I thought I knew something about Russia when I started reading this book; by the time I finished it, I realised that I knew nothing. I have less of an excuse than most Europeans – I am Finnish and Russia is our neighbour. Or rather – and this is worth remembering wherever you might reside – it is Russians who are our neighbours, regardless of what ‘Russia’ might be or do.
Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History can be read on several levels: as a history of contemporary Russia with a particular focus on the development of LGBT+ rights; and/or as a series of narratives about the lives of ordinary Russians. Gessen follows the lives of four people born around 1984, which allows her to explore the different experiences of people from diverse social and cultural backgrounds. My interests led me to read it along a third strand, which might or might not be of interest to others: intellectual historiography. In other words, what should we know about Russia if we want to know Russia? And how is it possible to know a foreign country – or indeed our own?
Masha Gessen answers these questions through journalism that reads like fiction; histories of families, snapshots of crucial moments, narratives that explain how and why certain events happen. This might have resulted in a fragmented narrative, but the driving force behind these stories, the burning question of what has brought Russia to where it is now, keeps the reader grounded.
This is, significantly, a history not only of political events, but also of intellectual experiences: what was it possible to know, and to think, in different times and places in Soviet history? What information was available, and how were the gaps explained – by academics, by politicians and by newspapers? Gessen’s book shows how crucial the dissemination and manipulation of information is for the lived experience in any given country, and how it effects the political choices people are able and allowed to make. I would like to read such a history for every country.
Her particular focus is on the mechanisms through which certain cultural concepts – the equation of homosexuality with paedophilia, for example – are established as reality, something that people will believe to be true. Gessen is skilled in weaving a persuasive narrative through a wide range of evidence, from sociological studies to the personal narratives of the people concerned. Her history of contemporary Russia reveals a scenario in which, if this were a calculated campaign of manipulating people into homophobia, would read as horrific supervillainy.
What Gessen shows is that it doesn’t take a supervillain to turn people against minorities, to long for a strong man to take over, to frame the debate so that the unthinkable (torture and murder of gay people) becomes legitimised through association with the unobjectionable (protecting children from paedophiles). Her exposure of these mechanisms is only one of the reasons why this book should be required reading for anyone concerned with the spread of fake news.
Reviewed by Jennifer Sarha
THE FUTURE IS HISTORY: HOW TOTALITARIANISM CLAIMED RUSSIA
Written by Masha Gessen
Published by Granta (2017)
Read The Queer Riveter in its entirety here.
Jennifer Sarha leads an exciting double life: she’s a researcher of obscure European history by night, a wrangler of research funding applications by day. In her remaining free time she is attempting to learn all the languages in the world. Her Twitter handle is @necverbum and she blogs on https://necverbumverbo.blogspot.co.uk/
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