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From THE FUTURE IS HISTORY: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen.

Published by
arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin
Random House LLC. Copyright 2017 by Masha Gessen.


I have been told many stories about Russia, and I have told a few myself.

When I was eleven or twelve, in the late 1970s, my mother told me that the USSR was a totalitarian
stateshe compared the regime to the Nazi one, an extraordinary act of thought and speech for a
Soviet citizen. My parents told me that the Soviet regime would last forever, which was why we had to
leave the country.

When I was a young journalist, in the late 1980s, the Soviet regime began to teeter and then collapsed
into a pile of rubble, or so the story went. I joined an army of reporters excitedly documenting my
countrys embrace of freedom and its journey toward democracy.

I spent my thirties and forties documenting the death of a Russian democracy that had never really
come to be. Different people were telling different stories about this: many insisted that Russia had
merely taken a step back after taking two steps toward democracy; some laid the blame on Vladimir
Putin and the KGB, others on a supposed Russian love of the iron fist, and still others on an
inconsiderate, imperious West. At one point, I was convinced that I would be writing the story of the
decline and fall of the Putin regime. Soon after, I found myself leaving Russia for the second timethis
time as a middle-aged person with children. And like my mother before me, I was explaining to my
children why we could no longer live in our country.

The specifics were clear enough. Russian citizens had been losing rights and liberties for nearly two
decades. In 2012, Putins government began a full-f ledged political crackdown. The country waged war
on the enemy within and on its neighbors. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, and in 2014 it attacked
Ukraine, annexing vast territories. It has also been waging an information war on Western democracy as
a concept and a reality. It took a while for Western observers to see what was happening in Russia, but
by now the stories of Russias various wars have become familiar. In the con- temporary American
imagination, Russia has reclaimed the role of evil empire and existential threat.

The crackdown, the wars, and even Russias reversion to type on the world stage are things that
happenedthat I witnessedand I wanted to tell this story. But I also wanted to tell about what did not
happen: the story of freedom that was not embraced and democracy that was not desired. How do you
tell a story like that? Where do you locate reasons for the absences? When do you begin, and with

Popular books about Russiaor other countriesfall into two broad categories: stories about powerful
people (the czars, Stalin, Putin, and their circles) that aim to explain how the country has been and is
run, and stories about regular people that aim to show what it feels like to live there. I have written
both kinds of books and read many more. But even the best such booksperhaps especially the best
such booksprovide a view of only one part of the story of a country. If we imagine reporting, as I do, in
terms of the Indian fable of six blind men and an elephant, most Russia books describe just the
elephants head or just its legs. And even if some books supply descriptions of the tail, the trunk, and the
body, very few try to ex- plain how the animal holds togetheror what kind of animal it is. My ambition
this time was to both describe and define the animal.
I decided to start with the decline of the Soviet regimeperhaps the assumption that it collapsed
needed to be questioned. I also decided to focus on people for whom the end of the USSR was the first
or one of the first formative memories: the generation of Russians born in the early to middle 1980s.
They grew up in the 1990s, perhaps the most contested de- cade in Russian history: some remember it
as a time of liberation, while for others it represents chaos and pain. This generation have lived their
entire adult lives in a Russia led by Vladimir Putin. In choosing my subjects, I also looked for people
whose lives changed drastically as a result of the crack- down that began in 2012. Lyosha, Masha,
Seryozha, and Zhannafour young people who come from different cities, families, and, indeed,
different Soviet worldsallowed me to tell what it was to grow up in a country that was opening up and
to come of age in a society shutting down.

In seeking out these protagonists, I did what journalists usually do: I sought people who were both
regular, in that their experiences exemplified the experiences of millions of others, and extraordinary:
intelligent, passionate, introspective, able to tell their stories vividly. But the ability to make sense of
ones life in the world is a function of freedom. The Soviet regime robbed people not only of their ability
to live freely but also of the ability to understand fully what had been taken from them, and how. The
regime aimed to annihilate personal and historical memory and the academic study of society. Its
concerted war on the social sciences left Western academics for decades in a better position to interpret
Russia than were Russians themselvesbut, as outsiders with restricted access to information, they
could hardly fill the void. Much more than a problem of scholar- ship, this was an attack on the
humanity of Russian society, which lost the tools and even the language for understanding itself. The
only stories Russia told itself about itself were created by Soviet ideologues. If a modern country has no
sociologists, psychologists, or philosophers, what can it know about itself? And what can its citizens
know about themselves? I realized that my mothers simple act of categorizing the Soviet regime and
comparing it to another had required an extraordinary measure of freedom, which she derived, at least
in part, from having already decided to emigrate.

To capture the larger tragedy of losing the intellectual tools of sense making, I looked for Russians who
had attempted to wield them, in both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. The cast of characters grew to
include a sociologist, a psychoanalyst, and a philosopher. If anyone holds the tools of defining the
elephant, it is they. They are neither regular peoplethe stories of their struggles to bring their
disciplines back from the dead are hardly representativenor powerful people: they are the people
who try to understand. In the Putin era, the social sciences were defeated and degraded in new ways,
and my protagonists faced a new set of impossible choices.

As I wove these stories together, I imagined I was writing a long Russian (nonfiction) novel that aimed to
capture both the texture of individual tragedies and the events and ideas that shaped them. The result, I
hope, is a book that shows not only what it has felt like to live in Russia over the last thirty years but also
what Russia has been in this time, what it has become, and how. The elephant, too, makes a brief
appearance (see page 386).

From THE FUTURE IS HISTORY: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen. Published by
arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin
Random House LLC. Copyright 2017 by Masha Gessen.