America has become increasingly polarized, a nation in which women, people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community are under threat from the Trump administration and its followers.
Concerns about autocracy and creeping authoritarianism have ceased to be vague what-ifs. A year into the Trump presidency, America feels like a riven nation, where some of us see flashing red danger signs while others don red hats that read Make America Great Again, even as they call for the rescission of our most basic—and most quintessentially American—civil liberties. Masha Gessen knows about authoritarian rule because she’s lived under it for much of her life. Masha and I worked together for several years in the late 1980s and early ’90s. We talked weekly about everything—but mostly about work, AIDS and LGBT activism, and the endless complications of being out activist journalists like ourselves in what was an intensely homophobic world.
Twenty-some years ago, the last time I spoke with Masha before this interview, she was getting ready to move to Moscow and had asked me if I could send her American dog food if she couldn’t find what she needed over there. I agreed I would, we said some emotional goodbyes, and fell out of touch surprisingly quickly, given how close we had been. Russia was a world away from the work I was doing in the U.S. as both an activist and a journalist. For Masha, Russia was her birthplace, a home that was calling to her even as she worried about returning there. From the vantage point of the U.S., Moscow was the dangerously volatile place from which her Jewish family had fled fearing a rise in anti-Semitism, when she was a teenager.
In the Feb. 8 issue of the New York Review of Books, Gessen has an essay that was first given as a lecture using the seven words Trump had banned from government documents. To amplify on the word “fetus,” she writes, “Thirty-nine years ago, my parents took a package of documents to an office in Moscow. This was our application for an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union. More than two years would pass before the visa was granted, but from that day on I have felt a sense of precariousness wherever I have been, along with a sense of opportunity. They are a pair.”
America was the place where Masha Gessen came out as a lesbian, became an LGBT activist and a journalist, and prepared to return to a radically changed nation-state, no longer the U.S.S.R. into which she had been born but the newly minted, self-declared democracy of Russia. Nothing changed for Gessen in Russia, by which I mean she didn’t go back in the closet, she didn’t stop being an AIDS activist, and she not only didn’t stop being a journalist, she became the best-known gay journalist in all of Russia. As she continued to write about HIV/AIDS, Gessen met and adopted her then-3-year-old son Vova from an orphanage for the children of HIV-positive women (he was negative). Now he’s in high school, in America, because in 2014, like her parents before her, Gessen gathered her family and left her birthplace and that of her children. The title of her farewell essay explains why: “When Putin Declared War on Gay Families, It Was Time or Mine to Leave Russia.”â€¨
An unnerving part of that essay, written for Slate in August 2013, is the explanation for why Putin would want revenge on Hillary Clinton. His rage at her for claiming as Secretary of State that the 2011 elections in Russia were rigged was, as Gessen wrote, channeled into punishing a different Other than her. Gessen writes, “Early on, [Putin] accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of having personally inspired the protests. A few months later, this idea of The Other turned into the laws on foreign agents and espionage and into the ban on American adoptions—and eventually into the law on ‘homosexual propaganda,’ for no one represents Western influence and Otherness better than gays and lesbians.” This ban on adoptions was the cover story used by members of the Trump campaign to explain why they were talking with various Russians. And the vilification of LGBT people is another point of intersection for Trump and Putin.
But for Gessen and her family, her notoriety among Putin’s people created an aura of danger around her. Nothing was safe.â€¨ Gessen described what happened next. “The Americans want to adopt Russian children and bring them up in perverted families like Masha Gessen’s,“ said St. Petersburg politician Vitaly Milonov, bringing together homosexual propaganda, adoptions, and foreign agents quite nicely. Gessen wasn’t an anonymous lesbian in Moscow. Gessen was THE lesbian in Moscow. What happened next could easily happen here under Trump.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already barred lesbians and gay men from filing employment discrimination suits under Title IX.â€¨In Moscow on June 30, 2013, Gessen says that “the ban on ‘homosexual propaganda’ became law, the parliament banned adoptions by same-sex couples or single people from countries where same-sex marriage is legal, and the head of the parliamentary committee on the family pledged to pass a bill that would create mechanisms for removing children from same-sex families. That would include biological children. So that same month, we put our Moscow apartment on the market, and in August we began house hunting in New York.”
A few days before Thanksgiving in 2017, when Masha and I spoke again for the first time in 25 years, she had just won the prestigious National Book Award for nonfiction for The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. The Future Is History is a massive book—part Russian novel, part sociology, part anthropology, part thriller. It’s filled with interviews and insights and took Gessen hundreds of hours of interviews and many years (with the help of a Carnegie fellowship) to write. It is a book that could not be more germane to the creeping authoritarianism of Trump and to our own current political circumstances.
About those circumstances—the investigation into the Trump campaign’s engagement and collusion with Russia—Gessen has much to say, although not, perhaps, what many on either the left or the right wish to hear. Of the left’s embrace of Cold War– style Red-Scare paranoia, where every other person on Twitter is a Russian bot, Gessen is succinct: “It’s surprising and really disappointing.”
Now a staff writer at the New Yorker, Gessen writes about Trump every few days.
She frequently parallels Trump’s behavior with that of totalitarian elements in Russia and the former U.S.S.R. Trump, Gessen asserts, talks repetitively and endlessly.
She says he and Putin are similar in that they both purvey facts that are often wrong, but repeat those made-up facts again and again. “It’s meant to give the impression he’s knowledgeable,” she explains, but says the repetition, the relentlessness is meant “to drown us in his words,” which, she adds, often have no meaning or context, or have a reverse meaning, like his favorites, “fake news” or “witch hunt.” It’s become a commonplace for people claiming Resistance status to argue that Russia stole the American election in 2016. This is a far easier rationale than accepting the reality that the true conspiracy that led us to our own authoritarian ruler was a combination of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, the embracing of jingoistic sound bites, and rallies that would have made Leni Riefenstahl blush.
As Gessen sees it, people feel they haven’t gotten what they deserve, that someone else—immigrants, Muslims, gays—is getting what belongs to them. And that, she explains, is where the door opens for someone like Trump or Putin to walk right in, with their promises of taking everything back to a time those voters understood. Gessen, who also wrote The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, isn’t buying the claim that Russia stole our election without our participation. It’s much more complex, she asserts.
“Russian collusion is the story editors want me to write, but it isn’t as big a story as Americans would like it to be,” she says with the authority of a woman who has written several books on Putin’s rise to power and what it means for both Russia and the West.
Does she think Russia had a hand in our election? In the Trump campaign, yes. What Putin is not, says Gessen, is the mastermind of our own failure to elect an accomplished stateswoman and diplomat in favor of a man Gessen says is indeed very like Putin. Gessen’s so smart—she’s that vanishing breed in America, the public intellectual—and her deconstruction of Trump, Putin, and the 2016 election so well-formulated, that one wants to ignore what she has to say both about Trump and about how autocracies happen. Internet memes aside, Gessen says, “Putin is no Bond villain.” For many, that may be her most crushing revelation. Gessen’s book details what Putin is—the man behind the curtain, the for-mer KGB operative who, she asserts, “never wanted to be a politician.”
When I ask if Gessen thinks Putin is a mastermind, she doesn’t hesitate in saying no, but she quickly adds that Putin loves being perceived as a mastermind—as well as the stereotype of the shirtless strongman, still virile at 65, swimming “a thousand metres a day” as he claims. Hillary Clinton famously called Trump “Putin’s puppet” in their final debate, and Putin has, Gessen suggests, relished that image of himself and of Trump. The American left has fully embraced the image of Putin as a Bond villain, manipulating the Trump administration like a puppeteer. Gessen says Americans have “elevated Putin to the role he has always wanted, that Bond villain he has always aspired to be.” We have, just like many in Russia, where he has overwhelming support, bought into Putin’s persona. Yet, Gessen explains, the details of the Russia investigation have shown us the incompetent side of Russian intervention.
“What we’ve seen so far of what Russia did during the campaign is, for the most part, ridiculous,” she asserts. I laugh, but when we examine Donald Trump, Jr., Carter Page, Gen. Mike Flynn, George Papadapoulos, and even Paul Manafort, their blundering efforts to engage Russia to ruin Hillary Clinton’s chances of being president feel more Keystone Cops than Jason Bourne. And yet….
It should have ended July 27, 2016 when Trump said during a press conference in Florida, “I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Yet it’s not all a joke, as Gessen explains. The most chilling thing she said in our interview was that “[Amer- ica] is not moving toward democracy. It’s marching away from democracy.” And although Gessen believes true democracy is aspirational rather than actual in most cases, the net negative is the same: We are, under Trump, marching in the wrong direction.â€¨In her Feb. 8 New Yorker column, Gessen states this quite literally as she deconstructs Trump’s latest desire for a parade. Describing a poster of a Soviet parade, and supplying her own disparaging caption, she notes, “Military parades, it went without saying, were a feature of totalitarian regimes and the opposite of freedom.” That is something we cannot blame on anyone but ourselves, Gessen says. She talks rapid-fire about how inescapable totalitarianism was in Russia, because of what she calls “intergenerational trauma.” The impact of Soviet Russia lingered even after the bloc was broken up and nation-states sprang up (some of them far more totalitarian than the U.S.S.R. was at its peak).â€¨
The often facile nature of American politics has made for easy parallels that aren’t accurate. Trump isn’t Hitler, Steven Miller isn’t Josef Goebbels. But Gessen lays out some parallels between Trump and Putin—their grandiosity, their narcissism—that make sense. She also describes the corrupted political landscape on which Putin built his empire: He’s been running Russia since 2000 and Gessen says there’s no question he’ll be re-elected for another six years.
What should intrigue Americans seeking parallels is that Gessen says, “Putin built a mafia state,” that he didn’t set out to build a totalitarian regime, but that since the U.S.S.R. had been one, the lingering tentacles were there.â€¨Trump is closer to a mafia don than he is a dictator. Thus far. But we know Trump has a fixation with and an admiration for other dictators, most importantly Putin. In her Feb. 6 column in the New Yorker, Gessen made a subtle comparison between Trump and Stalin, with a trajectory built on applause: “I sometimes joke that growing up in the Soviet Union prepared me for working as a journalist in the United States. That joke has become less funny now that the president is positioning applause as a central issue of American politics.”
Gessen knows what the word “freedom” means. She says the most defining difference for her living back in the U.S. is that she no longer worries about where her three children are, nor her wife, nor her ex. No one will be kidnapped by the State, here. She needn’t call her partner to come meet her with their dog because of what she calls “a creeping sense of unsafeness.”
In her New York Public Library speech last December, Gessen said, “I wish I could finish on a hopeful note, by saying something like: If only we insist on making choices, we will succeed in keeping the darkness at bay. I’m not convinced that that’s the case. But I do think that making choices and, more important, imagining other, better choices, will give us the best chance possible of coming out of the darkness better than we were when we went in.”