Early in Vladimir Putin’s first presidency I spoke to a Moscow banker, with reason to care on this point, who said he detected no trace of anti-Semitism in Putin personally, but that Putin would encourage popular anti-Semitism in a second if he thought that doing so would serve his interests. So far, Putin has not felt the need to demonize Russia’s Jews. He has instead identified the enemy within as Russia’s homosexuals, whose persecution is one of the main themes of The Future Is History, Masha Gessen’s remarkable group portrait of seven Soviet-born Russians whose changing lives embody the changing fortunes and character of their country as it passed from the end of Communist dictatorship under Mikhail Gorbachev to improvised liberalism under Boris Yeltsin and then back to what Gessen sees as renewed totalitarianism under Putin.
Two of Gessen’s central characters, Masha* and Lyosha, were born into the educated middle class of the 1980s. Two more characters of the same generation have lives touched by great privilege: Seryozha is the grandson of Alexander Yakovlev, who was Gorbachev’s close adviser and a longtime member of the Central Committee; Zhanna is the daughter of Boris Nemtsov, a minister under Yeltsin and a dissident murdered under Putin. All four are encountered first in childhood and referred to throughout by their childhood names. Three characters appear first as adults, with private and public lives. Alexander Dugin is a philosopher who develops an ideology of Russian exceptionalism that wins him fame and favor under Putin. Lev Gudkov is a sociologist who seeks to model the emerging new Russia. Marina Arutyunyan is a psychologist who reestablishes the practice of psychoanalysis in Russia after its disappearance under communism.
Gessen’s deft blending of these stories gives us a fresh view of recent Russian history from within, as it was experienced at the time by its people. It is a welcome perspective. In turbulent periods, anything seems possible. Only with hindsight does causality creep in, and with it the illusion of inevitability. The infinite possibilities of the moment are lost. Through the eyes of her characters, Gessen manages to restore those possibilities, to convey how it felt to imagine that life in the new Russia could go in any direction.
The tension between experience and hindsight is there within Gessen’s writing. She alternately zooms in on the lives of her characters and zooms out to give more general accounts of the major events of the time—the putsch against Gorbachev in 1991, Yeltsin’s shelling of the Russian White House in 1993, the reelection of Yeltsin as president in 1996, the handover of power to Putin in 2000, and so on. How familiar these events appear when Gessen arranges them in their historical order, and how unfamiliar they appear when we see them as fragments of experience. On one side is the historian explaining the rise of Putin as a logical reaction to…
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