Masha Gessen is the author of several books on Russia, including The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. (January 2016)

Terrorism: The Wrong Conversation

President Barack Obama speaking with top officials about the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, Washington, DC, June 13, 2016

The declaration of war that invariably follows every act of terrorism is exactly what the perpetrators seek. The message of the terrorist is, “I matter. My cause matters. My hatred matters. My ability to act matters.” We respond by saying, “Yes, you matter.” We do not glorify other violent criminals this way.

Drawing the Iron Curtain

From Igort's The Ukranian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death under Soviet Rule, 2016

The Italian graphic novelist Igort went to Ukraine in 2008 and stayed for nearly two years. He met people at marketplaces and on country roads, and drew their lives. The living voices and the vivid images in his book are those of the powerless.

Putin: The Rule of the Family

The best description of the Russian state is a “mafia state.” To understand what a mafia state is, we need to imagine a state run by, and resembling, organized crime. At its center is a family, and at the center of the family is a patriarch. The patriarch and his family have only two goals: accumulating wealth and concentrating power.

Visible and Vicious in Russia

Former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, right, during a session of Russia’s Supreme Court at which he was appealing his detention before his second trial in 2009–2010, Moscow, April 2011. He was pardoned by President Putin and released in December 2013.
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 …

Writing in the Kremlin’s Shadow

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, 2013

The Kremlin’s efforts to shape the telling of events work in counter-intuitive ways. Steven Lee Myers’s The New Tsar makes clear it may be that no amount of critical thinking is sufficient to counter the misleading or misinformed intentions of these sources: not only facts but also frames and basic assumptions must be questioned. But if nothing can be trusted, how can anything be used?

Why the Finns Were Lucky!

Tallinn, Estonia, 1973; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson
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 …

The Weird and Instructive Story of Eduard Limonov

Policemen detaining Eduard Limonov at an unauthorized opposition rally in central Moscow, December 2009
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 …

Russia: Man vs. System

Alexsey Serebryakov as Kolya and Elena Lyadova as Lila in Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is riveting, visually and dramatically. It is also precise about Russia: the corruption, inequality, and ultimate hopelessness that drive its plot are becoming only more evident and pronounced in the current meltdown of the economy.

Russia’s Dying: A Postscript

Russian President Vladimir Putin holding a newborn baby, Kaliningrad, Russia, 2011

Over at Forbes, Mark Adomanis claims to have found eight errors in my piece on Michelle Parsons’ and Nicholas Eberstadt’s books on Russian demographics. I can go on and detail all the cherry-picking and misinterpretations in Adomanis’s piece, but the careful reader can easily do that herself. So I’ll concentrate on the substance of his criticism.

The Dying Russians

Aprelevka train station, Russia, 1997

Sometime in 1993, after several trips to Russia, I noticed something bizarre and disturbing: people kept dying. I was used to losing friends to AIDS in the United States, but this was different. People in Russia were dying suddenly and violently, and their own friends and colleagues did not find these deaths shocking. Upon arriving in Moscow I called a friend with whom I had become close over the course of a year. “Vadim is no more,” said his father, who picked up the phone. “He drowned.” I showed up for a meeting with a newspaper reporter to have the receptionist say, “But he is dead, don’t you know?” I didn’t. I’d seen the man a week earlier; he was thirty and apparently healthy. The receptionist seemed to think I was being dense. “A helicopter accident,” she finally said, in a tone that seemed to indicate I had no business being surprised.

The Songs of Sergei Dovlatov

Sergei Dovlatov with Joseph Brodsky (right) and David Rieff (center), New York City, 1984
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.

Russia: You Are What You Eat

A family meal at a collective farm, Ukraine, USSR, 1947
Russians have told so many lies about themselves they hardly know who they are anymore. In the 1990s, President Boris Yeltsin created a federal commission to draft a text describing the “national idea.” These days, President Vladimir Putin talks gibberish about Russia having a “cultural code,” which he seems to …