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Talking With Masha Gessen, the Ultimate Authority on Authoritarianism

The renowned Putin biographer is our most sought-after expert in the Trump era. Her latest, 'The Future Is History,' reveals how easily democracy can devolve into autocracy.
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At 50, the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, perhaps best known for her fearless biography on Vladimir Putin (A Man Without a Face) has been reporting on politics, conflict, and civil rights for more than half her life. And since the election of Donald Trump, her extensive, impressive scholarship—which includes post-Soviet Russia, Putin, and LGBTQ rights—is finding a new and an ever-growing audience, especially with essays like “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” which went viral after the election, as we desperately search for a blueprint on how to live under an increasingly totalitarian government. She’s emerged as the expert we need more than ever.

I always feel deeply indebted to fellow journalists who make it so easy to passionately recommend their well-researched, thought-provoking books, whether it’s a chronicle that honors the 50-year friendship of her grandmothers or a biography of a man I wish I didn’t feel the need to understand so intimately—her wholly accessible, indispensable and gripping biography of Putin, The Man Without A Face, has been the ultimate primer for me, and I think many other American readers on how to begin to grasp the significance of post-Soviet politics. After her appearance on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah earlier this summer, Noah thanked Gessen for her work, saying, “I appreciate your mind.” As more of us become more familiar with her and her work, we’ll come to find ourselves grateful for her mind, too.

I spoke with Gessen recently, and we discussed her new book The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Riverhead Books), which hits stores today. The work of narrative nonfiction follows four young people coming of age in a time that was promised to be the dawn of Russia’s democracy—and how they coped as it devolved, under Putin, into something quite the opposite, offering a terrifying portrait what has become of its citizens after its collapse.

Gessen also talked about political apathy and what it feels like to be so suddenly in-demand as an expert on authoritarianism.

 
As a journalist, how do you choose the subjects you cover?

I have to be interested in the topic. It has to be something I can live with for a couple of years, which, I’ve learned from experience Writing Perfect Rigor, my book about mathematician Grigori Perelman, I was pretty miserable. It just wasn’t as compelling—and he wasn’t as sympathetic a character—as I’d expected. The book did quite well, but I was really unhappy writing it, whereas with books about Putin, while he’s not sympathetic, he’s compelling, and I was fascinated enough. In writing The Man Without a Face, I was taken with putting together things that were known but not systematized. That kept me fully engaged.

Even if he’s fascinating, some writers might not want to spend so much time with Putin, though.

That’s true! Psychologists tell us people can become taken with experiencing disgust. There’s a relationship between disgust and arousal. Disgust wouldn’t be first word that comes to mind with Putin or Trump; I didn’t view it as that phenomenon. Rather, if a topic is horrible and important enough, I can stay emotionally invested. This new book, The Future Is History, was the best of both worlds. I was intellectually engaged with the theoretical content, but I also loved writing about most of the people in the book.

How do you make sense of people whose primary motivation is power?

It’s an observable phenomenon, and there are a lot of people like that around. But it’s hard to find empathy with that. I can start with known fact, but again, I can’t say that I have it emotionally figured out. Power for the sake of power? Yes, it’s hard to relate to, so in some ways, it was much easier for me to empathize with the Boston Marathon bombers in writing The Brothers. They make perfect emotional sense to me. I don’t need to jump through emotional hoops to work out how that works out, how resentment and disappointment turns to anger, whereas with a drive to power for sake of power, I just have to know it’s an observable phenomenon and have that be enough.

 
There was a line in 'The Man Without A Face' that I think about often for this reason: you wrote that you once followed a story for two years without knowing what the story really was. You had to hold true that something was happening, and that was enough to keep paying attention.

With all journalists, there’s always a balance of tradeoff in hypothesis and allowing the story to take over. You can’t just observe everything, although I’ve seen people try and that’s a sad spectacle. For about 20 years, I worked as editor running large teams of people, and I would see it in journalists, especially those starting out. Not having a hypothesis is a common mistake. You come back with 100 hours of interviews in recorded audio. You have to transcribe it, and you don’t know what you’re doing. The flip is more common among more experienced reporters: when people have a clear narrative in their heads, and they go report but take only what fits the narrative and they’re so closed to anything that doesn’t. I think I’m pretty much immune to the first but no one is immune to second trap. We’re always walking along the edge of it. It’s intelligence but also dumb luck. My hypothesis about Trump turned out to be more accurate than a lot of people’s. But you look at the vote tally in the districts he won, and it really is luck! But my hypothesis ends up being relevant. The thinking I’d been doing, working on this book before the election, positioned me perfectly to make sense of what was happening. If I’d been working on something else, it wouldn’t have happened.

How much do you think that passivity threatens democracy? How do we talk about that without reprimanding others?

People are passive when it doesn’t make emotional or intellectual sense to act. Passivity is a huge problem, and I think we have to figure out in this country why and how democratic mechanisms have become abstracted for a lot of people, and why people don’t feel like anything they do in democratic system is going to have consequences for their lives. That doesn’t just apply to people who don’t go to polls. It’s people who voted for Trump, and I’d argue people who voted for Bernie as well. This is well documented in the study of political science, in that one consequence of alienation is protest voting. Using political science to understand this, we should ask: why would someone who feels disconnected from the system go and cast a vote just in protest? A person does it because they don’t think their vote has consequence. It’s the same with children. Kids throw tantrums because they feel hopeless, whether they’re asking their parents for something or their attempts at reasoning are not working. So they lose hope and throw a tantrum. So that’s really what we have to address, and the challenge there is, yes, not reprimanding in the process.

Do you think your reporting has changed your outlook on the world over time?

I hope it has. That gets us right back to your earlier question. One can only be a good reporter if one is open to adjusting and changing their hypothesis. I’ve been a journalist for 34 years. That’s a way more than half of my life. So yes, my reporting has continuously changed my life.

You recently wrote about moral corrosion, which really resonated with me. Given how you’ve perhaps seen similar themes play out in Russia, what do you believe moral corrosion does to a society?

Now that we’re nine months into this nightmare—or almost a year—I think there’s a little bit of a crisis of column writing. How many columns about how horrible Trump is can we write? I’ve been trying to figure that out for myself. What I realized is that I have to question whether a particular topic is something I want to write about. Right now, I’m ridiculously busy, so I have to pace myself. I realized what’s important to me is not to write about how horrible he is but to try to document what’s happening to us. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that I think there’s more to mine there; its less repetitive. But it’s also really important because there will come a time after Trump. I’m obsessed with the question of whether it’s possible to recover from a national nightmare. This works toward answering that question. Are we going to be able to recover from this, and in the meantime, what damage is being done to our culture and to the social fabric?  There’s no obvious answer. And to be clear, in that piece, I’m not saying Congress can’t make deals with Trump. He’s the president! It’s their job to get certain things accomplished. But that’s where we’re going to need some powerful leadership and stories, like a story about how good we are as a nation, which is not the Democratic Party’s concern right now.

What have you read or are you reading that you find most interesting and illuminating?

I’m working on a new book about destroying democracy, and in connection with that book—in researching for that—I’m reading two-volume study of the folklore of Russian speaking immigrants to Israel. It’s a study of language, the study of story. It’s a kind of ethnography; two Russian-speaking immigrants wrote it, so it’s actually an autoethnography. It’s such a great book, such a great study, and such a terrific way of learning about people. One of researchers conducts studies largely focused on jokes. And when I read it, I often end up laughing out loud! I’m reading it in Russian, so that is probably not the sort of recommendation you’re seeking. But it’s really awesome.

I spend a lot of time thinking about grandparents, and I’d love to ask about yours. Given the way the world changed between your grandmothers’ early and middle lives—as commemorated in ‘Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace’—and yours, how do you think they understood your life and your choices?

They both died a couple of years ago; they were in their 90s, and they observed probably more than half my life. I think they were sort of regular grandmothers. My maternal grandmother, Ruzya, had worked as a censor and lived in our downstairs apartment the last seven years of her life. She knew I was well known journalist in Russia, and she was very pleased that people knew my work. She’d also look at me in the morning and say, ‘Are you going to work like that?’ But she was definitely quite proud of me. My other grandmother, Ester, was extraordinary in the sense of being fully engaged with news and the world until the day she died. She’d discuss talk shows and the latest controversies with me and be just as angry with someone in public life as she could be with her family. For her, there was no meaningful distinction between my work and my life. I’ve been really lucky to meet many people still doing extraordinary work late in life. The New York Review of Books’ Bob Silvers was the greatest editor I ever worked with. He had no plans to die; it appeared it never occurred to him. Psychohistorian Robert Jay Lifton is doing hugely relevant work. I’ve been reading him forever, and in writing The Future Is History, his name came up again. This is someone his 90s who offers us an overarching history of psychology of the late 20th century, and he just put out a diagnosis on TrumpI’ve been the youngest person on a panel on which everybody there is doing hugely relevant work but drawing on 60 years of experience. There are certainly people who make use of the historical periods they live through.

How does it feel to be more in demand than ever for your expertise since the arrival of Trump?

It’s fun. It’s weird. I have a sense of humor about it, which has to do with the absolute absurdity of having escaped Russia and now having transferrable skills, having written so much about Putin. It’s really nice to have recognition. It’s not like I’ve been struggling; I’ve had a charmed career in journalism in that I have always been able to make a living off of it. It is lovely to be recognized. It’s not great to not be able to pick my nose on the plane anymore. But I also recognize that it’s fleeting.

Brittany Shoot is a freelance writer and photographer based in San Francisco. She's a contributing writer for Smithsonian and Sojourners, and her writing has also appeared in Time, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian and The Economist. Follow her: @brittanyshoot
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