Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
by Masha Gessen (Riverhead, $28)
What game, exactly, is Russia playing? That’s a question many Americans are currently asking, said Mary Ann Gwinn in Newsday, and if you’re one of them, Masha Gessen’s “brilliant” new book can provide you answers. An immersive portrait of today’s Russia that seeks to explain why the country retreated from its chance at democracy three decades ago, The Future Is History turns out to be “a plunge into the deep end of a very cold pool.” Gessen, a Russian-born journalist with a mordant wit and “formidable powers of synthesis,” weaves together the stories of several contemporary Russians to illustrate how those who still yearn for freedom are vastly outnumbered by conformists who’ve been persuaded since Vladimir Putin’s rise that the United States is Russia’s mortal enemy and that domestic stability is worth any abuses the people suffer in its name.
“At its heart, this is a book about the Moscow intelligentsia by one of its own,” said Susan Glasser in The Washington Post. Gessen introduces us to three intellectuals, including one prominent Putin supporter, who’ve been pondering the Russian character for years. But the real protagonists here are four younger Russians who’ve been victims of Putin-era repression. One, a gay man, left the country because of homophobic persecution; another is the daughter of Boris Nemtsov, a reformer who was assassinated in 2015. Such incidents have become common during Putin’s long reign. So why do most Russians support him? Gessen, leaning on survey evidence gathered by sociologist Lev Gudkov, “makes a convincing if depressing case that Homo sovieticus did not die out along with the Soviet Union.” The typical Russian is still uncommonly fearful and still worships authority.
But let’s not forget that Homo sovieticus is an imaginary creature, said Sean Guillory in Bookforum. Gessen at least doesn’t use the figure to scapegoat the masses, as past intellectuals have. Instead, she shows compassion, arguing that the traumas that Russians have endured may have caused lasting psychological damage, making them vulnerable to totalitarianism’s allure. In the near-totalitarian state Putin has built, “the one missing piece is ideology,” said Francis Fukuyama in The New York Times. Putin’s regime has been good at feeding people’s anxieties— including about such remote threats as homosexual pedophilia— but it has offered no coherent belief system. In Gessen’s “fascinating” book, the unanswered question is whether Putin’s Kremlin has done anything yet to retain the people’s loyalty in the long run. “I somehow doubt that fear of pedophilia will be a sufficiently grand cause.”