Wednesday, May 16, 2018
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia Hardcover – October 3, 2017 by Masha Gessen (Riverhead Books)
Through the lives of the protagonists, Gessen weaves the last century of Russian history. Stalin’s self-cannibalizing reign of terror is particularly chilling: “Stalin’s terror machine executed its executioners at regular intervals. In 1938 alone, forty-two thousand investigators who had taken part in the great industrial-scale purges were executed, as was the chief of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhov.” Stalin once invited an old friend from Georgia to Moscow for a reunion, and after lavishly wining and dining him, had him executed before dawn: “This could not be explained with any words or ideas available to man.”
And that is the most astonishing aspect of this book: it is not fiction. The protagonists’ experiences are so logic-defying, so disheartening, and such violations of basic human decency as to exist in a separate universe that no novelist could concoct. And yet, this universe has an internal logic. Perhaps it's best explained through Hannah Arendt, whose three-volume “Origins of Totalitarianism” Gessen deftly scrunches down to a few essential paragraphs: “What distinguishes a totalitarian ideology is its utterly insular quality. It purports to explain the entire world and everything in it. There is no gap between totalitarian ideology and reality because totalitarian ideology contains all of reality within itself.”
And yet, the book reads like a novel, which is why I don’t want to give away too much. Who is Homo sovieticus? For whom do Russians vote in the “Greatest Russian Ever” (aka “Name of Russia”) contest year after year? What’s going to happen to Boris Nemtsov after he defies Putin? Do our heroes avoid getting beat up and arrested at the demonstrations? Why is Putin so popular in Russia?
One pervasive theme of the book is the hegemony of doublethink over the Russian psyche. Coined by Orwell in “1984”, doublethink is the necessity of maintaining two contradictory beliefs for survival, e.g. publicly supporting the government ideology while knowing that it oppresses your very existence.
This is some crazy-making stuff that Russians seem to have been put through for over a century. And yet, there are still people who fight for truth, healing, and freedom. Over and over, they rise to attend banned protests very likely to land them in jail (or worse). Their stories of stupendous bravery and selflessness consistently inspire.
And lest you as a Westerner think that you’re somehow safe because, oh, this is something happening elsewhere, please note that the recent rise of authoritarianism in countries like America takes its playbook straight out of Russia. Attacks on the press, construction of alternate realities, propagation of fake news, persecution of minorities, and the shameless grabbing of executive power: it’s all happening right now.
And you know what else? We’ve seen it all before: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. So don’t read this book just because it’s a riveting account of life in what’s still an undiscovered continent for most Westerners. Don’t read it just because it’s a tour de force of journalistic craft and bravery. Read it because it also informs your life as an American, German, Frenchman, Hungarian, or anyone who values the freedom of human life and ideas. Read it so that you may be impelled to take action.