St Basil’s Cathedral were blinded after its completion, because Ivan the Terrible wanted them never to create something as wonderful again. Sadly, Putin has succeeded in blinding most Russians to the possibilities and benefits of a renewed, greater glasnost. Gessen’s achievement is to prove that Russia and its people are lessened by their leader.