Warning Americans About Creeping Autocracy

Masha Gessen describes The Future Is History as a “long nonfiction novel about trauma”

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Russian-American writer and activist Masha Gessen speaks at the first ever Russian-speaking LGBT Pride March at Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach on May 20, 2017. (Photo: Misha Friedman/Getty Images)

When Masha Gessen, still living in Russia, became known in the United States for her writing about Russia, she recalls many criticized her for being too “hysterical” in her depiction of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his impact on his country — and hers.

Today, hardly anyone would say that warnings about Putin are undeserved, much less “hysterical” — and some of that is probably due to Gessen.

In the past five years, the 2015 Carnegie fellow’s sharp reporting on Putin and Russia has appeared in publications such as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and gained a wider audience from her frequent lectures and television appearances. The book that emerged from Gessen’s Carnegie research — The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia — won the 2017 National Book Award for nonfiction. In it, Gessen follows four Russians, born when what was then the Soviet Union was opening up, who today, after years of Putin and the resurgence of authoritarianism, no longer see a future in their native country. Susan Glasser, former Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post, described Gessen’s book as “a sad, compelling indictment of the country where she was born.” Gessen sees it as a long nonfiction novel about trauma.

Now living in New York, Gessen today often focuses her penetrating gaze on the United States, drawing parallels between the two countries she has called home.

Born in Moscow, Gessen moved with her family to the United States as a teenager, returned to Russia in 1991, and then left again with her partner and children in 2012, fearing that Russia’s draconian anti-gay laws could destroy their family. Now living in New York, Gessen today often focuses her penetrating gaze on the United States, drawing parallels between the two countries she has called home. Describing herself as “an immigrant and even, technically, a refugee,” Gessen has been particularly scathing on the Trump administration’s immigration policies. She is proud of having put forth the word “autocrat” to describe both Putin and President Donald Trump. “It’s a good term for our times to describe Trump’s aspirations and Putin’s reality,” she says.

We need the imagination when we talk about the past and the present, but particularly the future.

— Masha Gessen, 2015 Andrew Carnegie Fellow

If we are to move beyond this, Gessem says, we need our imaginations. “We need the imagination when we talk about the past and the present, but particularly the future,” she says, noting that all too often we think of the future mostly in terms of gadgets. “We’ve completely handed the future over to the ‘stuff,’” she says. “We don’t think about what kind of society we want to live in in the future. We don’t have a vision.”