On last week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with Masha Gessen, journalist, activist, and the author of a new book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Her previous work includes The Man Without a Face, a biography of Vladimir Putin. Over the past year, she has become well-known for her essays in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere that have sought to warn Americans about Donald Trump’s threat to democratic norms and the rise of autocracy in America.
Below is an edited transcript of part of the show. In it, we discuss how Putin exercises his power in Russia, whether the Russian leader has a real ideology, and why incompetence—whether in Moscow or Washington—won’t necessarily be a hindrance to autocracy.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire interview is also below, in audio form. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: Since you have a particularly interesting life story that most of my other boring guests do not have, I wanted to start with your background—where you were born and how you started to get into journalism.
Masha Gessen: Way to slam everyone you’ve had on the show, Isaac.
I know, that was smooth, right?
I was born in Moscow 50 years ago, and when I was 14, my parents and I and my little brother immigrated to the United States, and I went to high school in Boston, then moved to New York. As a correspondent, I went back to Moscow in the early ’90s, first as an American journalist, then slowly went native again. I worked both as a Russian journalist and an American journalist and ran a bunch of magazines in Moscow over the course of about 20 years. And then I had to get out of there in a hurry, about three and a half to four years ago.
And why was it that you had to get out of there in a hurry?
I was a political journalist for a long time. I wrote a book about Putin. I made all kinds of trouble. I was an organizer in the protest of 2011–12.
My particular case was that I was threatened with having my children taken away because I was raising them with a woman (still am)—especially my oldest son, who is adopted. They actually passed a law, at least in part to enable this threat against me, banning adoption of children to same-sex households.
You used the phrase went native. When did that happen, and what was it that caused you to feel at home in Russia again?
The first time I went back was in March ’91, which was just an incredibly exciting time. The Soviet Union still existed. [Mikhail] Gorbachev was still president.
It was a heady time, and that was an easy sell for any young journalist. Young American journalists were flocking to Eastern Europe to document all the revolutions and bask in the sense of liberation, and everything was very cheap. The other thing was that I just felt at home.
A lot of people look back on that period as where things began to go wrong even if a lot of people, especially in the United States, didn’t realize it at the time. When you look back on that period now, what do you make of it?
I don’t actually buy that things began to go wrong. The standard narrative is the country was plundered. It formed an oligarchy, and Russians quickly realized that capitalism was terrible and violent crime rose. That’s not terribly accurate, right? Most Russians actually were living much better by the end of the 1990s than by the beginning of the 1990s. Most Russians were no longer confronting food shortages. All Russian households acquired a new washing machine, which is an amazing thing if you’ve never had a washing machine, or never had an automatic one. It changes your life. There were a lot of other changes. A lot more people had telephones. A lot more people had electricity. Many people had the opportunity to travel abroad and took advantage of it.
But therein lies part of the problem. When people traveled abroad and saw that even in poor European countries like Spain or Turkey, even the not-wealthy people there lived so much better than people who had considered themselves pretty well-off in the Soviet Union. That was a real blow to people’s sense of dignity. The other thing that happened was that the Soviet class structure didn’t really collapse. People who has been privileged in the Soviet period by and large continued to be privileged. What collapsed were the divisions between classes that made people invisible to one another.
So members of the Central Committee used to have their own buildings, their own dachas behind tall fences, their own sanatoriums. Their children went to separate schools, and they got their food and clothes at distribution centers that were behind unmarked doors in the city. A lot of those walls disappeared or developed windows, and the distribution centers closed and people started buying food in supermarkets. So other people were walking by those supermarkets and seeing the food in the windows that they couldn’t afford.
All of that together made the ’90s for a lot of people a time of deep psychological misery, resentment, envy—a feeling of having been both clobbered and cheated.
What is your sense of how those psychological wounds played a role in the rise of Putin and how he either exploited that or was a product of it?
I think it was actually both. That’s a very insightful way to ask the question because I think Putin shared a lot of that resentment. He shared a lot of the nostalgia for an imaginary past in which he felt a kind of certainty and had a clear vision for his own future, in his case as a KGB agent. So he was able to effortlessly tap into that longing among so many Russians to return to an imaginary time of certainty and security.
When most people think of totalitarianism, they think of 1984, North Korea, or something like that. Why is totalitarianism the word that you chose to use in your title?
What I think happened in Russia is that Putin has built a mafia state. There are different terms that have been applied to his regime. Some people have used kleptocracy. Some people have called it an illiberal democracy.
The thing is that that mafia regime exists not in a vacuum, but on the ruins of a totalitarian society. Putin felt that his power was endangered after the popular protests of 2011–12, and he began his crackdown. The signals that that crackdown sent out were interpreted by Russian society in totalitarian ways, right? The mechanisms that kicked back in were mechanisms inherited from totalitarian societies.
The definition of totalitarianism has gradually developed, and different scholars have added or subtracted various traits to their definitions of totalitarianism. One of the classic definitions is actually the dichotomy between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Authoritarianism is a regime in which … nothing is political. People are basically encouraged to stay home and not get in the way of the ruler or a group of rulers who are plundering the country. And I think that that describes Putin’s regime very well up until 2012, up until the crackdown. A totalitarian regime is profoundly political. Everything becomes political. Private life disappears as such because even private action becomes political, and people are basically urged to be not staying at home and not getting in the way, but be out in the squares demonstrating their support for the mission of their country.
That’s the kind of regime that Russia has turned into. It’s a highly mobilized country. It’s a country in which everything has become political. It’s expansive, and that’s why it’s fighting wars in Ukraine and Syria. What they’re pursuing is the sense of constant movement, the sense of expansion that is essential to totalitarianism.
When I talk to people who have spent time in Russia or are Russian and have looked at the Putin regime, one thing that they often say is that people in the West think Putin is this grand chess master, and he’s actually not as competent and well-organized and not everything is part of some secret plan. I think we think of totalitarian regimes as being organized with single-minded goals and methods for accomplishing them.
There’s a significant difference between establishing a totalitarian regime and running a totalitarian society. When totalitarian regimes are established, they at least have the illusion of the single-minded purpose. But once they establish the stature that’s necessary for a totalitarian regime, they tend to flail. Even if you read about Stalin—it was a mess, as much as he tried to project the image of somebody who was in control of every single thing in the country. And certainly by the time Soviet society had aged and entered what we call the stagnation period, it was a pretty convoluted and just shockingly incompetent kind of state apparatus that was fragmented, had a lot of different people pursuing their own interests, had no clear direction, and had highly problematic command centers.
The state that Putin has built is not that dissimilar from the old Soviet Union. I think that it would be more intellectually honest to say that Russia, as it is run today, is vastly different from an imaginary ideal model of totalitarianism, but that’s what models are like. They’re different from reality.
One concept that you talk a lot about in the book is Homo Sovieticus. What’s behind that idea?
The explicit project of the Bolshevik revolution—as is the case with every totalitarian society—is to create a new kind of man. This was going to be the perfect man, a man who lived in perfect harmony with his society. But in the late 1980s, a great Soviet sociologist named Yuri Levada had this hypothesis than the Soviets had indeed created a new kind of man, not necessarily perfect, but very much shaped by the experience of Stalinist terror. His hypothesis was that since it had been 30 years since terror ended, Homo Sovieticus—that person characterized by doublethink and his very strong identification with the state—had to be dying off and that Soviet institutions had to crumble once Homo Sovieticus died out.
He conducted the survey in 1989. It was this great big survey, the first real study of Soviet people. They concluded that Homo Sovieticus was on its way out and it seemed that they correctly predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, which came two years later. The problem was they went back to the survey in 1994 and came back with pretty disturbing results that suggested that Homo Sovieticus hadn’t quite gone away and maybe wasn’t as generationally bound as they thought. When they did the survey again in 1999, they came to the conclusion that Homo Sovieticus was not only surviving but also reproducing. They actually predicted as early as 1999 that there was a possibility of totalitarian revanche.
One critique of this idea is that it makes it sound like Russians are inherently ill-equipped for democracy. There’ve been critiques going back all the way back to Marx, if not before, saying that essentially Russian peasants weren’t fit for revolution. After World War II, there were all these theories from the British government and elsewhere saying the Russians aren’t fit for democracy.
I think you’re lumping together a couple of very different ideas. Marx’s idea was that peasants weren’t right for revolution because you could only have revolution once a society had been industrialized, so he was actually talking about the circumstances. I think that he had a point. The other idea—that there is an inherent national character and Russians are perhaps genetically not suited for democracy—is just nutty. I guess what I’m proposing is a little bit closer to the Marxian ideal, just on a different topic, which is that people are shaped by their experiences.
You can’t expect a society that has been subjected to terror for decades to suddenly shake that experience off and develop an entirely new set of skills and a new kind of baseline trust and live as a happy democracy, right? And I think that’s what’s happened to Russia.
When you look at the American relationship with Russia and the relationship among most European countries to Russia right now, despite the current president, they’re at a pretty low ebb.
It’s never been worse, actually.
Well, the Cold War wasn’t great. But what do you think we, the United States, are doing right and wrong about the way we’re approaching Putin?
I want to put a fine point on what I just said about relations never having been worse. There was such great fear of nuclear war that I think [the Cold War was] a more stable and more secure situation than we’re in now. Right now, Russia has expelled 750 U.S. diplomats. U.S. embassies and consulates in Russia have had to stop issuing visas to Russian citizens because they no longer have the manpower. Trump has suggested shutting the Russian consulate in San Francisco. We’re a step away from a full-on crisis of severing diplomatic relations, and he’s only been president for nine months.
I think things are really, really bad. Now, that doesn’t answer your question. One good idea would be not to elect a president like Trump.
If only you’d suggested that a year ago.
I know. I should have taken a break from writing the book to warn people. But—I don’t like the question. Because the question suggests that there’s something strategic that Western countries could be doing that would somehow change Putin’s behavior, and I don’t think that’s true. Putin is intractable.
Where do you think we are nine months into the Trump administration? Are things better or worse than you thought they would be?
I think they’re as bad as I thought they would be. The thing that has surprised me is the cacophony that Trump has created, and I’m not used to this kind of cacophony. Putin creates a cacophony of his own, right? He just drowns people in numbers and figures and facts, most of them made up, but you feel like you’re in this morass of gray nothingness. Trump does the exact opposite. He just sends out so many signals and gestures and bright shiny objects that it has been impossible to follow what’s going on. You always have a sense that there’s something hugely important happening that you’re not noticing because some other highly important thing is holding your attention, and that actually serves to create a sense of low-level dread that is characteristic of the kind of societies that I’ve been writing about, that makes people feel like they have no control over their own lives.
And what do you think the effect of that is?
That’s worse than I expected. The effect of that is to make people feel powerless, and it’s an incredibly effective instrument of building autocracy.
I don’t disagree with all of that, although I do think that when following the news on a day-to-day basis, my biggest lesson from the past 10 months is that people keep interpreting meaning and strategy to things Trump is doing, which in hindsight or with more information seem like they were not part of any strategy. They were just singular acts of weirdness and awfulness and so on.
Oh, I agree with you, but I don’t think that strategy is a characteristic of autocracy.
Because we’re reading history books, we think that autocracy is developed linearly in the pursuit of an autocratic project. I don’t think that’s true. I think that humanity has stumbled into awful moments of history, and this may well be one of those moments. Trump has an instinct for manipulating people and for making them feel powerless, and that’s an instinct that drives a lot of his actions. He also has an instinct for self-aggrandizing, which happens to dovetail with that instinct [for manipulation]. He has the habit of advancing his brand by making a lot of loud gestures and contradictory things. He doesn’t need to be pursuing a grand strategy in order to be consolidating a kind of psychological power.