The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

Image of The Future Is History (National Book Award Winner): How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
Release Date: 
October 2, 2017
Riverhead Books
Reviewed by: 

Masha Gessen will inform you not only about Putin’s Russia but will also take you deep into a society where many, if not most, people desire a strong leader. Surveys by the Levada Center show that a plurality of Russians consider Stalin the outstanding public figure of all time and places, with Putin not far behind (though sometimes tied with Aleksander Pushkin!).

Born in Russia but now based in New York, Masha Gessen knows many of Russia’s leading personalities up close. Her book tells how seven Russian citizens have passed through the first years of the 21st century. How their stories illuminate the larger picture of Putin’s Russia is supported by Gessen’s wide sourcing of Russian and Western commentary and documentation. She has also written about the United States, e.g. “John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup,” The New Yorker, October 20, 2017.

Hope may spring eternal, but many hopes for Russia crashed early in 2015—detailed in chapter 21. Liberal hopes centered on Boris Nemtsov—physicist, political reformer, and leading challenger to President Putin—and on Ukraine’s democratic movement, named “Maidan” for the square in Kyiv where demonstrators gathered. 

On New Year’s Eve 2015, Nemtsov’s colleague Aleksei Novalny and his brother Oleg were found guilty of defrauding a company whose representative testified that it had not been defrauded! With Novalny sentenced, Sergei Udaltsov in prison, Garry Kasparov and Ilya Ponomarev in exile, Nemtsov was the only prominent protest organizer still walking around Moscow.

He found, however, that even disgruntled Russians were now more focused on their own economic problems than on the war in Ukraine. Authorities refused Nemstov permission to mount a march in central Moscow. They did, however, facilitate a march by a pro-Kremlin youth movement named the “Anti-Maidan,” one of whose members carried a poster with a huge photo of Nemtsov with the caption, “Organizer of the Maidan.”

Nemtsov’s daughter Zhanna and her mother planned to vacation in Italy in March 2015. The night before their flight, Zhanna found her mother screaming, phone in hand. “They killed him,” she cried. An abusive taxi driver took them to the bridge across from the Kremlin where Nemtsov had been shot. What followed was not a peace march but a march of mourning by 50,000 people who walked through central Moscow without a permit. Vladimir Kara-Murza was one who visited the murder site every day, often with flowers. But he was soon hospitalized with multiple organ failures as a result of some unknown toxin.  

Gessen observed: “The famous got a bullet in the heart and the less famous got poison in their tea." In July 2017 five Chechens were blamed for shooting Nemtsov and given long prison terms. Who ordered the killing was left unsaid.

Is the future destined to be history—more of the past? Gessen’s writings suggest that the answer is “da.” She describes a society moving on a downward slope. Yes, brave and creative Individuals and some groups seek to reverse the dynamics, but they are overwhelmed by the structures of power and the attitudes of their fellow citizens. 

As of 2017, Russia belongs to a global movement toward anti-intellectual, anti-humanist nationalism. A popular song in today’s Russia celebrates “our native land (rodina) from Kamchatka to Odessa (port city deep inside Ukraine).