The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

Masha Gessen

The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
Granta Books
United Kingdom
5 July 2018

The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

Masha Gessen

In The Future is History Masha Gessen follows the lives of four Russians, born as the Soviet Union crumbled, at what promised to be the dawn of democracy.

Each came of age with unprecedented expectations, some as the children or grandchildren of the very architects of the new Russia, each with newfound aspirations of their own - as entrepreneurs, activists, thinkers and writers, sexual and social beings. Gessen charts their paths not only against the machinations of the regime that would seek to crush them all (censorship, intimidation, violence) but also against the war it waged on understanding itself, ensuring the unobstructed emergence of the old Soviet order in the form of today’s terrifying and seemingly unstoppable mafia state.

The Future is History is a powerful and urgent cautionary tale by contemporary Russia’s most fearless inquisitor.


As I read the final chapters of Masha Gessen’s latest book on Russian politics, it is reported that hundreds of protesters have been arrested in cities across Russia. Putin’s number-one political opponent Alexei Navalny had just been jailed for organising the anti-government protest, but thousands went out to march anyway, risking arrest and physical violence. Gessen’s book seeks to explain how it has come to this – how totalitarianism has managed to reclaim Russia. Gorbachev was thought to have revolutionised Soviet politics in the 1980s, creating a more open and democratic society, but today under Putin’s rule, things look very different.

Gessen has a wonderful ability to write about her subject in a way that is both engaging and deeply insightful. She suggests that this book is a ‘nonfiction novel’ which includes a cast of ‘characters’, Russian citizens from various walks of life whom she interviewed in depth over several years. She likens other attempts to explain the country of her birth to the fable of the blind men and the elephant. Most books on Russia are only able to describe just the elephant’s trunk or its tail, whereas her ‘ambition this time was to both describe and define the animal’.

Particularly interesting is her thesis that the loss of the social sciences under Stalin (academics and intellectuals were systematically executed or expelled from the Soviet Union) led to the inability of Russians to know themselves. Without sociologists, political scientists, philosophers and psychologists working together to try to understand human behaviour, it has been impossible for Russians to critique their own actions. Notably insidious is the way in which the so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law (banning the promotion of homosexuality to minors) has been used as a weapon of control. One of Gessen’s interviewees was born in 1985, and is a gender and queer studies academic who was forced to resign his university position and leave the country. His story is fascinating and chilling. This book on the whole is a brilliant examination of a complicated but very pertinent subject.

Kara Nicholson is part of the online Readings team.

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