Review of “The Future is History”

I’ve long held that one of the greatest blows to American democracy was the disappearance of the Soviet Union. With the advent of the Cold War, as the USSR went from ally to adversary, the US was shamed into embrace civil rights and to improve public education. I personally benefitted from the updated public school STEM curricula driven by the space race. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the US has been in retreat in these areas and increasing embraced crony capitalism.

In my personal quest to understand the Cold War, I’ve read books on Russian history, the Russian revolution, and biographies of Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky and Rasputin. I’ve been to Moscow twice and the former GDR three times, and I’ve discussed this history with Russian, Polish and East German colleagues. One of my Polish colleagues recommended “The Future is History,” by Masha Gessen. It gave me plenty of useful insight and helped refine my understanding of post-Soviet Russia.

The book mostly follows the lives of several Russians who were born in the 1980s and came of age in post-Soviet Russia. Their biographies are independent, and their backgrounds and motivations are dissimilar enough to project a diversity of experiences and reactions to shared circumstance.

In its quest for identity after the Yeltsin era, Russia looked for a frame to distinguish itself from the west. This became “Russia is a Eurasian country.” What does this mean? From a Russian high school essay shortly after 9/11: “Individualism and the independence of opinion are traits characteristic of Europe, where we don’t belong. Obedience and love for one’s leader are the traits of the Eurasian people.”

The title of Gessen’s book reflects her thesis that post-Soviet Russia is still in the grip of its past. Why is this? From an interview with Alexander Yakovlev:

Journalist: Why do so many people idealize the past?

Yakovlev: It’s the “leader principle.” It’s a disease. It’s a Russian tradition. We had our czars, our princes, our secretaries-general, our collective-farm chairmen, and so on. We live in fear of the boss. Think about it: we are not afraid of earthquakes, floods, fires, wars, or terrorist attacks. We are afraid of freedom. We don’t know what to do with it . . . That’s where the fascist groups come from, too—the shock troops of tomorrow.

One of the characters draws a comparison between Russian society and the Middle Ages. In the European Middle Ages, people saw themselves not as autonomous individuals but as a member of a particular social stratum. As such, a person who is born a peasant is part of peasant society and will live their life as a peasant. Likewise for nobility, courtiers, etc. The children of those people will inherit their parents’ social identity. So it has been with Russian society under the czar, under the Soviet Union, and with a brief respite, under Putin—little social mobility or hope for change. The lack of hope that this implies pervades the lives of most of the people described in the book, save those who can leave Russia for the west. It is a recipe for national stasis, and the Russian yearning for stability and predictability is at war with the need to evolve to meet a changing world.

Russia today has been described as a gas station with an army. Eventually, the oil and natural gas will run out. Already, they are being replaced by renewables, in part driven by the willingness of Russia to use carbon-based energy as a weapon. The backwards-looking culture of a future that is history served Russians poorly through most of the 20th century and looks to continue holding them back in the 21st.

The Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar describes the current Russian regime as a “post-communist mafia state.” A distinguishing feature of a mafia state is that it is structured like a family. Putin’s inner family consists of the men he grew up with in the streets and judo clubs of Leningrad. The next circle includes men who he worked with in the KGB/FSB and the next circle is men he worked with in the St. Petersburg administration.

One of the characters in the book, Lyosha, is a gay male. We follow him from his first awakening as gay, through his training as a sociologist and his nascent career as a faculty in sociology at the university of Perm. His specialty is gender studies, which was widely accepted under perestroika, but gradually comes under increasingly attack as the Putin regime harnesses homophobia to distract the public from its corruption and failures. As with QAnon in the US, homosexuality in Russia becomes conflated with pedophilia. As more and more laws are passed to justify legal harassment and criminalization of homosexuals and those who talk about it, Lyosha sees the writing on the wall, resigns from the university and emigrates to the US.

Why do the Russian people reject the western idea of personal freedom? From the book, it appears that a large majority prefers stability offered by a authoritarian state over the unpredictability of a society that valorizes personal freedom. From the observations of Arutyunyan, a psychoanalyst: “Most of her clients craved “stability,” whatever that meant. It had all been too much for them for years. Their anxiety had been intolerable: what Arutyunyan had experienced as “freedom from” the constraints of the totalitarian state, many of her clients experienced as “freedom to”—find a way, measure up, to as well as the others. When the first constraints began snapping back into place, to the beat of the “stability” drum, they had felt calmer.” Perestroika caused in the entire country a constant state of anxiety.

A constant state of low-level dread makes people easy to control, because it robs them of the sense that they can control anything themselves. This helps explain why Fox News watchers, exposed to constant grievance-mongering turned up to 11, are such putty in GOP hands. So what’s a poor capitalist Democrat to do? Well, how about a better safety net, so people don’t fear bankruptcy from health care? How about stronger unions and higher minimum wage?

This is a well-written and engrossing book. Unlike many histories, the narrative arc isn’t tied to great people and events, but the experiences of events through they eyes of regular people. We get to know these people and to care about them. Through them, I was drawn into the larger narrative and the lessons it holds for us as the clamor of authoritarianism rings loudly in Italy, Brazil, Sweden and Mar-a-Lago.