FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARDS
WINNER OF THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY'S HELEN BERNSTEIN BOOK AWARD
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF 2017 BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, LOS ANGELES TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, BOSTON GLOBE, SEATTLE TIMES, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, NEWSWEEK, PASTE, and POP SUGAR
The essential journalist and bestselling biographer of Vladimir Putin reveals how, in the space of a generation, Russia surrendered to a more virulent and invincible new strain of autocracy.
Award-winning journalist Masha Gessen's understanding of the events and forces that have wracked Russia in recent times is unparalleled. In The Future Is History, Gessen follows the lives of four people born at what promised to be the dawn of democracy. Each of them came of age with unprecedented expectations, some as the children and grandchildren of the very architects of the new Russia, each with newfound aspirations of their ownas entrepreneurs, activists, thinkers, and writers, sexual and social beings.
Gessen charts their paths against the machinations of the regime that would crush them all, and against the war it waged on understanding itself, which ensured the unobstructed reemergence of the old Soviet order in the form of today's terrifying and seemingly unstoppable mafia state. Powerful and urgent, The Future Is History is a cautionary tale for our time and for all time.
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On the seventieth anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, Masha’s grandmother, a rocket scientist, took Masha to the Church of St. John the Warrior in Central Moscow to be baptized. Masha was three and a half years old, which made her roughly three years older than all the other children in the church that day. Her grandmother Galina Vasi lyevna was fifty-five, which made her roughly the age of most of the grown-ups. They were old—fifty-five was the retirement age for Soviet women, and you could hardly have found a fifty-five-year-old who was not yet a grandmother—but not so old that they remembered a time when religion was practiced openly and proudly in Russia. Until recently, Galina Vasi lyevna had not given religion much thought. Her own mother had gone to church, and had had her baptized. Galina Vasilyevna had studied physics at the university and, though she graduated a few years before a course on the “foundations of scientific atheism” became a graduation requirement at all colleges, she had been taught that religion was the opium of the people.
Galina Vasilyevna had spent most of her adult life working on things that were the very opposite of religion: they were material, not at all mystical, and they flew into space. Most recently, she had been working at Scientific Production Unit Molniya (“Lightning”), which was designing the Soviet space shuttle Buran(“Blizzard”). Her task was to create the mechanism that would allow the crew to open the shuttle’s door after landing. Work on the shuttle was nearly finished. In another year, Buran would take flight. Its first test flight would be unmanned, and it would be successful, but Buran would never fly again. Funding for the project would dry up, and the mechanism for opening the space-shuttle door from the inside after landing would never be used.1
Galina Vasilyevna had always been extraordinarily sensitive to the subtle changes in the moods and expectations of the world around her—a most useful quality in a country like the Soviet Union, where knowing which way the wind was blowing could mean the difference between life and death. Now, even though all things appeared to be on track in her professional life—it was still a year until Buran took flight—she could feel that something was cracking, something in the very foundation of the only world she knew—the world built on the primacy of material things. The crack was demanding that other ideas, or better yet, another foundation, appear to fill the emptiness. It was as though she could anticipate that the solid and unmystical thing she had spent her life building would fall into disuse, leaving a metaphysical void.
Galina Vasilyevna may have learned that religion was the opium of the people and she may have been told, along with the rest of the country and the world, that the Bolsheviks had vanquished organized religion, but, having lived in the Soviet Union for more than half a century, she knew that this was not entirely true. Back in the 1930s, when she was a child, most Soviet adults still said openly that they believed in God.2 The new generation was supposed to grow up entirely free of the superstitions of which religion was merely a subset and of the heartache that made religion necessary. But then, when Galina Vasilyevna was nine, the Second World War began. The Germans were advancing so fast, and the Soviet leadership appeared so helpless, that there was nothing left to believe in but God.3 Soon enough, the Soviet government seemed to embrace the Russian Orthodox Church, and from that point on, the Communists and the clergy fought the Nazis together.4 After the war, the church went back to being an institution for the older generation, but the knowledge remained that in times of catastrophic uncertainty it could be a refuge.
Grandmother told Masha that they were going to church because of Father Alexander Men. Men was a Russian Orthodox priest for people like Galina Vasilyevna. His parents had been natural scientists, and he had a way of talking to people who did not grow up in the church. He had been ordained by the Russian Orthodox Church, which ever since the war had served at the pleasure of the Kremlin, but he had his own ways of learning and teaching, and these had brought him to the brink of being arrested.5 Now that things were opening up slightly, Men was on the verge of becoming spectacularly popular, gathering a following of thousands and then of hundreds of thousands, though it would still be a few years before his writing could be published in the Soviet Union. Masha did not understand much of what her grandmother told her about Father Alexander or the light in the teachings of Jesus Christ, but she did not object to going to church. November 7 was always her favorite holiday, because on that day, the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, her grandmother, who for 364 days a year was a reluctant and subcompetent cook, baked pies that Masha liked to eat.
“What the fuck did you do that for?” Masha’s mother asked when she came to pick up her daughter and discovered her wearing a tiny cross around her neck. That, however, was the extent of the discussion. Tatiana did not have much use for conversation: she was a woman of action. When she had discovered that she was pregnant, she went to the Party Committee at her graduate school in the hope that the authorities would compel the future baby’s father, who had at least one other girlfriend, to marry Tatiana. This was not an unusual request and would not have been an unusual intervention for the Party Committee to stage, but in Tatiana’s case it backfired. Masha’s father lost his spot in graduate school and, consequently, his right to live in Moscow, and had to return home to the Soviet Far East, thousands of kilometers from his girlfriends.
New motherhood brought further unpleasant surprises. It made Tatiana dependent on her parents. Virtually everyone in her generation used parents as a source of free childcare:6 the only alternatives were state-run neighborhood-based nursery schools, which were a cross between baby prisons and warehouses, or prohibitively expensive and questionably legal private nanny services. Tatiana had won unusual independence from her parents—unlike most other people her age, she lived separately from them, in a communal apartment she shared with just one family—but the baby tethered her anew to her parents’ apartment a few blocks away. With two rooms and a kitchen, Galina Vasilyevna and Boris Mikhailovich had the space to care for little Masha, and with both of them working as senior scientists in the space industry, they had more time than their graduate-student daughter. Tatiana figured that to escape her parental home for good, she needed to make money and pull strings. None of what she had to do was exactly legal under Soviet law, which restricted all activities and banned most entrepreneurship, but much of what she did was quietly tolerated by the authorities in a majority of the cases.
At age three, Masha was admitted to a prestigious, highly selective, virtually inaccessible residential preschool for the children of Central Committee members. (In fact, by the time Masha was born, the average age of a Central Committee member was approaching seventy-five,7 so the school served their grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well as the children of a few extraordinarily enterprising Soviet citizens like Tatiana.) Here is how a writer from a previous generation of students described the preschool:
Inside, everything reeked of prosperity and just-baked pirozhki. The Lenin’s Corner was particularly resplendent, with its white gladioli arrangements beneath Ulyanov family photos arranged like icons on a crimson velvet bulletin board. On a panoramic veranda facing the haunted woods, nomenklatura offspring snoozed al fresco, bundled like piglets in goose-feather sleeping bags. I had arrived during Dead Hour, Soviet for afternoon nap.
“Wake up, Future Communists!” the teacher cried, clapping her hands. She grinned slyly. “It’s fish-fat time!” . . . A towering nanny named, I still recall, Zoya Petrovna approached me with a vast spoon of black caviar in her hand.8
By the time Masha enrolled in school, the Lenin Corner had lost some of its luster and the teachers had toned down some of their rhetoric, rarely roaring the word “Communists” at their charges. But the daily rations of caviar remained, in even starker contrast to the world outside, where food shortages were the determining factor of everyday life. Still there, too, was the ubiquitous Soviet-preschool-issue single-lump farina, which could be stood vertically upon a plate. The school maintained a five-day-a-week boarding schedule, an unsurpassed Soviet luxury. On weekends, Masha, like many Soviet children, generally stayed with her grandparents. Trying to make enough to sustain this life kept Tatiana busy seven days a week.
When Masha was four, her mother taught her to tell counterfeit dollars from genuine currency. Being caught with either real or fake foreign money would have been dangerous, punishable under Soviet law by up to fifteen years behind bars,9 but Tatiana seemed incapable of fear. At any rate, this was her livelihood. She also ran a tutoring business: she had started out as a tutor herself, but soon figured out that she needed volume to make real money. She began matching clients—mostly high school students readying to face the grueling oral exams for university admission—with her fellow graduate students, who could prepare them. In her own tutoring, she now stuck to a highly profitable and rare specialty she had developed: she prepared young people to face the “coffins.”
“Coffins” were questions specially designed for the Jewish applicants. Soviet institutions of higher learning generally fell into two categories: those that admitted no Jews at all and those that admitted a strictly limited number of Jews. The rules of non-admission were not, of course, publicly posted; rejection was administered in a peculiarly sadistic way. Jewish applicants usually took entrance exams along with all the other aspiring students. They pulled examination tickets from the same pool as everyone else. But if they succeeded in answering correctly the two or three questions on the ticket, then, alone in the room with the examiners, they would be casually issued an extra question, as though to follow up on the answers given. This would be the “coffin.” In mathematics, this was usually a problem not merely complex but unsolvable. The applicant would falter and founder. The examiners would then nail the cover of the coffin shut: the Jewish applicant had failed the exam. Unless, that is, the applicant had had Tatiana for a tutor. She perfected the art of teaching her clients not merely specific “coffins,” which she had somehow managed to procure, but the general algorithm for recognizing them and proving them to be unsolvable. This bucktoothed blonde in aviator glasses could teach Soviet Jews to beat the anti-Semitic machine, and this kept Masha in caviar and disgusting Central Committee farina.
Excerpted from "The Future Is History"
Copyright © 2017 Masha Gessen.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents
Dramatis Personae xi
Part 1 Born in the USSR
1 Born in 1984 7
2 Life, Examined 19
3 Privilege 34
4 Homo Sovieticus 47
Part 2 Revolution
5 Swan Lake 69
6 The Execution of the White House 96
7 Everyone Wants to Be a Millionaire 118
Part 3 Unraveling
8 Grief, Arrested 137
9 Old Songs 164
10 It's All Over All Over Again 187
Part 4 Resurrection
11 Life After Death 209
12 The Orange Menace 229
13 All in the Family 253
Part 5 Protest
14 The Future Is History 285
15 Budushchego Net 310
16 White Ribbons 324
17 Masha: May 6, 2012 353
Part 6 Crackdown
18 Seryozha: July 18, 2013 373
19 Lyosha: June 11, 2013 395
20 A Nation Divided 419
21 Zhanna: February 27, 2015 448
22 Forever War 464