The Sunday Magazine

Masha Gessen on how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia

The toppling of the old order in Petrograd in 1917 showed the world that regimes can tumble, and that change is possible. But there is no guarantee things will change for the better. Michael talks to Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, who has chronicled Russia's return to totalitarianism under President Vladimir Putin.
Russian police officers detain an opposition supporter during a May Day rally in St-Petersburg on May 1, 2011. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

When the Soviet Union collapsed, it was supposed to be the beginning of a new era. 

Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen spent her early career covering what was expected to be the birth of Russian democracy. She then spent her 30s and 40s covering its demise. 

(Penguin Random House)
Gessen's new book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, traces the re-emergence of the old Soviet order through the eyes of four young people who have spent their entire adult lives under the rule of Vladimir Putin. It won the 2017 National Book Award for Nonfiction in the United States. 

Gessen's work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and many other publications. Her previous books include The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin

She spoke to Michael Enright about Putin's rise to power, and the legacy of the Russian Revolution in contemporary Russia. 

Masha Gessen (CBC)

This is a partial transcript that has been edited for length and clarity. Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. 

What was it like to be covering the so-called birth of Russian democracy in 1991?

Or at least that's what we thought it was at the time. It was incredibly exciting. It really felt like the best place in the world to be. It felt like an entire nation asking all the important questions and sort of coming up with the best possible answers.

What was it like in the streets of Moscow and in the lives of ordinary Russians in that time?

That's a difficult question to answer, actually, because I think I belong to a fairly small group of the population [as both a Western journalist and a Russian intellectual]. At the time, it felt like all of us were very excited, and for all of us it was an opening up of opportunity. Certainly for a journalist, it was a time of invention.

But as the great psychoanalyst and social psychologist Eric Fromm wrote, people experience freedom as "freedom from" - freedom from restraints - and "freedom to," which is the freedom to invent, freedom to explore … which can be an unbearable burden. And I think that's what we failed to understand at the time. For a small number of us, the "freedom to" was just the best thing there was. But probably for most of the population it was painful, the uncertainty was overwhelming, and ultimately it was too much to take.

Suddenly the door would be open and people would be dislocated about what's on the other side.

As one former dissident actually put it - she said we all emigrated without leaving our beds.

What went wrong? What were the early signs that something was amiss?

We don't think that if you take a person out of an abusive situation - say, somebody who has grown up in an abusive family, or somebody who's been a victim of human trafficking - you don't just take them out of that situation and say, "Go live a normal life. Have happy healthy relationships." We know that's not going to happen. We know that people need care and intervention and treatment and even then it's more likely than not, that they will go and recreate in some ways a situation of abuse.

Well, it's true of societies as well, as we're learning. You can't just tell the country, OK, you lived through seventy years of totalitarianism - unimaginable terror, unimaginable loss of life, and now it's all over. Go have a normal, freedom-loving democracy. Apparently that doesn't work.

Boris Yeltsin became Russia's first popularly elected president in 1991 on the heels of the Soviet Union's collapse. Yeltsin presided over a turbulent decade of economic and political reforms - and gained a reputation for colourful behaviour - before retiring on Dec. 31, 1999. (Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty)

The other point that I would make is that Boris Yeltsin and the very small group of people who surrounded him at the time - their goal was not to dismantle Soviet institutions.Their basic goal, as they understood it, was to take over Soviet institutions and to undertake radical economic reform and move what had been the Soviet Union toward a market economy. In this sense, they were total, absolute Marxists. They thought that by reforming the economy they would change lives in every way possible. They didn't set for themselves the challenge of conceptualizing a post-Imperial identity for Russia. They did not set for themselves the goal of in any way reckoning with the past. In fact, Yeltsin wanted to let sleeping dogs lie. And in many ways, life was better, but you can't move past trauma by ignoring the fact that it ever happened.

I want to talk about something called the Homo Sovieticus survey. This was conducted in 1989 by a Russian sociologist name Yuri Levada. He wanted to understand the type of person created by the Russian Revolution and then by the Stalin era. What were the characteristics of Homo Sovieticus?

It was a person, or as he put it, a cultural institution. A set of behaviours that allowed people to survive as best as possible in a situation of terror. The Homo Sovieticus is a person who is extremely adept at doublethink. If Levada had been a psychologist rather than a sociologist, he would have talked also about the sort of the state in which that person lives, which is a state of low level dread at all times - which is something that allows a person to function, just barely, but doesn't allow a person to plan for the future. It doesn't allow the person any sense of agency over their own lives.

Levada's theory was that Homo Sovieticus had developed in response to terror. Actual terror ended in the 1950s after Stalin's death. So he figured that after a generation had passed, Homo Sovieticus had to be dying out, and once he died out, the Soviet Union would collapse because Soviet institutions rested on Homo Sovieticus. When Levada's group of sociologists carried out that survey in 1989, they were ecstatic, because their hypothesis was borne out - and the Soviet Union collapsed right on schedule in 1991.

Then in 1994, they went to do the survey again, and discovered something rather disturbing, which was that it was not a dying breed.

Homo Sovieticus was not disappearing, but was in fact replicating itself, or "breeding".

That was the conclusion that they came to when they went back to do the survey again five years later, in 1999. This is on the eve of Putin coming to power. They're looking at the results of their survey, and they're saying Homo Sovieticus is thriving and replicating. At that point they were talking about the conditions being ripe for a return to totalitarianism.

The survey also seemed to reveal a deep sense of nostalgia for past leaders - even for Stalin himself. Where does the Russian longing for a strong leader come from?

You know, I don't think there's a Russian longing for a strong leader. I don't think that longing for a strong leader is nationally bound, and I certainly don't think that Russians were born to live in tyranny or genetically engineered to live in tyranny.

What I think is right here is from Fromm's analysis, that there are times in history - and I think we're witnessing such a time in history all over the world right now - when the sense of up-rootedness, the sense of uncertainty, is so overwhelming for a critical mass of people that they want to give up their agency to someone who promises to take them back to an imaginary past.

This is from an interview with Alexander Yakovlev, who was the ideas man behind Gorbachev. He said - you quote him in the book - "It's a disease. It's a Russian tradition. We had our czars, our princes, our secretaries-general, our collective farm chairmen, and so on. We live in fear of the boss." If you spent your life living in fear of the boss, why do you want the boss back?

Because you don't know any other way to live. Because if you no longer fear the boss then that means you have to take charge of your own life, and that can be overwhelmingly terrifying.

Did you find a sense that people wanted stability, that they wanted continuity, a sense of what the country is and what they are, rather than the messy protocols of democracy?

I think that's exactly right, and that's not a uniquely Russian condition. And again, I think we're seeing that emerge in the United States on a terrifying scale.

1936: Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, 1879 - 1953), addressing the Extraordinary 8th All Union Congress of Soviets on the draft of the USSR's constitution. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Did you find that there was a resurgence in interest, even affection, for Stalin?

Well if you look at the polls, Stalin has been rising in the polls steadily since the collapse of the Soviet Union - and he has been advancing steadily in the Putin era, which has found varied justifications for Stalinist terror.

In 1999, Boris Yeltsin appoints Putin as his successor, and then, by a process that you describe as "akin to magic", Putin's approval ratings go through the roof. Why was he so popular then, and popular now?

Putin's approval ratings have actually gone through the roof three times in the 18 years that he's been in power, and all of those times have had to do with aggression.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in St.Petersburg, Russia, on July 30, 2017. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

The first time was in the fall of 1999, after Yeltsin plucks him out of obscurity and appoints him prime minister. Then after a series of terrorist attacks in Russia, he goes on television and promises to hunt down the terrorists and wipe them out. He promises extrajudicial executions. He also usurps power. The prime minister in Russia is not in charge of the armed forces. It was not Putin's place to say this, but he becomes the sovereign, de facto, who seizes power in Russia. Yeltsin resigned as president three months later, in part to allow Putin to capitalize on that incredible popularity and to ensure that Putin would become president.

His popularity skyrocketed for the second time in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia and annexed about a third of its territory. It skyrocketed again in 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed a portion of its territory, and annexed Crimea. It has held steadily at totalitarian level numbers of around 86 percent since then, because Putin has maintained a steady level of aggression and mobilization in the country.

You write about a popular Russian expression that translates as "there is no future." How has Putin been able to counter that feeling?

Actually, I don't think he has been able to counter that feeling. I think that what Putin has done, is he has trafficked only in the past. Again, I think to American listeners this would be sort of familiar, because here we have a politician who traffics in the imaginary past.

US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin speak during their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentiev/AFP/Getty Images)

He doesn't promise a glorious future. He promises to take people back to when they felt comfortable, when they felt secure. Such a time never existed. But it was a time when things were as they should be… and among other things, it dovetails with his trafficking increasingly in what he calls traditional values.

I find that fascinating. He's not a Communist.

I think that the role of communist ideology in the Soviet Union was certainly overstated by the 60s and 70s. Everything that we have learned about the Soviet Union since bears that out. Communist ideology was important when the totalitarian state was being established. The two pillars of totalitarianism are - as Hannah Arendt has written - ideology and terror. But as we have learned, once the totalitarian state is established, it seems to shed its ideology.

Anything can serve as an ideology, can serve as a mobilizing idea. Because we're talking about people who are really not thinking a minute into the future, who are existing in a state of low-level dread. Their goal is to survive today. A complicated ideology is really unnecessary. We can mobilize today around Crimea, we can mobilize tomorrow around Syria, we can mobilize around something else the day after. There is no sense of continuity.

Can the Putin regime, as it exists today, be characterized as totalitarian?

Actually, I don't think the regime can be characterized as totalitarian. This is where it gets a little complicated. I think that what happened was that Putin set out to build a mafia state. He had no ambitions of being a totalitarian leader. He wanted to hold onto power in perpetuity, and he wanted to get rich, and he wanted to make sure that his friends got rich. For the first 12 years in power, he could have a mafia state as an authoritarian.

In an authoritarian state, nothing is political. The authoritarian ruler does not want people to participate. He wants them to stay home, tend to their private business and leave him and his clique alone to do their business. The totalitarian ruler wants the exact opposite. He wants people out in the streets, out in the public square, cheering for his latest conquest. Everything becomes political and the private realm disappears. And so in Russia, Putin was an authoritarian and he built an authoritarian regime to sustain his mafia state.

A protester carries a poster depicting Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a protest rally against the alleged rigging of parliamentary elections in St. Petersburg on December 24, 2011. The poster reads: "Corruption, censorship, dying out, ruined justice and trampled laws including Constitution." (OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images)

After protests broke out in 2011, 2012, he needed to crack down. When he cracked down, the old habits and customs of a totalitarian society kicked in, because he wasn't cracking down just anywhere. He was cracking down in a country that had lived through decades of totalitarianism, where the habits, the tools for surviving in a state of totalitarianism had been passed on from generation to generation. And now what we have, I think, is a mafia state presiding over a totalitarian society.

Demonstrators rally against the continued detention of left-wing activist Sergei Udaltsov in central St. Petersburg, on December 30, 2011. (OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images)

Before 1917, the czarist system seemed to be permanent. So did the Soviet Union, for much of the 20th century. Vladimir Putin seems to be permanent now, but could there be a third Russian revolution?

I don't think there's likely to be a revolution as in a violent change of regime. I think that Putinism will end because everything ends sooner or later. I think it's quite likely that the end of Putinism will be Putin's death... but not necessarily.

In a piece for The New York Times, you said the challenge of reforming and healing Russia may exceed human capacity. That's a little disturbing, isn't it?

I'm not here to reassure you, I'm afraid. As humans, I don't think we've ever seen a condition quite like Russia's.

The 20th century saw several totalitarian regimes, and the closest comparison was between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. But in Nazi Germany, it lasted 13 years rather than 70 years, as in the case of the Soviet Union. So when it ended, most of the population still had a living memory of what it had been like before.

[In Nazi Germany], the way the terror was constructed, the people who had been killed had been "Other." There was a clear distinction between victims and executioners and bystanders. In the Soviet Union, there were no bystanders. Everyone was either a victim or an executioner. But the worst part is that everybody was a victim and an executioner. Every family contained within itself both victims and executioners. People were victimized by becoming executioners, and then executioners were executed on trumped-up charges, becoming victims. We have never seen a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for that kind of thing, for the crime of having done this to ourselves, for generations. It may not be possible to atone for that kind of violence.

What does the centenary of the revolution mean for Vladimir Putin? How is he handling it?

I don't think he knows what the centenary of the revolution means for him. On the one hand, he is a fan of the Soviet Union. He's nostalgic for the great state. On the other hand, he despises the last Russian czar, Nicholas the Second, for giving in to the revolution. On the third hand, he's an imperialist in sort of the great czarist tradition. For most of the time that Putin has been creating his own mythology, he has created a seamless picture of Russia. In his historiography, Ivan the Terrible begets Peter the Great, begets Stalin, begets Putin. That's his lineage, but it doesn't really leave room for conceptualizing the Russian Revolution.

Protester carry a model of a prison cell with the cut-out figures of Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R), Chairman of the Russian Central Election Commission Vladimir Churov (L) and President Dmitry Medvedev (C) during a protest rally against the alleged rigging of the elections in St. Petersburg, on December 24, 2011. (OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images)

He can't celebrate a revolution against power, because he's the one in power, isn't he?

That's exactly right. And he can't claim the Soviet legacy so directly as to completely discredit the czars. He's actually claimed the czars as his predecessors. They really haven't been able to figure out how to handle the anniversary of the revolution. Some years ago, they exhumed the remains of the czar's family, and I think the idea was that they would re-inter them around the centenary of the revolution, but they haven't, because I think they haven't figured out what the story is.

What is the most compelling legacy that 1917 has for you?

When I was a kid, hanging out in dissident circles, we had this joke - which is not a joke at all, but in times of terror, a joke can be just stating facts. The joke was that Russia had democracy for eight months - from February until October 1917.

So that's what I think of 1917. My great-grandfather was the parliamentary correspondent for the leading Russian newspaper at the time, and prided himself on never having missed a session of parliament for the 12 years that Russia had a parliament. I once actually spent a summer reading all of his stories from 1905 until 1917. He wrote his last one on October 26, 1917, and he gave up journalism after that. The next day he realized that he was not going to be able to go to work in the new country.

He wrote full page newspaper stories every day from parliament between February and October. Sometimes he was excited, and sometimes he was despondent. But it was a kind of a life. It was actual political life, as vibrant as any political life ever has been. And then it just shut down.

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.