Russian Roulette: A Generation's Redemption
President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin can rig elections and repress genuine protest thanks to loyal security forces, a subordinate judiciary, a tightly controlled media environment, and a legislature made up of a ruling party and pliable opposition fractions. Corruption is rampant, allowing for shifting alliances between bureaucrats and organised crime groups. In other words, the grand mission of Russian democratisation failed. But as they say, “Never say never.” Even under Putin's watchful eyes, a youthful generation rises to the challenge of building their own fair, just, open and truly democratic Russia from its ashes. Here to advocate their struggle through the lens of Masha Gessen’s ‘The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,’ is Perspectoverse’s Anvita Tripathi.
Strobe Talbott, the Clinton administration's official on all things Russian, orated on American strategy toward Moscow at Stanford University in 1997. In not many words, he conceded that persuading the unstable President Boris Yeltsin to stay on track with democratic advancement was a challenge. Despite this, Talbott expressed optimism. He called his key determiner more "generational" than anything else.
or to be even more blunt, biological. The dynamic of what is happening in Russia today is not just Westernizers versus Slavophiles; it is also young versus old—and the young have a certain advantage in at least that dimension of the larger struggle.
Many Moscow correspondents were startled by his obtuseness, a feeling that has lingered ever since. They wondered how younger Russians would respond if a US envoy expressed publicly his want for their elders to die out soon, paving the way for an American vision of progress.
“Why did democracy not work in Russia?”
The inquiry doesn’t ask anything particularly original. Communists and ultranationalists were already debating whether the country's dramatic demographic loss, unparalleled in peacetime, was the result of American-engineered conspiracies “to weaken Russia.” In actuality, a “weakened Russia” was far more likely to lose effective control over its massive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, greatly increasing the chances that some would fall into terrorist hands. Such a result does not appear to be in the West's or anybody else's best interests. A secure, affluent, and democratic Russia was a much better bet—assuming, of course, that someone had a solid plan in place to make it happen.
By the time Talbott gave his address, such a scenario seemed implausible. Though they were plainly in the minority, a few Russians who believed in the concepts of political and economic independence were thriving. Young people were not the self-evident constituency for a liberal future, according to the data. The majority of young individuals, particularly those from outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, voiced nationalist sentiments. They rejoiced at the freedom to travel and shop, but they also lamented the Soviet Union's demise. Such contradictory perspectives made perfect sense to people who had no awareness of the communist system's hardships and who had lived through the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras of instability and economic upheaval.
In her book, ‘The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,’ Masha Gessen tells the story of sociologist Yuri Levada, who conducted a wide-ranging survey of Soviet public opinion during this period in her outstanding new book about Russia's shift from shaky democracy in the 1990s to the Putinist present. In 1987, he and his colleagues distributed tens of thousands of questionnaires to citizens, each including a series of questions (When did people like to celebrate? What were their biggest fears?) in order to elicit evidence of shifting mindsets. Levada deduced from their responses that the Soviet citizen of the 1980s—or "Homo Sovieticus," as some mockingly called it—was an innately endangered species. The generations that had been moulded by Stalinist terror and Brezhnevite stagnation were now giving way to a younger, more confident generation. He set out to record the shift in views that would accompany this drastic transformation, concluding that Homo Sovieticus was "a dying breed," whose extinction would mark the end of the Soviet Union as a whole.
Gessen claims that this attempt was important since the Soviet Union was a place that didn't know itself. Divergent disciplines like sociology, psychology, and philosophy were given limited room under Marxist doctrine. Russia's gradual learning of communal self-knowledge could only begin with a juddering transition to democracy. Gessen tells the story through the lives of seven characters: sociologist Lev Gudkov, one of Levada's collaborators; Seryozha, the grandson of a Perestroika architect; Zhanna, the daughter of a prominent liberal politician; Marina Arutyunyan, a woman who discovers her vocation as a psychoanalyst; Masha, a young woman who organises anti-government protests; Lyosha, a professor who discovers his queer identity and establishes the country's first formal gender studies programme; and Alexander Dugin, a disgruntled scholar who becomes the primary ideologue of a new strain of Russian ultranationalism.
All seven come from well-educated, affluent backgrounds, which equips them with the tools and self-awareness to articulate their own experiences. Notably, there are no businesspeople, bureaucrats, or members of the security forces in the group—people who, one could say, were just as important in moulding Russia's post-Soviet fate. Gessen's cast of people, on the other hand, create a compelling story of their own, offering an intimate peek into a group vital to comprehending the country's brief experience with democracy and subsequent authoritarian rule.
Four of Gessen's seven characters were born in the 1980s, and as they grew up in the post-Soviet era, they seem to foreshadow a shift in attitudes. Lyosha, the LGBTQIA+ rights campaigner, is from Solikamsk, a hardscrabble hamlet in the Urals, 1,000 kilometres East of Moscow. Lyosha thrived as a teenager in the 1990s as he explored his identity by wielding new freedoms and interacting with a worldwide network of activists. He persuades some of his more open-minded colleagues to recognise sexual identity as a topic worthy of investigation. He even founded a Gender Studies Center at his institution in Perm, which had housed a Stalinist death camp.
Zhanna, the daughter of liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, remembers the 1990s as a period of her father's meteoric rise in political power. In the provincial city of Nizhny Novgorod, he develops a name for himself, but his family soon relocates to Moscow. He was even named as Yeltsin's formal successor there for a period (an odd status in what is ostensibly, at this time, an electoral democracy). During this time, Seryozha, who is also from the ruling elite, develops his own political sensibility. The changes brought about by the disintegration of the Soviet Union are startling to him: he watches his grandfather, a Gorbachev aide, struggle with Vladimir Putin's ascension and the fading of a comparably free society. Masha, on the other hand, comes from a family of intellectuals who are uninterested in politics; her own political awakening occurs as she confronts the New Russia's rising corruption and dwindling mobility. They are all examples of the openness to change that characterised many members of the educated elite at the period.
By the conclusion of the first decade of the twenty-first century, sociologist Lev Gudkov finds, much to his surprise, that his mentor Levada's prediction of the Soviet personality type's demise has proven to be an illusion. To put it another way, Talbott's "biological" solution hasn't come to fruition—quite the contrary, in fact. The authoritarian mindset was far more deeply embedded than the optimists had thought, as statistics from numerous nationwide surveys began to reveal:
This was Gudkov’s depressing and, he had to admit, radical idea: The last century could be viewed as a continuity, with periodic bumps of “aborted modernization,” and the society he had been studying his entire adult life had stayed essentially the same. What made this idea radical was that no one wanted to hear it.
In a number of ways, Gessen's protagonists are confronted with the remarkable endurance of old attitudes. But it's probably Lyosha's story that best shows the pattern Gudkov noticed. He suffers as an openly gay man as Putin's ascent gradually reintroduces homosexuals to the state's official enemies list, with the ultra-reactionary Kremlin targeting them as exemplars of alleged "Western decadence." As the official narrative progressively demonises homosexuality, Lyosha's university colleagues begin to approach him differently as they detect the shifting political winds; he finds himself the focus of a resurgent Soviet culture of snitching and craven appeasement to the powers that be. Lyosha's journey of self-discovery is heartbreaking, taking him from hesitant emergence to uncertain victory to deafening defeat. Lyosha had relocated to the United States by the end of Gessen's reporting, and he is now leading a second life as a gay activist in Brooklyn's Russian-speaking areas.
Individual revelations are some of the most compelling aspects of Gessen's book. Seryozha travels from Kiev to Moscow in March 2008 solely to vote in the presidential election. He waits fifty minutes in line for subway tickets after a long journey from the airport into the city. He conjures up a minor insurrection because the tickets are cheap and he has plenty: He purchases 60 tickets and begins giving them away for free. Even though he hasn't broken any laws, the cops take him into custody right away. They chastise him for "reselling" tickets, then they chastise him for putting the cashier in danger. One of them inquires, "What do you think you are, God?"
The episode illustrates a social dynamic that is intricately linked to long-standing totalitarian instincts. It was previously dubbed "collective hostage-taking" by Levada:
It turned everyone into an enforcer of the existing order, independent and often outside of any law. In the case of the Metro queue, the police officer instinctively sensed that it was his job to ensure that all passengers remain in a state of equal misery, and to prevent any attempt at self-organization. At the polling place, the ballot—with the absurd, almost virtual candidate in first place—turned every voter into a co-conspirator. By casting a ballot one affirmed the legitimacy of the exercise.
Masha's biography demonstrates how a new generation of activists fought to shore up democracy despite being ruthlessly suppressed by Putin's dictatorship. Her political coming of age progressively leads her to a vital organising role in the epochal anti-government rallies of 2011 and 2012. Masha, who was born in "Orwell's year" of 1984, begins a revolt against the Putin era's corruption and stagnation, leading her to organise one of the most well-known recent protests in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square. She is eventually charged with "inciting a riot" by the police. (She is later granted amnesty.) Zhanna watches as her father and others take the route of moral opposition to Putin and his KGB elite and pay the price, in some cases with their lives, throughout this time. In February 2015, Zhanna's father, Boris Nemtsov, is shot dead on a bridge in full view of the Kremlin, which is one of the lowest points in Gessen's novel.
Many social scientists avoid using the phrase "totalitarian" to describe post-Soviet Russia, preferring terminology like "hybrid regime," according to Gessen. The remarkable longevity of "Homo Sovieticus" and many Soviet-style institutions, on the other hand, is a hallmark of a totalitarian regime in and of itself. Gudkov is shown analysing seemingly contradictory survey results at one point in 2015: Putin's popularity is rising even as consumer expectations continue to plummet as a result of sanctions and low oil prices. It's authoritarian psychology that explains why the two go together in the first place. "that scarcity was essential for the survival of a totalitarian regime," Gudkov had "come to the conclusion," Gessen adds.
The return of totalitarianism in Putin's Russia was not unavoidable, as Gessen demonstrates. It required architects, one of them was ultranationalist academic Alexander Dugin, whom Putin found. It also necessitated opportunity, which Putin's forefathers produced by a series of gaffes.
While Boris Yeltsin's government was progressive in certain aspects, it was hampered from the start by a failure to resolve the lingering economic disaster it inherited from the Soviet era. Because of his waning popularity, Yeltsin decided not to prosecute the Soviet Communist Party; efforts to participate in a serious truth and reconciliation campaign, which could have helped Russians better understand the horrors of the past, were postponed. As Gorbachev's attempt to create a more humane (but still Communist) Soviet Union stalled due to the two-pronged opposition of conservatives and Yeltsinite liberals, Seryozha's grandfather, Alexander Yakovlev, was appointed chair of a Rehabilitation Commission tasked with documenting the horrors of the Stalinist era and assisting victims. But, by 1991, the Commission had run out of money, and it became evident that Yeltsin was no longer willing to invest the political capital required to confront a terrible past.
In a second key way, the economic shocks of the 1990s undermined democracy's prospects. Between the hyperinflation of 1991 to 1993 (which wiped out many citizens' savings, particularly the elderly) and the devaluation and financial crisis of 1998 (which wiped out the nascent market economy's green shoots), many ordinary Russians began to associate "democracy" with poverty and blatant injustice. As Gessen demonstrates, this "democracy" was never that liberal to begin with—certainly not after 1993, when Yeltsin was compelled to use tanks and artillery against conservative rebels in the same Russian parliament building where he had rejected the 1991 coup attempt.
Putin began quietly and systematically consolidating his authority after assuming the presidency in 2000, gradually robbing rival oligarchs of their media holdings and political clout. He placed his supporters in key positions in the bureaucracy, where they often exercised enormous control over significant segments of the economy, including lifelong acquaintances from St. Petersburg and associates from the Soviet-era secret police. Putin made few references to ideology along the way, save from a few faint allusions to Soviet and Russian greatness.
The intellectual underpinning for this old-new system was provided by Alexander Dugin, a once-marginal nerd. Dugin found and celebrated the fundamentally anti-Western streak in Russian intellectual history, spurred on by his study of Heidegger and European identitarians. He believed in the "ethnogenetic" beliefs of Lev Gumilev, a former dissident who saw Russia as a magical combination of Europe's and Asia's most potent cultural elements. Dugin extolled the supposed superiority of the "Russian World" (a phrase now often used by the Putin government) while vehemently denouncing the US and other western democracies for plotting to impose their allegedly "foreign" norms on a "traditional values civilization."
Dugin has openly advocated for the "annihilation" of liberal "traitors" like Nemtsov, whose assassination might be interpreted as indirect proof of Dugin's power. Though many have exaggerated the level of actual communication between Dugin and the Putin government, there's little doubt that Dugin's influence on the regime's thinking and lexicon has lasted. Consider this: Dugin recently received a significant amount of airtime on Alex Jones's Infowars, a website that President Donald Trump has endorsed as a source.
Despite feeling disgusted at times by Gessen's dissections of Putinism's inner workings, the reader comes away from the book with an unexpected sense of hope. Why? Despotism's apologists may appear to have won the fight, but not the debate. Young Russians continue to go up in their thousands to protest—and to be detained, as Gessen points out in her epilogue. Even though the authorities keep removing them, anonymous admirers continue to step up to put new flowers and mementos on the bridge where Nemtsov was killed, keeping with a long and moving Russian tradition. When his daughter Zhanna, who now lives in exile in Germany, decided to give an annual prize to honour fortitude and determination in the face of Putin's administration, she discovered "strong competition for the medal."
Change in the Russian Motherland will not happen naturally, as Talbott prophesied, but it may come as a result of battle. But if anything is for sure, it's that this battle shall be costly, costlier than anything the world has seen yet.
Our advice? Strap in.
Written by Anvita Tripathi
Illustrated by Rishita Banerjee
Gessen, Masha. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. , 2017. Print.