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.
Always enjoy your insights, but I think the deterioration of the US has many more reasons than the end of the Cold War. At the top of the list is racism. The deterioration started with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the white working class faced with the idea that blacks were human beings. George Wallace’s performance in 1968 showed the GOP how to win elections. They still follow him.
America was conceived and born a racist nation. The Civil Rights legislation didn’t start racism. Having grown up in the south at the end of American apartheid, I assure you that racism (and anti-semitism and sexism and homophobia) were all part of the fabric of American culture before the government stepping in to help level the playing field.. What legislation has done is to blunt straight White male privilege and force straight White men to compete on something a little closer to equal footing.
Today’s right-wing GOP is little more than the revanchist John Birch Society. Buckley temporarily banished the JBS from mainstream Republican politics, but fueled by Fox and internet grievance mongering, they are out and proud. In that sense, there is a large segment of the American electorate for whom the future is history.
We totally agree. Trump is not a cause, he is an effect. When I was in AZ for the election I spent many an afternoon at a local bar betting on the horses as the bar had an OTB. Always sat outside and avoided many of the regulars. The day after Trump won, every time another regular entered the bar the chant “Build That Wall” started up and went on for a couple of minutes. Rinse and repeat.
We have in the past disagreed on quite a few topics, but they all pale in comparison to our common history, the subject of which we are apparently in complete agreement. Thank you. Good to know and well said.
He may have started out as an effect, but now he’s an institution & a cause of continuing troubles. He’s a consequence of enormous income inequality & greed, which has been inevitable in our ‘land of opportunity’, so part of the American success story.
As to the end of the USSR, I recall reading back in the day that future historians would look at ancient ruins and say that the end of civilization had something to do with a feud between two entities known as ‘the US’ and ‘the USSRS’. (Did they mean ‘the others’?)
Looks like we managed to get past that anyway.
Some in the US indicated that the end of the USSR was inevitable, due to the flaws of Communism, or Marx-Leninism perhaps. And they said of us that we would sell them the rope they would use to hang us.
That there would be post-collapse issues was inevitable. At the moment, the difficulty is that Gorbachev’s successor Yeltsin allowed Ukraine to defect to the West, as Putin might say. As Putin might insist, actually. Does that make it true? Putin would like to think so. And he wants that decision reversed.
I agree with your post mostly, if that does not offend you. I think you would have learned more about the origins of the Cold War by reading American propaganda of the time…and back to the Russian revolution, and even the Framers fear of “levelers.”
But in the comments you with some help resort to a distorted understanding of those Framers and your own totalitarian instincts…which are no different from anybody else’s.
and..only slightly off topic…more of a tangent… the human desire for security is not the enemy of Capitalism, much less of “progress,” as we might have learned from the New Deal. It is, perhaps, the enemy of exploitation by the “winners” of the “losers” in Capitalism, Feudalism, and even Communism.
You gals should get a room or a broom or something – just find somewhere to bury the hatchet other than in each other. Sure, I know that you both have this same problem, but only one of you needs to quit for it to be over. If you really need this kind of release that comes from endless carping over every slight then just call me names or make accusations about me because I really do not care one little bit what others think of me and therefore have no need to retaliate in kind.
What we care to defend says a lot about what we care about. Or as my wife would say “Do you gals want some cheese with that whine?”
actually all this “arguing’ drives me to deep despair. I want to quit it forever.
But I don’t want to be a quitter. Leaving the field to the Liars, and the lied-to.
oops this post was not about Social Security but about Ruzzia. I started my comment by agreeing with Joel, but by then he had brought up the America founded in slavery for slavery by slavers, which is not so much a lie as it is a form of self abuse.
Basically understood and agreed, but I must refer to my own context which may or may not rhyme with yours. The contrast between the US and Russia “that a large majority (in Russia) prefers stability offered by a authoritarian state over the unpredictability of a society that valorizes personal freedom” is blunted by the separate realities in which each has evolved. The conventional view of these realities is expressed in terms of their different histories and ideologies, but my geography instructor in the eighth grade held a much different view. He attributed our individual “Be here now” to our immutable “you are here.” The settlers of the US were all strangers in a strange land united by their fear of the fellows that they were robbing for their lands. That is a lot different from living in proximity to where more generations of one’s ancestors than they can count had lived before them. If the US had not fostered individualism, then the first settlers would never have left their settlements for the frontier. My Cherokee ancestors would have preferred that.
Any socioeconomic analysis of any large nation that is succinct is also woefully incomplete. That said, then having an enemy such as the USSR did help the political unity within the US while it lasted. What may be worth considering is how naive and immature present human civilization is when taken in comparison to Spock’s Vulcan world in the original Star Trek science fiction franchise. The most important question for both the US and Russia and the entire planet Earth is whether human beings can avoid a holocaust of their own making (e.g., climate chaos or thermonuclear war) long enough to become more like Vulcans.
not sure about vulcans. i prefer the wide open spaces and not being told what to do, whether in medieval Russia (or Japan or merry England) or by my lazy-fair neighbors moral suasion in Boston or Tahiti.
but we are here…and an industrialized empire with 300 million people needs some “controls” and some “government” (social security, medicare for all, voting rights, protections for minorities…). the “independent” pioneers (starting with the puritans, and the less pure-itan Jamestown) (including those in Dodge. even Dan’l Boone was to some extent dependent on protections from the government…mostly all those other folks out there murdering indians) were very mutually dependent and they knew it and enforced regulation we would not put up with today.
from what i can see humans are not even smart enough not to throw their trash on the road. difference is that in the old days there weren’t very many humans, they didn’t have much to throw away, and they murdered each other in small batches. we had a very small window of freedom between press gangs in England and the draft in America (slavery for americans in the name of freeing the slaves?). we tried that freedom and justice for all thing. but it’s not that easy to achieve and we are falling back (if we ever really left it) into “regulate thy neighbor” either by fascism or democracy. it turns out you can do it either way.
Vulcans were much like us; arrogant, aggressive, and self-destructive until overtaken by the tragedy of self until the survivors became peaceful and conscientious. It is a theme that is endlessly repeated in science fiction. That which mankind will not learn the easy way, then the few survivors will learn the hard way.
Not so sure about the idea that education went into retreat after the USSR dissolved. I have pretty high respect for the young people who entered my STEM-heavy occupation the last decade of my career and their educations were all after the end of the the Soviets. Also have serious doubts that civil rights have gone backwards. The current emphasis on equity strikes me as a sort of a reaction that progress on civil rights has gone on. Just feels unlikely that there would be a major equity movement if “equality” civil rights was in retrograde for 3 decades. Equity seems to build off the idea that substantial advances in concretely observable civil rights alone can’t rectify many unequal outcomes. But interpreting this as a retreat seems unjustified. I know, anecdote not data, but thirty years ago black volleyball players players probably did not have to invent that crowds yelled at them and Jusse Smolette wouldn’t have had to hire a couple Nigerians to play the roles of white people to beat him up.
The SCOTUS looks to overturn decades of progress on voting rights and affirmative action this term.
Trying to think who would be a worse arbiter on racist comments not happening than BYU. Simply can’t.
Decades ago, basketball coaches were not to field an all-black team on the floor. A gentleman’s agreement meant to hold black Americans back. Why could that be? Because the coaches knew they would be beat. We do the same today in education, give them the minimum so a controlling thumb can be placed on them. It is a silent and hidden feature of discrimination. It has not gone away. It is still there. White America is escaping to segregated private schools minimizing minorities or zero minorities. White America will not win by minimizing the numbers of Black Americans let into society. Oh and the team? My Alma Mater for my Masters. Loyola University of Chicago. They took a Baptist in . . . And the story?
” the Bulldogs defied a state court order prohibiting them from playing against a school with black players.”
love that Freedom thing.
Rick Scott says that “from now on we are a color blind society. there is no more black, there is no more white, from now on we are all green. now get back on the bus: dark green in back, light green in front.”
Sadly I remember the formula, “two at home, three on the road.”