I have been told many stories about Russia, and I have told a few myself.
When I was eleven or twelve, in the late 1970s, my mother told me that the USSR was a totalitarian state—she compared the regime to the Nazi one, an extraordinary act of thought and speech for a Soviet citizen. My parents told me that the Soviet regime would last forever, which was why we had to leave the country.
When I was a young journalist, in the late 1980s, the Soviet regime began to teeter and then collapsed into a pile of rubble, or so the story went. I joined an army of reporters excitedly documenting my country’s embrace of freedom and its journey toward democracy.
I spent my thirties and forties documenting the death of a Russian democracy that had never really come to be. Different people were telling different stories about this: many insisted that Russia had merely taken a step back after taking two steps toward democracy; some laid the blame on Vladimir Putin and the KGB, others on a supposed Russian love of the iron fist, and still others on an inconsiderate, imperious West. At one point, I was convinced that I would be writing the story of the decline and fall of the Putin regime. Soon after, I found myself leaving Russia for the second time—this time as a middle-aged person with children. And like my mother before me, I was explaining to my children why we could no longer live in our country.
The specifics were clear enough. Russian citizens had been losing rights and liberties for nearly two decades. In 2012, Putin’s government began a full-f ledged political crackdown. The country waged war on the enemy within and on its neighbors. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, and in 2014 it attacked Ukraine, annexing vast territories. It has also been waging an information war on Western democracy as a concept and a reality. It took a while for Western observers to see what was happening in Russia, but by now the stories of Russia’s various wars have become familiar. In the con- temporary American imagination, Russia has reclaimed the role of evil empire and existential threat.
The crackdown, the wars, and even Russia’s reversion to type on the world stage are things that happened—that I witnessed—and I wanted to tell this story. But I also wanted to tell about what did not happen: the story of freedom that was not embraced and democracy that was not desired. How do you tell a story like that? Where do you locate reasons for the absences? When do you begin, and with whom?
Popular books about Russia—or other countries—fall into two broad categories: stories about powerful people (the czars, Stalin, Putin, and their circles) that aim to explain how the country has been and is run, and stories about “regular people” that aim to show what it feels like to live there. I have written both kinds of books and read many more. But even the best such books—perhaps especially the best such books—provide a view of only one part of the story of a country. If we imagine reporting, as I do, in terms of the Indian fable of six blind men and an elephant, most Russia books describe just the elephant’s head or just its legs. And even if some books supply descriptions of the tail, the trunk, and the body, very few try to ex- plain how the animal holds together—or what kind of animal it is. My ambition this time was to both describe and define the animal.
I decided to start with the decline of the Soviet regime—perhaps the assumption that it “collapsed” needed to be questioned. I also decided to focus on people for whom the end of the USSR was the first or one of the first formative memories: the generation of Russians born in the early to middle 1980s. They grew up in the 1990s, perhaps the most contested de- cade in Russian history: some remember it as a time of liberation, while for others it represents chaos and pain. This generation have lived their entire adult lives in a Russia led by Vladimir Putin. In choosing my subjects, I also looked for people whose lives changed drastically as a result of the crack- down that began in 2012. Lyosha, Masha, Seryozha, and Zhanna—four young people who come from different cities, families, and, indeed, different Soviet worlds—allowed me to tell what it was to grow up in a country that was opening up and to come of age in a society shutting down.
In seeking out these protagonists, I did what journalists usually do: I sought people who were both “regular,” in that their experiences exemplified the experiences of millions of others, and extraordinary: intelligent, passionate, introspective, able to tell their stories vividly. But the ability to make sense of one’s life in the world is a function of freedom. The Soviet regime robbed people not only of their ability to live freely but also of the ability to understand fully what had been taken from them, and how. The regime aimed to annihilate personal and historical memory and the academic study of society. Its concerted war on the social sciences left Western academics for decades in a better position to interpret Russia than were Russians themselves—but, as outsiders with restricted access to information, they could hardly fill the void. Much more than a problem of scholar- ship, this was an attack on the humanity of Russian society, which lost the tools and even the language for understanding itself. The only stories Russia told itself about itself were created by Soviet ideologues. If a modern country has no sociologists, psychologists, or philosophers, what can it know about itself? And what can its citizens know about themselves? I realized that my mother’s simple act of categorizing the Soviet regime and comparing it to another had required an extraordinary measure of freedom, which she derived, at least in part, from having already decided to emigrate.
To capture the larger tragedy of losing the intellectual tools of sense making, I looked for Russians who had attempted to wield them, in both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. The cast of characters grew to include a sociologist, a psychoanalyst, and a philosopher. If anyone holds the tools of defining the elephant, it is they. They are neither “regular people”—the stories of their struggles to bring their disciplines back from the dead are hardly representative—nor “powerful people”: they are the people who try to understand. In the Putin era, the social sciences were defeated and degraded in new ways, and my protagonists faced a new set of impossible choices.
As I wove these stories together, I imagined I was writing a long Russian (nonfiction) novel that aimed to capture both the texture of individual tragedies and the events and ideas that shaped them. The result, I hope, is a book that shows not only what it has felt like to live in Russia over the last thirty years but also what Russia has been in this time, what it has become, and how. The elephant, too, makes a brief appearance (see page 386).
From THE FUTURE IS HISTORY: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 byMasha Gessen.