A Harsh Clarity

by Gerd Koenen

Above (Issue I/2019)


As I finished this deeply serious novel, a poem written by Osip Mandelstam came to me, purely associatively. It was written in 1921 and dates back to the end of the devastating civil war, long before Mandelstam disappeared deep into the deepest of Stalin’s gulags in 1937: “The cold water grows blacker / like salt, a star melts in the barrel / death grows purer, trouble saltier / And the earth more truthful, more terrible”.

If, in its poetic style and metaphor, it sounds “very Russian”, then it is certainly not in terms of sentimental cliché or in the glorification of suffering. Rather, it is the opposite. The cold black water and all that trouble sharpens the vision, making incorruptible. It was under the unbearable and inhumane pressure that came from their own powerful leaders that a good portion of the Russian literature and art that so enriched the past century developed.  

Where else would a poet, expecting to be arrested, tell his wife: “Do not grieve. Only in Russia, poetry is respected – it gets people killed”, as Mandelstam did in 1934.

At the same time Russia is not about to re-live its past, at least not to that bloody extreme. But it is under the spell of the past again and is working on the psychological and social consequences of the past, as Masha Gessen vividly describes in her book, The Future is History.

Once again, one is tempted to describe her clear-eyed view of painful hardships, with which the author takes leave of the country of her birth and early childhood for the second time, as “very Russian”. And that is because Gessen, as a Jewish, lesbian woman with three children, sees the new guardians of “true Russian-ness” as the very embodiment of a poisoned people. In 2013, she fled to the US again because of the acute danger that her children might be taken away from her.

Gessen herself describes her book as a “semi-factual novel” that looks at the dramatic changes that have taken place in Russia over the last three decades, via the perspectives of four young people. All of them were born around 1984 and have grown up in a post-Soviet Russia.

The use of pet names for the four young protagonists - Masha and Zhanna, Lyosha and Seryozha – while the parents are called by their forenames and the grandparents by their forenames and their father’s names (such as Alexander Nikolaevich) gives the reader the feeling of one of those confusing and polyphonic tales of family, in the grand Russian tradition.  

Major characters include Seryozha’s grandfather, Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, who was named as one of the chief architects of perestroika by Gorbachev himself, as well as Zhanna’s father, Boris Nemtsov, one of the leading reformers of the Yeltsin era and one of Putin’s toughest opponents until he was murdered by Chechnyan assassins right under the walls of the Kremlin in February 2015. The book ends with this emblematic death.

The reflexive middle ground is taken up by another group of characters. There’s the psychologist Marina Arutiunian, who helped to revive the psychoanalytic tradition in Russia. There’s also the sociologist Lev Gudkov, who, as a pupil of the pioneer Yuri Levada helped to create the instruments of a modern, scientific and informed opinion polling centre. Central to the studies of this institute - once state-funded, then disowned, and now branded as a foreign agent – are the psychological results and intellectual residues of a totalitarian and post-totalitarian society. Levada brought these altogether in his hypothetical species, Homo Sovieticus. 

All of these characters stand for stubborn, often almost heroic, attempts to compensate for the loss of objectivity that had already started, with the suffocation of lively Russian sociological, historic and philosophical traditions under the dictates of Marxism–Leninism. During the time of glasnost, Yakovlev urgently wanted to make everything that had been locked away, considered poisonous for decades, accessible, in the form of large scale editions. Up until then these tomes were only available in exile publishing houses in the west.

The oppositional figure to all of these characters is the philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin. He was also originally a part of the dissident scene and was one of those Russians who accessed forbidden authors without thinking of how it might affect their career goals. In his case, it was Heidegger’s Being and Time that Dugin read on an illegally produced microfilm, projected onto a table top. However in the 1990s, Dugin, with his Dostoevsky-style beard, became one of the leading thinkers of the National Bolshevik Party and then the far-right Eurasia Party. Since the 2000s, Dugin has been one of the government’s best-nurtured advisers, having risen up with expansionist policies focusing around “Great Russia”-style nationalism. His first condition for these policies was the “elimination” of all representatives of Western cosmopolitanism.

And so Nemtsov, whose giant picture was plastered on Moscow apartment buildings, branded a “traitor to the nation”, had to die an all too predictable death. He had revealed massive corruption involving a family very close to the Kremlin and the government fund for the Sochi winter Olympics, and he had evidence that the regular Russian army was participating in the war in Ukraine.

The fate of one of the younger heroes of the book, Lyosha, is hardly any less depressing. As a student sometime in the late 1990s, he realised he was gay and then, very carefully and fearfully, lived out his sexuality before making it the focus of what would be his scientific research. At first everything goes well. His friends and family support him and he can give lectures with titles like “Sexual Minorities and the Russian Public” at the liberal university in Perm, as well as taking part in international conferences. But then, during growing unrest at the beginning of the 2010s, when there were huge demonstrations in Moscow and other cities about the power swap taking place between Medvedev and Putin, a net begins to close around Lyosha.

On certain internet sites, there is a call to hunt pederasts and videos show brutal attacks on, and humiliations of, homosexual men in his city, men that Lyosha knows. Among those taking part in these “hunts” – the homophobes can roam the streets unmasked and fear no punishment – Lyosha recognises one of the former attendees at his seminars. He must leave. 

During the first years of Putin’s regime, the Levada Institute’s polls had shown signs of a growing tolerance, even while there was always a shockingly large group of the interviewees that wanted to “liquidate” anyone who was in any way different. But these values slowly devolved again, along with the growth of a new blemish that saw Stalin’s popularity increase until the former dictator rose to Number 1 on a list of “the most important persons of all time”.

Then came more demonstrations that seemed to paint a peaceful picture of a “colour revolution” on Russian walls, and then the war against Ukraine, sparked by the annexation of Crimea. And then it was not just Dugin giving speeches about the west, but Putin too, who blamed the countries of the European and Atlantic area for trying to force upon Russia, and in fact the rest of the world too, “a lifestyle that denigrated every kind of traditional identity, whether national, cultural, religious or, even, gender-related”.

Russia was hidebound to oppose these tendencies - tendencies that equalled a moral, national and demographic decay - on the world stage. The fact that in Gessen’s story, the year 2013 prominently opens with the vehement fight against “paedophile propaganda” (that was equated with homosexuality) obviously has to do with her own experiences. But that is not the only reason. The topic was also becoming a firm part of internal propaganda in Russia, as well as in external messages about “Gay-ropa”. This topic was increasingly seen as a sign of everything that was being “forced upon” Russia, and which would lead to the end of the true Russian people and the nation’s geopolitical downfall.

Gessen stays well away from blaming everything – her country’s return to autocratic oppression, paranoid enclosure and ideological self-reinforcement – on the dark genie of Vladimir Putin. In fact, she does the opposite. The phenomenal explosion of support, rising to over 80 percent, for Putin, almost as soon as this small, pale unknown KGB officer came out of the shadows in 1999, at bearish Yeltsin’s side, is most likely thanks to his very ordinariness and impenetrability. With calculated internal or external aggression, Putin has been able to overcome every setback almost effortlessly, by pushing everything back on the old, Soviet heights or by emphasising a fictitious unanimity. Until today, that is.

Putin is not the answer, he is the question, one that hides a historic and psychological vacancy. And that is the emptiness that circles all of Gessen’s emphatically compassionate, rather than accusatory, book. 

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. By Masha Gessen. Riverhead Books, 2017. German edition by Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2018. 



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