I feel a little better about America today after reading Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. After all, even in the Trump era, elections mean something, political protestors don’t get murdered or poisoned or beaten or 2-5 years in the Gulag, gays are not routinely ostracized and scholarship about them banned, there aren’t vigilante groups hunting down pedophiles, our oligarchs don’t flee to Russia and buy basketball teams, and ordinary people don’t see it as their civic duty to turn in anyone who questions the authorities.
Gessen makes a cogent case that under Putin, but really with only a few blips (think Yeltsin) since Stalin, Russia seems to always be leaning towards totalitarianism. “Abortive modernization” and “illiberal democracy” are terms coined to explain systems where even leaders like Yeltsin care little for constitutional procedures and limits. Its people are seemingly most comfortable when they don’t have to think too much about what a different kind of world might look like. Scarcity unites them almost as much as hatred/fear of the United States. War is a great diversion and unifier. Stalin is their greatest modern hero, holding off the Nazis in WWII their greatest glory, stability is achieved through permanent instability, and Orwellian double think (to know and not to know – as in “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”) continues to be a major way of managing. Gessen sees little chance of that changing, hence the title of her book.
Here we are a long way away from all that. Yet, maybe we are on the path? For example, Richard Spencer, the “alt-right” leader who has gained prominence since Trump was elected, is married to Nina Kouprianova, a Russian who served as English translator and American promoter of Alexander Dugin, Putin’s whisperer (chief ideologue and possibly the mastermind behind the annexation of Crimea and trouble-making in the Ukraine). And of course there is the apparent comfort Trump’s people had with Russian meddling in our election, and how likely that is to continue because after all we are the enemy. So, we cannot ignore what goes on in Russia (and see Syria.) That is true even if from our western liberal perspective we see no way totalitarianism can last, mostly because of its disregard for human life. Maybe in fact Russia wants to kill itself, as Gessen speculates, but it’s not dead yet.
Much more to be read and absorbed here, but surely some cautions for back home. Best regards, Bill Rudolph