Writers & Company

From Soviet Russia to Trump's America, Masha Gessen on the nature of power and morality

The Russian-American journalist, author, translator and activist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about the abuse of power and rise of modern totalitarianism.
Eleanor Wachtel spoke with Russian-American author Masha Gessen in 2019. (Eleanor Wachtel/CBC)

Author and journalist Masha Gessen is hailed for astute and incisive analyses of both Russian and American abuses of power.  

A staff writer and columnist for The New Yorker magazine, Gessen is also the author of ten nonfiction books, including Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, which won the 2017 National Book Award.

Gessen was born in Moscow in 1967, to Jewish parents who were involved in dissident activities. When Gessen was 14 they emigrated to the United States, where Gessen began working as a journalist. Returning to Russia to cover the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gessen remained there until 2013, when Putin's anti-gay crackdown forced Gessen — who is gender-non-binary and writes extensively about LGBTQ rights — to leave for the United States once again. 

 Gessen now lives in New York City. This conversation with Eleanor Wachtel took place on stage at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., in November 2019. 

Moving from Moscow

"Being Jewish in the Soviet Union [meant] being systematically discriminated against on a daily basis. I was never allowed to forget that I was a Jewish kid. I got beaten up a lot in school. 

"But the biggest thing for both of my parents was that some universities — and some departments of some universities  — didn't accept Jews at all. Others had a very strict quota, so no matter how bright you were, no matter how well-prepared you were, you would face this moment of reckoning and this moment of extreme humiliation once you graduated from high school. Both of my parents had experienced this.

Being Jewish in the Soviet Union [meant] being systematically discriminated against on a daily basis. I was never allowed to forget that I was a Jewish kid.- Masha Gessen

"My father had wanted to be a physicist. the physics department of Moscow State University didn't take Jews. There was no way it was going to happen. 

"He ended up getting a degree in electrical engineering, then a second degree in computer science and I think being quite happy with his chosen field. But that sense of hopelessness and humiliation was something that stayed with him for the rest of his life. 

"Something similar happened to my mom. She had walked into her oral exams to see that the person administering the exam had the word 'Jewish' with an exclamation point next to her name underlined. She just walked out and went to a different college.

"My parents were really scared that their kids were going to have to go through this; it was a motivating factor for a lot of the Jewish émigrés who left the Soviet Union in the 1970s."

Parsing persecution

"The choice of the scapegoated minority is always random…. this is true not just of Putin: a lot of autocrats and aspiring autocrats are finding that LGBTQ people make for particularly convenient targets. 

"In Russia, it's especially so, because it's a stand-in for many things at once. It's a way of saying, if you want to go back to a past in which you felt more comfortable, before 1991, we just have to get rid of the gays. The message there is that there were no gay people in the Soviet Union. It's not a joke, there were no gay people in the Soviet Union.

"There were people who had sex with people of the same sex, and there were people who built all kinds of relationships, but there weren't people who claimed an identity and who claimed to belong to a group, and who made rights claims based on belonging to a group. 

The choice of the scapegoated minority is always random….- Masha Gessen

"That was a distinct political phenomenon that occurred after the Soviet Union collapsed, and it was imported from the West, again, not because gay people were imported from the West, but because these ideas were very clearly imported from the West.

"They were borrowed from cultures that had already formulated these ideas, and so this is a way of saying if you want to get rid of everything that makes you uncomfortable and has made you uncomfortable in the last quarter century, and if you want to push back against the West, which wants to change our culture, wants to force their values down our throats, it's all about the gays.

"Another thing that makes the gays particularly convenient is that no Russian has ever met an LGBTQ person. Surveys bear this out: Russians say that they don't know one. Like maybe they've seen me on TV or maybe they've seen this gay male performer… but otherwise they've never actually met one in person. 

"It is always more effective to scapegoat a minority that is not associated with people you know personally or members of your own family."

Dissident activities

"Dissidents were people who were politically persecuted for thinking differently. So usually you were considered a dissident when you actually suffered severe repercussions, such as being jailed or being forcibly exiled from the country— which is not what happened to us, we left voluntarily— or a lesser version would be being fired from your job and basically left without means to existence, often being internally exiled.

"For a small but measurable group of people, the repercussions for dissident activism were huge. It was a life-defining activity. 

For a small but measurable group of people, the repercussions for dissident activism were huge. It was a life-defining activity.- Masha Gessen

"But there was a wider circle of people who followed everything that the dissidents did and read everything that the dissidents published underground.

"They circulated books and periodicals that were published abroad, but took enough care to try not to get caught and never directly confronted the regime.

"My parents belonged to that wider circle of people. It was not risk-free by any stretch of the imagination, but it was not a terrifying kind of existence and there was no certainty that you would go to jail as, I would say, there was with actual dissidents." 

Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of a news conference in Helsinki on July 16, 2018, where he famously expressed doubts about U.S. intelligence claims of Russian interference in the U.S. election two years earlier. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press)

The power at play

"[Putin believes in] a Mafia state. It's distinct from any state that we've seen before. It is run by a clan with a patron at the centre who distributes money and power. So it's not crony capitalism because there's no transaction there. It's a system of favours. It's distributive.

"Putin controls it all. He allows you to have some power and some money as long as he wants you to have it. You can be born into the family, or you can be adopted into the family, but you can't bribe your way into the family. 

Putin controls it all. He allows you to have some power and some money as long as he wants you to have it.- Masha Gessen

"This is extremely useful for thinking about Trump, because I don't think that Trump thinks that there's a national interest that he's perverting.

"Trump is entirely driven by the possibility of using the president's office in his own interests; he basically believes that power exists for the purpose of distributing money and power — and for no other purpose."

Masha Gessen's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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