Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Masha Gessen's The Future is History

Masha Gessen's books occupy a half a shelf at my house. She's a personal hero of mine.  She's an intellectual, historian, activist, and journalist who routinely helps to translate Russia to an American audience.  The subject of her books is wide-ranging, and includes monographs on Russia's experiment with a Jewish homeland in the Far East, a feminist punk rock (and protest) group, the fate of the Soviet intelligentsia, Putin, her grandparents' experience in the Soviet Union, and the Boston Marathon bombers' process of radicalization (in both America and various sites of the former Soviet Union).  Her latest book, The Future is History, is one of her most ambitious projects to date.  Like all of her other books, it is well-researched, well-written, and full of fascinating details about modern Russian history.  It also makes an attempt to define totalitarianism and explain its endurance in Russian history. 

At times, The Future is History seems overly ambitious.  It's difficult to define totalitarianism, explain a long series of political and economic events, and also describe the lived experience of Russians who lived at various stages of the Soviet and post-Soviet experiment.  Still, Gessen's ambition is laudable: don't we need to somehow combine a theory of totalitarianism with both an exploration of causality and everyday life?  We need to know how the term differs from other anti-democratic political models.  We also need to know why people often actively participate in this process.  Gessen explores a variety of theories of totalitarianism, including those of Arendt and Fromm, although never firmly settles on one and perhaps can do little more than rehearse previous theories.  Indeed, reading Gessen, we are reminded of the genius of Arendt's formulation of problem.  In any event, Gessen's exploration of political events and lived experience benefits from the attempt to wrestle with definitions.  For her, Putin's state is totalitarianisn not only because it centralizes power, suppresses protests, exploits propaganda, and cheats in elections.  Rather, it's totalitarian because it is apolitical and occupies every point on the political spectrum. 

Perhaps Gessen's original contribution to theorizing totalitarianism is her examination of sexuality.  She believes that the totalitarian state seeks a scapegoat in order to compensate people for their loss of individual rights.  This concept recalls anthropologist Girard's theory of sacrifice.  He argued that societies use a randomly chosen, blameless victim to sacrifice. The goal is to turn a society in which everyone is fighting everyone into a society where everyone fights only one defenseless victim (or group of victims).  But what do people get when they "trade" their rights into the state?  Gessen argues that people are seeking greater security and a sense of collective purpose. Although it can feel like you are living "without air," living in totalitarianism can offer a sense of security to people.  Perhaps Gessen's last original contribution to the discussion of totalitarianism is her emphasis on the social sciences.  She says that the Soviet Union intentionally destroyed almost every method by which Soviet residents could understand themselves.  Throughout the Soviet years, men and women were almost incapable of studying modern sociology, history, psychology or other disciplines. Without the resources to truly situate oneself, residents of a totalitarian state are unlikely to be motivated to resist their present conditions. 

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