On Nov. 15, the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen took home the National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Her book focuses on a half dozen Russians—among them a sociologist, psychologist and nationalist philosopher—who help paint a portrait of a country caught in a cycle of trauma, unable to fully break from its monstrous past.
Gessen is the John J. McCloy ’16 Professor of American Institutions and International Diplomacy. Next year, she will teach two spring semester courses at Amherst: “Americans Writing Russia, 100 Years On” and “The Media and the 2016 Campaign.” Gessen spoke to Amherst’s senior writer Katharine Whittemore while on a train headed to Harrisburg, Pa. for a speaking engagement.
First of all, congratulations. How does it feel to get the National Book Award?
It’s an amazing feeling. You know, it’s a book that I spent a long time on, and took a lot of risks, and I kind of knew that it was either going to really, really work, or it would fail spectacularly. It’s great to see that it seems to have worked.
You’ve described your book as a “non-fiction novel.” Was that one of those risks?
Yeah. The book is an unconventional non-fiction book. It’s not completely unprecedented to write this way, to tell it through characters, very much focusing on their interior perspective. Katherine Boo used this in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I tried to combine that with a lot of theory and political facts and history.
Some reviewers used the adjective “Tolstoyan.”
In conventional non-fiction books by journalists, the author is never inside the subject, nor very far away from the subject. It’s sort of like standing next to the guy. What I tried to do is break that convention. The model was War and Peace, in the sense of the shifts that Tolstoy uses. The peace chapters, they’re inside the heads, and then the war chapters are bird’s-eye view. That’s what I had in mind.
What was the original inspiration for the book?
I was listening to a recorded lecture by a friend. She is a political psychologist who works in trauma psychology. In particular, paradoxic attachments, which are also known as complex PTSD. She was speaking to prosecutors who work with victims of human trafficking. She was trying to explain to them why the women who are supposed to testify against their abuser are so difficult, so fragmented. She very patiently walked them through how control works in human trafficking, how trauma works, how paradoxical attachment works. As I listened, I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is describing a totalitarian society.”
Then I started reading up and realized that, indeed, the science of trauma psychology originated with the study of people who had been in internment camps. I wanted to write about this idea of trauma as making the future impossible for Russia. But I wanted it to be shown, not spelled out. The word “trauma” doesn’t actually show up until, I think, the last chapter.
You have come in for some criticism for conflating Putin’s Russia and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Yeah, I knew I was going to be criticized for using the word “totalitarianism,” because it is such a big word and such a controversial concept. There was just no way to describe what I was describing without using that instrument. I don’t think that Russia is a totalitarian regime. I think that Russia is a mafia state, built on the ruins of a totalitarian society. The habits, the customs, the cultural institutions that the mafia regime has triggered are the institutions of a totalitarian society.
The question that my book tries to answer is, if the pillars of a totalitarian state are ideology and terror, then what happens when one tears down an ideology in order to discredit it? We had assumed for many years is what happens is society lands on democracy by default, which in retrospect is a really silly, naïve idea. In turns out that what happens is the totalitarian mechanisms are repurposed for a new state, and that’s what we’re witnessing in Russia.
You talk in the book about the loss of the social sciences under Stalin. Can you speak to the importance of having data? Of having a mirror shown up to a society?
That’s one of the main narratives in the book: What happens in a society that is robbed of the tools of knowing itself? In the Soviet Union, there was a concerted effort to purge the social sciences and subjugate the humanities. A Russian economist who now works at the University of Chicago said that the loss of knowledge was such that the economist working in the 1970’s was incapable of reading and understanding his predecessor, who had worked 50 years earlier.
That really struck me. That is such a vivid portrait of what happens when language is lost, when ideas are lost, the possibility of understanding between generations is lost. It’s like an individual who has never been allowed, or who’s never been taught, to be introspective. He probably doesn’t have a lot of ability to develop and grow and get past trauma. I think the same thing happens to society.
You’ve gone on record about the targeting and attacking of gay people under Putin’s regime. As a gay woman with a family, did that affect you personally?
Yes. I had to leave Russia because it had been made clear to us that the state was going to go after my oldest son. They were threatening us with revoking his adoption.
I’m so sorry for what you went through.
Thank you. I’m glad to be in the States. It feels wonderful to be recognized in the country where I live now. I was a very well-known journalist in Russia, but my books were too risky to translate. The Future Is History is a book written in English for an American audience, and I think a lot of people have found it oddly relevant to what’s going on in this country as well.