Masha Gessen's latest book about modern-day Russia, which comes in at more than 500 pages, is unapologetically loud, a protest against complacency. Its cover — a black-and-white photograph of a woman sitting inside what appears to be a booth, her face partly obscured by an intercom — gives off a foreboding air. Even the subtitle, "How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia," sends an urgent, alarming message to the world.
No doubt, Gessen's "The Future Is History," arrives at an opportune time — a time, she writes, when Russia has "reclaimed the role of evil and existentialist threat in America."
Indeed, Russia continues to dominate the headlines; the specter of its meddling in the 2016 presidential elections lingers, ever threatening to tip us into a frosty era in which "an information war is waged against Western democracy as a concept and a reality."
But Western democracy, which is itself embattled in America, is not exactly Gessen's main focus — rather it is democracy unrealized and undesired in post-Communist Russia; it is its eventual, unconscionable death.
The book's narrative unfolds into a particular kind of history-steeped, intergenerational Russian tale in which political consciousness meets internal strife and — more frequently than not, when the future itself appears to be a foregone conclusion — angst and despair.
To achieve what she ambitiously envisioned as a "long Russian (nonfiction) novel," Gessen employs a whole host of protagonists — four young people born in the Soviet Union in the 1980s; as well as sociologist Lev Gudkov, psychoanalyst Marina Arutyunyan and philosopher/political activist Alexander Dugin, folks who are "neither 'regular people' … nor 'powerful people': they are people who try to understand."
Gessen, a well-respected journalist and an activist herself, is all grit and groundwork, and zero slouch; she plumbs the depths of her subjects' lives, unearthing grievances big and small, laying bare their insecurities and desires and, for some, the way their rights as citizens are repeatedly stomped on by Vladimir Putin's ongoing crackdowns.
Through diligent research into the fields of philosophy and sociology, she tracks decades-long trends in collective thought and action, illuminating nationalistic, anti-Western tendencies that created fertile ground for "recurrent totalitarianism." This is best described by Gudkov as resembling "a recurrent infection … in which the symptoms would be recognizable from when it struck the first time."
These autocratic symptoms include the mafia-style machinations of a Putin-run Russia and the resurgence of ideologically driven dogma. Gessen also plods chronologically through a lot of history, from the 1980s onward, focusing on dramatic, increasingly chilling moments.
When two or more of these three main threads, tied together primarily by the forward march of time, are interwoven successfully, the effect can be delightfully literary and intellectually rousing. But most stirringly wrought are the narratives of protests that emerge from the more personal stories. They are the bright flames that burn against the dying light of democracy and against the dark forces that, for many Russians, have rendered the very act of living in the present futile. They are also the voices raised for us all. Rightfully, they deserve our full attention.
Angela Ajayi's work has appeared in Wild River Review, the Common Online and Fifth Wednesday Journal. Winner of a PEN America award, she lives in Minneapolis.