Its purpose is to explain how, and why, Russia returned to a state of totalitarianism despite the initial hope and democratisation of the Yeltsin period. Why did the Russian people not fasten on to their new freedoms in the way that the citizens of the Baltic republics and, to a lesser extent, those of Ukraine did?
Masha Gessen’s explanation explores, via the lives of seven individuals and through three disciplines which did not exist in the Soviet period – sociology, psychoanalysis and opinion polling – the persistence of what she calls Homo Sovieticus.
This character, the opinion polling and (a bit less plausibly) the psychoanalysis suggest, did not fade away after the collapse of the Soviet Union, nor even with the passing of generations. Putin era youth groups like Nashi differ little from their Soviets equivalents. Most citizens fear the open expanse of liberal freedom, preferring the ‘narrow corridor’ of the authoritarian State.
Most Russians, the book says, yearn not for change and opportunity (and the responsibility and anxiety that may go with them), but for order, imposed from above, and ‘strength and stability’. ‘Strong and stable’ – where have we heard that lately?
The book contains a discussion of the precise meaning of ‘totalitarianism’. Hannah Arendt is quoted, along with other writers. But the precise meaning is largely beside the point. In 2017, opposition politics in Russia is all but impossible. If you oppose Putin, you may be murdered, like Boris Nemtsov. Elections are rigged, even if Putin opponents are excluded and rigging is therefore unnecessary. Academics are monitored for ideological conformity. Demonstrations are all but impossible to stage. Protesters may be arrested by the hundred. Justice is arbitrary and controlled by the executive. Corruption abounds.
Gessen discusses whether a totalitarian state needs an ideology. The answer appears to be: not necessarily, but it helps – especially when you are getting started, and you can change it as circumstances demand. And the ideology should be a single, simple idea. (Like ‘MAGA’ or ‘Brexit’, perhaps.)
The current ideology is ‘Eurasia’ or ‘Greater Russia’ – as people in Ukraine are well aware – and its high priest is Alexander Dugin. Dugin is the Steve Bannon or Nigel Farage of Russia – only worse. According to this book, Dugin has a personal connection to the American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer (the ‘Hail Trump’ guy.)
Dugin’s ideology is all about ‘traditional family values’, which are threatened by Western liberalism. There are no such things, he says, as ‘universal human values’. Liberal (social, but not economic) ideas are to be abhorred; they are ‘Western’ and an affront to white Christian civilisation, as epitomised by the ‘Russian World’. Putin is thus the leader of a movement to restore ‘European Civilisation’.
This is where it gets really scary. LGBT people are ‘deviants’ who deserve to be ‘liquidated’; the Russian opinion polling on this is devastating. (And a warning: this book contains descriptions of homophobic ‘vigilante’ violence, tacitly state-sanctioned, that may cost you sleep.)
To what extent do people like Bannon, Spencer, Farage, Le Pen and Trump buy into Dugin’s despicable ideology? How intent are they on spreading it outside of Russia? They may seem like comic villains, but we should ask ourselves this question before we laugh too much.
Apart from Nemtsov, the characters in Gessen’s book survive, though most of them leave Russia. The book leaves you feeling, firstly, that Russians do not deserve their fate, Homo Sovieticus notwithstanding; and, secondly, that neither do we, in Europe or America – and we’d better think about that.
Towards the end of the book, Gessen notes that, in June 2017, a Russian opinion poll reported that Russians’ choice for ‘most outstanding person of all time in the entire world’ was Joseph Stalin.