Masha Gessen’s The Future is History is an intellectually provocative and viscerally moving call to arms, sorely needed in a sea of Russia scholarship that generally vacillates between uninspiring academic bunkum and overzealous Putin scapegoating. Gessen weaves a roughly thirty-year history of Russia—from the Gorbachev years to the assassination of Boris Nemtsov—out of several personal narratives belonging to the people who lived through the tragic rise and fall of Russian democracy. Halfway between narrative “social history” and journalism in style, the book draws on the scholarship of psychiatrists, sociologists, and political scientists who offer explanations for what happened.
The final product dispels any questions about “objectivity” that Gessen’s style of non-random journalistic evidence-sampling might elicit, especially because a “conclusive and objective” study (to the extent that one is possible) of post-Soviet Russia was never the point of her book. For beginners, this is a factually accurate primer on post-Soviet history. For jaded human rights activists who fear we have not done enough, this is a refresher in “why we fight.” Above all, this is a deep dive into Russian society that at least attempts to answer why post-Soviet Russia increasingly looks and acts like the Soviet Union.
There are three broad ways in which writers like Gessen attempt to explain post-Soviet Russia’s regression into an ideologically-driven near-totalitarian police state that abhors individual liberty and scorns human rights. The first explanation is that post-Soviet Russia, in searching for a “new Russian idea” after communism, reverted to its pre-Soviet roots. This explains the rise of public intellectuals like Aleksandr Dugin, whose philosophy on “the total and radical negation of the individual and his centrality” has manifested itself in Russian laws and norms that consciously and overtly hearken back to medieval mores. A second explanation is that communism altered Russian society irredeemably through purges, emigration, and reeducation, with the result that the country is still populated by Homo Sovieticus. The thrust of Gessen’s thesis generally supports this second argument.
There is, however, a third paradigm for analysis, which treats Russia as a new entity that draws on elements of Soviet communism and medieval Christendom to construct its 21st Century raison d’être. This composite picture of Russia defies a unified thesis, and complicates our attempts to look back on Russian history for missed signposts on the road to the present state of affairs. But this does not mean that Russia “cannot be grasped with the mind”—far from it. In order to accurately understand the Soviet Union and Russia, we must suspend our rationality a little bit, and follow Masha down the rabbit hole.
Gessen writes that in order to understand Russia, one must understand how to apply what famed Russian sociologist Yuri Levada called “antinomies,” or what George Orwell called “doublethink.” Gessen explains:
Homo Sovieticus, like the characters of 1984, could hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time. These beliefs ran on parallel tracks, and so long as the tracks indeed did not cross, they were not in conflict: depending on the situation, Homo Sovieticus could deploy one or the other statement in the antinomic pair, sometimes one after the other, in quick succession. […] Even to understand the word “doublethink” involved the use of doublethink.
This is why outsiders trying to “grasp Russia with the mind” are endlessly baffled by not just the disjunction between idea and reality that defined the communist era, but by the disjunction between two conflicting ideals or statements that seem to be deployed simultaneously. Doublethink helps explain why Stalin is an increasingly popular figure in post-Soviet Russia even though “genocide” and “murder” are no more popular than before. Doublethink helps explain why many Russians who claim to want a more open society—and may even attend periodic protests—overwhelmingly endorse Vladimir Putin at the end of the day.
Gessen dives into psychoanalysis and sociology to try to explain this collective doublethink. Freud might say that doublethink is nothing more than a death wish; we know what is “good” and “right,” but we pursue the opposite. Sociologists like Levada theorize a cycle of “abortive modernization,” whereby periodic but abortive protests allow the regime’s most outspoken critics to rise to the surface, making them easy targets for the regime to skim off the top. The violent cycle of “abortive modernization” makes doublethink a necessary survival mechanism, because those who speak and act openly and transparently are repressed.
But the most compelling explanation for the prevalence of doublethink in post-Soviet Russia is that it is an unhealthy coping mechanism for untreated trauma. We all practice doublethink on a small scale: we know that we are mortal, and yet we live as if we are not, and both are equally true in our minds because if we contemplated either reality too much we would go insane. So too with Russian society. Gessen cites Michelle Parson’s book, Dying Unneeded, which argues that neither alcohol nor healthcare nor emigration adequately explains Russia’s plummeting birthrate and shockingly low life expectancy. Instead, “Russians were dying early because they had nothing and no one to live for […] Russians had been dying for lack of hope.” Gessen and Parson argue that doublethink is a coping mechanism for this hopelessness. When most Russians realize that is no hope for a personal or national future, then they invent a brilliant past, or a dastardly adversary, or an unattainable Eden, and they live as if all those things were true.
From where does the hopelessness come and how does it end? Certainly seventy-five years of communist rule shoulder the lion’s share of the blame. Falling back on tsarist values is not an adequate solution, and will likely exacerbate the ailment. If doublethink is really a coping mechanism for trauma, then Russian society must go through “therapy” for its collective Soviet trauma. Step one: Russian society should admit that it has a collective problem, and should accept collective guilt for communism. Gessen reminds her readers that no Russian leader has ever really publicly denounced the Soviet Union or communism, at least not in the way that Germany denounced and repented for Nazism. If Russia is to have a future, then it must come to terms with its history, otherwise its history will be its future, and its future will surely be history.