The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

Putin's bestselling biographer reveals how, in the space of a generation, Russia surrendered to a more virulent and invincible new strain of autocracy. Hailed for her "fearless indictment of the most powerful man in Russia" by the Wall Street Journal, award-winning journalist Masha Gessen is unparalleled in her understanding of the events and forces that have wracked her n...

Title:The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
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The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia Reviews

  • Jillian Doherty

    Admittedly this book took me longer to read than most I've read in the last year – it's because there's at least five books with in this one!

    The quality of journalism, paired with the incredible insight to the timelines of the USSR are unprecedented.

    Masha's reporting illustrates far more than the growth of a totalitarian culture – it gives you the personal, socioeconomic, mental 1984-like capacity, and so much more that all comes along with it!

    I just hope she keeps writing~

  • M.

    Received my giveaway copy of the book today, huzzah! This will be my next on my list, if I ever finish my current book.

  • Erik van Mechelen

    Gessen's careful telling of the lives of four Russians who saw the Soviet Union collapse and who also saw Putin take power is a thrill to read. Their are three additional characters whose position in Russian society and political influence garners attention.

    Despite following the lives of 7 characters across landscapes of city to country life and occupations from psychology to politics, Gessen manages to keep the reader on a path toward making sense of what it was like for these people to live (

    Gessen's careful telling of the lives of four Russians who saw the Soviet Union collapse and who also saw Putin take power is a thrill to read. Their are three additional characters whose position in Russian society and political influence garners attention.

    Despite following the lives of 7 characters across landscapes of city to country life and occupations from psychology to politics, Gessen manages to keep the reader on a path toward making sense of what it was like for these people to live (and in some ways) contribute to the political results.

    Gessen emerges less surprised than she was at the project's outset (as a journalist she herself covered this period in Russia). With attention, the reader will too.

  • Phillip

    4.5 / 5.0

    Don't know if she explicitly proved her title thesis, but the book progressed tragically through the lives of her protagonists. Extremely insightful unpassionate analysis of Russian character and psychology regarding authority. Told from activist viewpoint but emotionally fair and balanced. Minimal villainy attributed to Putin. Her points are subtle but strong and the accumulated total is devastatingly enlightening. Particularly in this time of simple convenient truths her nuanced detai

    4.5 / 5.0

    Don't know if she explicitly proved her title thesis, but the book progressed tragically through the lives of her protagonists. Extremely insightful unpassionate analysis of Russian character and psychology regarding authority. Told from activist viewpoint but emotionally fair and balanced. Minimal villainy attributed to Putin. Her points are subtle but strong and the accumulated total is devastatingly enlightening. Particularly in this time of simple convenient truths her nuanced detailed factual explanation and illumination of the current State of Internal Russian Affairs is a story well worth studying. Besides she writes very clearly and precisely chooses her words.

  • Sue

    For humans, a life without stability is stressful. Russia attempting to move from a dictatorship (totalitarianism, however you want to classify it) to a government with more freedom was a tall order: two steps forward, one step back. Ultimately most will choose the familiar for a sense of security even when it may not be in their best interest.

    Noteworthy: Bribery and corruption are such a way of life that careers exist to facilitate imports in such a way that bribes are paid and importers can s

    For humans, a life without stability is stressful. Russia attempting to move from a dictatorship (totalitarianism, however you want to classify it) to a government with more freedom was a tall order: two steps forward, one step back. Ultimately most will choose the familiar for a sense of security even when it may not be in their best interest.

    Noteworthy: Bribery and corruption are such a way of life that careers exist to facilitate imports in such a way that bribes are paid and importers can still do business with Russia without violating any anti-bribery laws.

    The Russians providing personal experiences to the author are outsiders who oppose the mass approval of Putin, Russia pride, etc. It would be interesting to read a similar book with contributors who all support the direction of the country and its leadership.

  • Brian Jackson

    Quite an amazing book, part history, part novel, with good doses of sociology and philosophy thrown in. I think this is an important book that Americans should read to better understand post-Cold War Russia as well as the present political moment we're living through in our own country.

    Masha Gessen tells the story of the late Soviet Union through the eyes of several Russians living in Moscow beginning in the late 80's. Like a Tolstoy novel, the cast is large and includes public figures such as B

    Quite an amazing book, part history, part novel, with good doses of sociology and philosophy thrown in. I think this is an important book that Americans should read to better understand post-Cold War Russia as well as the present political moment we're living through in our own country.

    Masha Gessen tells the story of the late Soviet Union through the eyes of several Russians living in Moscow beginning in the late 80's. Like a Tolstoy novel, the cast is large and includes public figures such as Boris Nemtsov and Aleksandr Dugin as well as less well-known Russians like Lyosha, a young gay man, sociologist Lev Gudkov, a psychoanalyst named Marina Arutyunyan, and a young activist named Masha. The combination of many perspectives within a single narrative against the backdrop of history paints a nuanced picture of present day Russian society, allowing foreigners to perceive a level of complexity and subtlety not easily accessed by merely reading the news.

    In one example, Gudkov's years of research conducting opinion surveys provide the reader with insight into Russian attitudes toward many social issues, such as how society should treat LGBT individuals, the handicapped, and other marginalized groups, as well as how these attitudes changed over time. Lyosha's firsthand experience of violence directed toward gay men combined with his difficulty pursuing his academic career serve to kindle empathy for the struggles that hundreds of thousands of Russians face daily.

    The most frightening (though enlightening) point of view, however, is Dugin's. The book follows Dugin from his early days as an anti-communist dissident through his present station as a key ideologue within the "Eurasian" movement and nationalist conservatism more generally. Some have drawn comparisons between Steve Bannon and Dugin, as well as to their roles with their respective rulers. At the core of Dugin's philosophy lies the idea of "Fourth Political Theory," meaning that the backward-looking authoritarian traditionalism he espouses represents the fourth great wave in political ideology, with the prior three being liberalism, communism, and fascism. Rather than viewing events in Russian history such as the Mongol occupation like the West typically does (as a period that hindered the development of inclusive political institutions in favor of colonial extraction), Dugin claims that these events have formed a uniquely Eurasian culture with values fundamentally different than those of the democratic West.

    Specifically, Dugin views notions such as representative democracy, pluralism, and tolerance as Western cultural exports at odds with the fundamental character of Russian society. His philosophy at its heart rejects modernity and longs for a return to a glorious Russia of the past, loosely defined around a set of rural conservative religious and cultural values that stand in opposition to the liberal beliefs of the West and the urban elite. To Dugin, Francis Fukayama's famous "end of history" embodied in the end of the Cold War meant the triumph of liberalism over communism, following liberalism's earlier defeat of fascism. Rather than accepting the "maternal" view of history represented by the global victory of liberalism and moving steadily toward the implementation of Western-style institutions within modern Russia, Dugin's Fourth Political Theory unapologetically advocates a patriarchal worldview, with liberalism at home and abroad as the chief enemy.

    It isn't difficult to see the appeal of Dugin's position to Trumpists and the American alt-right, whose chief adversary also seems to be liberalism. (Racist community organizer Richard Spencer's wife once worked as Dugin's translator.) Gessen's book, however, makes clear that Dugin's ideas are at their core adversarial to the United States, which serves as an object of resentment for the chaos that befell Russian society in the early 90's. Interventions like the US bombing of Serbia that few Americans keenly remember loom large in Russian nationalism and act as a reminder of how the US humiliated Russia at a time of weakness. While most Americans spent the 00's preoccupied with the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia seethed with sense of grievance over what it perceived to be US arrogance and unchecked aggression, including NATO expansion into Russia's East European security buffer.

    Masha Gessen's book is eye-opening in more ways than I can easily recount. (I haven't even mentioned her application of Hannah Arendt's ideas on totalitarianism to Russia's current situation.) The similarities between Russia and the United States under Donald Trump are troubling, but I'm optimistic that our institutional fabric will prove unconducive to "Duginism with American characteristics" (to borrow the phrasing the Chinese use to describe their variant of socialism). Yet if large swathes of American society continue to frame their agenda in terms of opposition to "liberalism," we remain vulnerable to Dugin's ideology poisoning our discourse. Eurasianism opposes not liberalism as the word is used in contemporary American parlance, but rather in the sense of the word that places both American liberals and conservatives within the liberal tradition as our founders would have defined it, combined with Adam Smith and David Ricardo's concepts of economic liberalism (in the form of free market capitalism) balanced by democratically enacted social measures to ensure fairness. I hope more people read Gessen's book to better understand contemporary Russia, the nature of modern totalitarianism, and the dangers that Dugin’s ideas (with Putin as their advocate) pose to the democratic West.

  • Carol Douglas

    Masha Gessen knows Russia well. She worked at a journalist there through the Yeltsin years, the rise of Putin, and Putin's consolidation of power. She has written an excellent biography of Putin, The Man Without a Face, which covered him up to 2012. In this new book, she covers the most recent years of his regime and gives a more detailed look at currents in Russia's intellectual life throughout the post-USSR period. She traces the lives of several young people who came of age in Russia after th

    Masha Gessen knows Russia well. She worked at a journalist there through the Yeltsin years, the rise of Putin, and Putin's consolidation of power. She has written an excellent biography of Putin, The Man Without a Face, which covered him up to 2012. In this new book, she covers the most recent years of his regime and gives a more detailed look at currents in Russia's intellectual life throughout the post-USSR period. She traces the lives of several young people who came of age in Russia after the end of the USSR.

    Gessen is an excellent writer. Realizing that this book is complex as a Russian novel, she provides a list of names of the people she's writing about.

    She contends that Putin's regime has moved from being authoritarian to being totalitarian. She sees totalitarianism as authoritarianism plus an ideology. Putin's ideology is right wing. The regime has conflated homosexuality with pederasty and has convinced the population that it is dangerous. The regime uses that fear, along with anger at "western values," to bolster the support it already has from the population. In turn, Putin uses his opposition to liberal values to help right-wing movements in the West and thus divide his main rivals for power, the United States and the European Union.

    He recognized that the brief period of liberalization was not enough long for the public to adopt democratic values. Polls show that Stalin is still Russians' most admired figure -- followed by Putin and sometimes Pushkin.

    The social sciences tried for independent inquiry in the '90s, but have since been squelched.

    The young people whose lives Gessen follows all become disillusioned as they see their country become more and more repressive. They feel that their country has no future.

    This is a painful book, but an important one. Those of us in the West need to know much more about Russia than we do.

  • Rory Harden

    This is an important book.

    Its purpose is to explain how, and why, Russia returned to a state of totalitarianism despite the initial hope and democratisation of the Yeltsin period. Why did the Russian people not fasten on to their new freedoms in the way that the citizens of the Baltic republics and, to a lesser extent, those of Ukraine did?

    Masha Gessen’s explanation explores, via the lives of seven individuals and through three disciplines which did not exist in the Soviet period – sociology, ps

    This is an important book.

    Its purpose is to explain how, and why, Russia returned to a state of totalitarianism despite the initial hope and democratisation of the Yeltsin period. Why did the Russian people not fasten on to their new freedoms in the way that the citizens of the Baltic republics and, to a lesser extent, those of Ukraine did?

    Masha Gessen’s explanation explores, via the lives of seven individuals and through three disciplines which did not exist in the Soviet period – sociology, psychoanalysis and opinion polling – the persistence of what she calls Homo Sovieticus.

    This character, the opinion polling and (a bit less plausibly) the psychoanalysis suggest, did not fade away after the collapse of the Soviet Union, nor even with the passing of generations. Putin era youth groups like Nashi differ little from their Soviets equivalents. Most citizens fear the open expanse of liberal freedom, preferring the ‘narrow corridor’ of the authoritarian State.

    Most Russians, the book says, yearn not for change and opportunity (and the responsibility and anxiety that may go with them), but for order, imposed from above, and ‘strength and stability’. ‘Strong and stable’ – where have we heard that lately?

    The book contains a discussion of the precise meaning of ‘totalitarianism’. Hannah Arendt is quoted, along with other writers. But the precise meaning is largely beside the point. In 2017, opposition politics in Russia is all but impossible. If you oppose Putin, you may be murdered, like Boris Nemtsov. Elections are rigged, even if Putin opponents are excluded and rigging is therefore unnecessary. Academics are monitored for ideological conformity. Demonstrations are all but impossible to stage. Protesters may be arrested by the hundred. Justice is arbitrary and controlled by the executive. Corruption abounds.

    Gessen discusses whether a totalitarian state needs an ideology. The answer appears to be: not necessarily, but it helps – especially when you are getting started, and you can change it as circumstances demand. And the ideology should be a single, simple idea. (Like ‘MAGA’ or ‘Brexit’, perhaps.)

    The current ideology is ‘Eurasia’ or ‘Greater Russia’ – as people in Ukraine are well aware – and its high priest is Alexander Dugin. Dugin is the Steve Bannon or Nigel Farage of Russia – only worse. According to this book, Dugin has a personal connection to the American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer (the ‘Hail Trump’ guy.)

    Dugin’s ideology is all about ‘traditional family values’, which are threatened by Western liberalism. There are no such things, he says, as ‘universal human values’. Liberal (social, but not economic) ideas are to be abhorred; they are ‘Western’ and an affront to white Christian civilisation, as epitomised by the ‘Russian World’. Putin is thus the leader of a movement to restore ‘European Civilisation’.

    This is where it gets really scary. LGBT people are ‘deviants’ who deserve to be ‘liquidated’; the Russian opinion polling on this is devastating. (And a warning: this book contains descriptions of homophobic ‘vigilante’ violence, tacitly state-sanctioned, that may cost you sleep.)

    To what extent do people like Bannon, Spencer, Farage, Le Pen and Trump buy into Dugin’s despicable ideology? How intent are they on spreading it outside of Russia? They may seem like comic villains, but we should ask ourselves this question before we laugh too much.

    Apart from Nemtsov, the characters in Gessen’s book survive, though most of them leave Russia. The book leaves you feeling, firstly, that Russians do not deserve their fate, Homo Sovieticus notwithstanding; and, secondly, that neither do we, in Europe or America – and we’d better think about that.

    Towards the end of the book, Gessen notes that, in June 2017, a Russian opinion poll reported that Russians’ choice for ‘most outstanding person of all time in the entire world’ was Joseph Stalin.

  • Jerrie (redwritinghood)

    A great look at the last ~35 years in Russia, how it went from a Communist regime to faltering democracy to totalitarian state. Gessen uses the lives of ordinary Russians to help the reader experience what it was like to live there during this time. We follow a few people while also learning about government changes and how those changes affected them. A great book to understand Russia and what might be influencing politics in the US today. Thoroughly researched and well- written book.

  • AC

    One of the most stunningly brilliant books I have read this year. If you are interested in Russia, Putinism, and the depth psychology of totalitarianism, you will find this book fascinating. Gessen is utterly brilliant.

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