The Future Is History by Masha Gessen review – Putin and Homo Sovieticus

The author’s claim that the regime in Russia is ‘totalitarian’ is extravagant, but she has written a fascinating account of the toxic legacy of the Soviet era

In her clinical practice during the 1990s, Moscow psychoanalyst Marina Arutyunyan encountered three generations of women living under the same roof. The grandmother tyrannised her daughter and granddaughter with demands for needless work and repeated invasions of their privacy. Her behaviour was finally explained when it emerged that she was a former guard in the Gulag: “The family was now recast as a camp, complete with dead-end make-work, the primacy of discipline, and the total abolition of personal boundaries.” Cases such as this led Arutyunyan to a wider diagnosis of Russia as a traumatised society unable to free itself from the psychological subjugation fostered during the long decades of Soviet rule. This idea of a people held captive by its own past is the dominant theme of the Russian-American journalist and author Masha Gessen’s wide-ranging and ambitious new book, which has just won the prestigious National Book award for non-fiction.

An outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, Gessen tracks the toxic legacy of the Soviet era and the ways it has infiltrated and undermined hopes for a liberal, democratic, law-bound Russia. In a finely wrought narrative of Russia’s turbulent history since perestroika, she argues that the deep state never really reformed itself and that, after Putin came to power in 2000, it rapidly clawed back the authority it had temporarily yielded under Yeltsin to a new class of oligarchs, an emerging civil society and a cacophonous independent media. By the birth of the Russian protest movement in 2011, political power and media influence had once again been concentrated in the hands of regime loyalists – many of them drawn from the security services – and the independence of non-governmental organisations was under assault. Critics denounced the increasingly hollowed-out rituals of political movements, manifestos and elections as nothing more than “an imitation of democracy” that masked the creation of “a one-party system”. This well-documented and nuanced account is marred only by repeated digressions into a heady cocktail of political science, sociology and psychoanalysis that press Gessen’s extravagant claim: Putin’s regime is a “totalitarian” successor of the murderous dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler.

An unauthorised protest against Russia’s anti-gay legislation takes place in Moscow, 2013.
An unauthorised protest against Russia’s anti-gay legislation takes place in Moscow, 2013. Photograph: Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images

Gessen does not, however, heap all of the blame for the demise of liberalism and democracy at the door of the Kremlin. The “main resource” of this increasingly repressive and authoritarian state is “the Soviet citizen weaned on generations of doublethink and collective hostage-taking: Homo Sovieticus”. As diagnosed in 1989 by Yuri Levada, sociologist and the founder of Russia’s first polling organisation, Homo Sovieticus was in favour of a powerful paternalistic state, deeply conformist and suspicious of all and any individual initiative that threatened to destabilise existing group hierarchies and identities.

Amid the liberal optimism of perestroika, Levada had predicted that as the generations of Homo Sovieticus died off, authoritarian government would follow them into extinction. But his disciple, the sociologist Lev Gudkov, discovered that successive opinion polls in the post-Soviet decades confounded these hopes for the country’s civic renewal. Russians were lukewarm about political freedoms, resentful of their lost status in the world and, above all, craving stability. Homo Sovieticus “was not only surviving but reproducing – and this meant that he was reclaiming his dominant position in the population”.

In what she calls a “long (non-fiction) novel”, Gessen (right) threads into this sweeping tapestry of recent Russian history the stories of a group of “intelligent, passionate, introspective” protagonists who were born on the eve of Gorbachev’s reforms. Zhanna, daughter of the assassinated opposition leader Boris Nemtsov; Seryozha, the grandson of perestroika’s ideological guru Alexander Yakovlev; and Masha, the pugnacious daughter of a party official-turned-businesswoman – each find that their personal quest for freedom and autonomy draws them to the opposition movement and into direct (and sometimes violent) conflict with the government. Each one becomes convinced that “there is no future in Russia”.

Fuelled by shared imperial revanchism and hostility towards western liberalism in the wake of Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, Homo Sovieticus and the authorities began, Gessen argues, the hunt for internal enemies. Gay people in Russia were the ideological canary in the coalmine, the first victims of mounting intolerance, xenophobia and social conservatism. The introduction to popular acclaim in 2013 of anti-gay legislation, which rolled back the relative freedoms introduced in the early 1990s, was “a shortcut to health, power, a rebuke to the west, and a guarantee of a populous and healthy nation”. Gessen charts the experiences of Lyosha, a young gay academic in the city of Perm, who struggles to establish queer studies as a legitimate subject against the darkening popular mood and increasing state interference in his syllabus. When groups of thugs begin posting their gruesome “paedophile hunting” videos online and a denunciation of the “Propaganda of Sodomy at Perm State Research University” appears on a social-network site, Lyosha decides he has no choice but to flee Russia and seeks asylum in the United States.

While the educated and liberal middle classes (people like Gessen herself) speak eloquently in this bleak narrative of mutilated personal lives and eviscerated dreams, the faceless backers of Putin only hover in the margins. Their thirst for a strong ruler is unquenchable and their deep hostility to the liberal values of individual autonomy and diversity is entrenched. Yet Russia’s traumatic experience of the corrosive poverty and crime-ridden chaos of the Yeltsin years still underpins much of Putin’s popularity today. Gessen mentions the plight of those who were reduced to “hunting stray dogs to eat them”. But she is uninterested in the motives of ordinary Russians who now support, or at least acquiesce in, a regime that, for all its corruption and repression, has offered a measure of stability and order in daily life and, until recently, presided over rising living standards.

This picture of slavish support for Putin is also difficult to square with the anti-government demonstrations which have, in spite of a crackdown, spread from metropolitan liberals to provincial lorry drivers and high-school students. In June this year, Gessen acknowledges, the “most geographically widespread protests in Russian history” took place. Nor is contemporary Russia so exceptional in its embrace of ethno-nationalism, xenophobia and homophobia. Less the timeless antagonist of our own liberal values, the country is more a darkened reflection of the same reactionary and authoritarian currents that today swirl throughout western societies.

Gessen’s Homo Sovieticus seems, in the end, more a projection of liberal disappointments in the post-Soviet years than a player in the country’s recent past. A fascinating but flawed account, The Future is History presents a Russia whose future in fact stands outside history, as its people are condemned decade after decade to rehearse the same drama of tyranny and obedience.

The Future Is History is published by Granta. To order a copy for £17 (RRP £20) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Daniel Beer

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
At the Stranger’s Gate by Adam Gopnik review – a prose stylist on New York
A memoir by the New Yorker staff writer becomes overburdened with ease. It is least successful when he reflects on home and married life

Craig Taylor

23, Nov, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992 by Tina Brown review – ‘the heart of the zeitgeist, people!’
These reflections by the celebrated editor aren’t really about a magazine but about her, and the name-dropping and hard-glamour sell are relentless

Hadley Freeman

14, Nov, 2017 @2:15 PM

Article image
Dictator Literature by Daniel Kalder review – the deathly prose of dic-lit
Mein Kampf is drivel, but what about Stalin’s poetry and Mussolini’s bodice-ripper? And does an autocrat lurk within every dreadful writer?

Will Self

25, Apr, 2018 @6:30 AM

Article image
Inside Vogue by Alexandra Shulman review – pleasingly blunt and self-aware
The editor of British Vogue writes surprisingly frankly about models and the quixotic world of fashion, as well as her own sacrifices, and has produced a funny, pacy book

Hadley Freeman

16, Nov, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Senecans by Peter Stothard review – at the court of Margaret Thatcher
This stylish memoir from the former Times editor recalls the politics of the 1980s through the prism of ancient Rome. Parallels between Thatcher and Emperor Nero are plain to see

Emily Gowers

22, Sep, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
All Together Now? by Mike Carter review – taking the pulse of modern Britain
Following the route, decades later, of an anti-Thatcher march, a journalist asks what became of the country his father struggled to change

Blake Morrison

23, Jan, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright review – the future of America?
This hymn to his complicated home state by the author of The Looming Tower is a pleasing blend of memoir, reportage and history

Benjamin Markovits

02, Jun, 2018 @8:59 AM

Article image
The Review Christmas quiz
From snail-smuggling to hair-cuts, our fiendish quiz tests your literary knowledge … plus who said what in 2011

23, Dec, 2011 @10:55 PM

Article image
Who Killed My Father by Édouard Louis review – dangerous masculinity
The French literary phenomenon focuses on his father’s story, in an exploration of different forms of machismo

Lauren Elkin

27, Feb, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
Natives by Akala review – the hip-hop artist on race and class in the ruins of empire
In this memoir-polemic, the author refuses to fall into the trap of thinking his escape from poverty is proof of personal exceptionalism

David Olusoga

24, May, 2018 @6:30 AM