Masha Gessen is a writer in residence at Oberlin College and the author of several books on Russia, including The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, forthcoming from Riverhead in October 2017. (February 2017)
In his small-mindedness and lack of aspiration Trump resembles Putin, though the origins of the two men’s stubborn mediocrity could not be more different. Both men want to be ever more powerful and wealthier, but neither wants to be or even appear better.
In his now familiar way, Trump has come across as clueless, as though he doesn’t know who Representative John Lewis is, which district he represents, and more important, what history he represents. But his instincts are guiding him into a confrontation that is hardly new: it is a response that has occurred over and over when an autocratic leader is challenged by the voice of moral authority.
A close reading of the intelligence report on Russian interference in the US election shows that it does nothing to clarify the abnormalities of Trump’s campaign and election. Instead, it suggests that the US intelligence agencies’ Russia expertise is weak.
In the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock. This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting. It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself.
Human Rights in Russia: Citizens and the State from Perestroika to Putin
by Mary McAuley
In August the Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova wrote a bitter post on her Facebook page. The previous day, her twenty-seven-year-old sister Oksana, who has autism and cerebral palsy, was taking a customary walk with her caretaker in Nizhny Novgorod, where she lives. They stopped at a café in a park …
by Sofi Oksanen, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers
Viewed from the inside and from below, history is frightfully confusing. The movements of troops and borders that will later be described as orderly, planned, and logical feel simply like waves of violence and fear. They are waves of hope, too, though hope wanes as soon as the confusion subsides …
Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia
by Emmanuel Carrère, translated from the French by John Lambert
Eduard Limonov’s first book, published as a “fictional memoir” back in 1983, showed the rarest of talents: the ability to laugh at one’s own insecure, obnoxious, angry, and overbearing self. It’s Me, Eddie begins with a rant describing the main character living in squalor—we first see him eating sour cabbage …
by Sergei Dovlatov, translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov, with an afterword by James Wood
In a less punishing country than Russia, Sergei Dovlatov would have been a popular writer whose revolutionary approach to writing would have been obscured by the lightness of tone, brevity, and apparent simplicity of most of his work. The public would have loved him, but most critics would have been disdainful of the vulgarity of his characters’ language and the apparently autobiographical nature of most of his writing. But Dovlatov lived in the Soviet Union, where his fiction could not be published, so he was denied the popularity he deserved.
After a week in critical condition, the young Russian journalist and pro-democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza has been improving. He remains hospitalized in Moscow, with a diagnosis of “acute intoxication.” Kara-Murza has been a vocal proponent of individual sanctions—so while most Russians have probably never heard of him, he has made a record number of enemies among the people who run the country.
Putin has declared victory in his war on modern culture, which gives him the right to call himself the most powerful man in the world. That description has generally been part of the definition of a different job—the one to which Trump has in fact just been elected. One suspects that having two men who believe themselves to be the most powerful in the world can’t go well. Signs of trouble have already appeared.
There is still much we don’t know about how Trump will rule. But since his election, some characteristic patterns have emerged—and they bear some instructive similarities to the style Putin has practiced over many years.
We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge. Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy, we have a slight chance of making better choices.