Because of Gessen’s profession, she was frequently the target of attacks, but these were based on her journalistic and political activities rather than identity – a fact which Gessen found oddly comforting. “I’ve been threatened very directly,” Gessen said in a matter-of-fact tone, with her standard poodle curled in her lap. A prosecutor had warned her from investigating a case related to Putin, her phone has been cut off, and a man was posted outside her apartment for weeks at a time, supposedly fixing the wiring. “I found it annoying, extremely unpleasant,” Gessen said. “But I mean, I didn’t walk around with the emotional weight of being terrified.”
For years, Gessen had been taking the necessary precautions. “I would never enter my courtyard in the dark without having my girlfriend at the time come out with the dog and that sort of thing. Because I knew that there were long lists of targets, and somebody could get points for knocking me off.” Mostly, she carried on with her work.
However, by the end of 2009, Gessen had also become one of the most public faces of LGBTQI activism in a country that was just beginning to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality. (Gessen has a complicated gender identity and responds to all pronouns, but for clarity, I’ve elected to use “she/her”.) During this same period of apparent liberalisation, when Russians were beginning to come out, the Kremlin seized on the growing awareness of gays in Russia to create a homosexual panic.
Much like the Nazis did for the Jews, Gessen argues that “Russian propaganda … links LGBT people to all the social and also economic anxieties people have.” They represent not just sexual deviancy but every kind of problem Russia faces today, and all of the degenerate values the Kremlin sees in the West. “The message is basically: ‘If you want to go back to a time when you felt comfortable – before all the changes happened – you know, we have to get rid of the queer people.’” And this message, championed by conservative nationalists, to supposedly protect Russian children from paedophiles, proved effective. In 2013, Russia’s parliament passed a suite of legislation outlawing “homosexual propaganda” and stripping gay Russians of many of their rights.
“Russian propaganda … links LGBT people to all the social and also economic anxieties people have.”
When the legislation passed, Gessen was staying at a hotel in New York. It was morning in Manhattan but already evening in Moscow. She opened her laptop to read an interview published that day in Komsomolskaya Pravda. A leading conservative official was calling for social services to take away children from same-sex couples, claiming that “The Americans want to adopt Russian children and bring them up in perverted families like Masha Gessen’s.” Named outright in Russia’s largest newspaper, Gessen began to panic. She called a lawyer friend in Moscow for reassurance.
“Am I misinterpreting this?” Gessen remembered asking him. There had been so many statements made against gays and against herself – it was hard to separate bluffs from real dangers.
“The answer to your question is at the airport,” her friend replied. Recounting the story, now, Gessen chuckled to herself.
“[It] is a very old Soviet saying,” Gessen explained. In a strange coincidence, this was the same sort of expression people had used with her parents more than 30 years earlier. As Jews, they had faced discrimination in the USSR and decided to emigrate with their children to the United States in 1981. They settled in the Boston area when Gessen was 14. She assimilated quickly and flirted with the idea of studying architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. But ultimately, she fell in love with the newspaper business, the same as her grandparents and parents, who had all been editors or writers.
With the Soviet Union collapsing in the early ’90s, Gessen returned to Moscow as an American, “reporting in a foreign country where I happened to speak the language”. Without planning it, she discovered that she wanted to stay.
“My body, just fit there,” she recalled. “It’s like there was a Masha-shaped hole that I just went right back in.” She had to re-learn Russian, as the version she’d inherited from her parents and grandparents sounded like a 19th century novel, but the excitement and energy of the place had a powerful effect on her. “How the light falls and how the air smells and how the people move – everything was just incredibly, physically comfortable,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, it’s like the tension in my shoulders that I had for 10 years – it’s just gone away.’”
Now, with the Kremlin’s official attacks on her family, the tension was mounting, and she was faced with the same choice her parents had been forced to make in the ’80s. Just as Russian history was repeating itself – lurching backward into autocracy and totalitarianism – Gessen’s life seemed to be caught in the same vortex.
As a writer based in the US, Gessen has become something of a Russia specialist, even translating for the FX spy thriller The Americans. Her visibility was suddenly boosted by the involvement of Russian hackers in the 2016 US election. As the results were coming in, Gessen banged out an essay published the next day in The New York Review of Books that would become a defining text of life under Trump, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” A pointed, revealing account of what it is like to live under a dictatorship, Gessen’s advice to her shell-shocked American friends proved disturbingly prescient. While other pundits were claiming that Trump’s promises to hunt down undocumented immigrants or remove disobedient officials from office was mere “campaign rhetoric,” Gessen wrote, “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalisation.”
This boldness was part of what drew David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker magazine to hire Gessen as a staff writer in 2017. Remnick had first met Gessen when he was writing for the Washington Post and covering the collapse of the USSR. “I first encountered Masha many years ago, in 1991,” Remnick recalled, “at the first gay rights demonstration that I’d ever seen in Moscow.” He followed her career with growing interest, describing Gessen as “fierce, deeply intelligent, principled, and often surprising on where she might come out on a given debate.” After only a few years on the job, Remnick praises her as “a must-read in The New Yorker”.
Because of her dual identity and years of experience reporting in Russia, Gessen is often called upon to render judgments about the mysterious inner workings of the Kremlin. However, she frequently questions prevailing US media narratives, and she is especially sceptical of the role Russia and Putin have taken in the American imagination as a kind of all-purpose bogeyman. “I’ve actually lost a lot of my cachet as a Russia expert,” she joked. “Putin is a monster but he is not a brilliant all-powerful monster; he’s just like a tiny, run-of-the-mill monster.”
‘Putin is a monster but he is not a brilliant all-powerful monster; he’s just like a tiny, run-of-the-mill monster.’
A long-time reader of political philosopher Hannah Arendt, it is this very banality of evil that is so vexing and disturbing for Gessen. She does not believe that autocrats, like Putin, and would-be autocrats, like Trump, are uniquely devious or powerful, but that the democratic institutions and norms we take for granted are actually weak protections against them. Furthermore, Gessen argues that our tools for analysing these autocratic situations have proved woefully inadequate because they have always come from the perspective of a liberal democracy, unequipped to name the actual processes of how a tyrant takes power.
“You talk about this regime, and you’re like, ‘It doesn’t have free and open elections, it doesn’t have free media,’” Gessen explained, checking the imaginary boxes of a test to measure autocracy. “But that’s like saying, ‘The elephant can’t swim and the elephant can’t fly.’ But what is the elephant?”
This is the subject of Gessen’s forthcoming book, Surviving Autocracy. For Gessen, Trumpism is transforming America from a democratic republic into something that more closely resembles the first stages of life in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, or Putin’s Russia. And if Americans don’t start taking action, many other democracies, under the strains of climate change, inequality, refugee influxes, and so many other crises, may teeter as well. The job of predicting the future is a particularly difficult one, but so far, Gessen has proved herself remarkably, and tragically clear-eyed. We would do well to listen.
Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy is published by Granta in August.