A strange title for a book, The Future is History, remember in 1989 we were told that history had ended because the Cold War had ended and Communism was defeated. Rather naive to believe that then, it was merely a re-ordering of politics. In this book, the author attracts our attention to her thesis or her reality that Russian history today is a simple repetition of what happened in the XXth Century Soviet Union with a hiatus between 1989-1999.
This is the latest book I am reading, the author Masha Gessen, a Russian citizen, journalist and author, born in Moscow in 1967 and living now in New York City.
In The Future is History Masha Gessen follows the lives of four Russians, born as the Soviet Union crumbled, at what promised to be the dawn of democracy. Each came of age with unprecedented expectations, some as the children or grandchildren of the very architects of the new Russia, each with newfound aspirations of their own – as entrepreneurs, activists, thinkers and writers, sexual and social beings. Gessen charts their paths not only against the machinations of the regime that would seek to crush them all (censorship, intimidation, violence) but also against the war it waged on understanding itself, ensuring the unobstructed emergence of the old Soviet order in the form of today’s terrifying and seemingly unstoppable mafia state under Vladimir Putin.
She makes the distinction in her book between Authoritarianism and Totalitarianism, the two words are different in political terms. The first is about the rule of one person through personal authority (dictatorship) but devoid of ideology, i.e. Chile under Pinochet, Spain under Franco, Greece under the Colonels, Germany under Hitler, the dictator rules using terror and violence on the masses to enforce compliance. In the case of the Nazi dictatorship, Gessen explains that Nazism was not so much an ideology it was terror used to silence anyone opposing the regime, a regime which borrowed its ideas from the writings of the dictator like the one on racial superiority but overall maintained itself in power by terror and nothing else. Where Totalitarianism is dominated by Ideology, the Bolcheviks and Lenin used terror but justified it with the ideology of class warfare as described by Karl Marx an ideology which proclaimed world revolution by the workers against other classes. The Communist party then constantly tweaked the ideology to maintain itself in power. Stalin and Mao proclaimed the exclusive authority of the Communist Party as the only correct ideological source for their society. Stalin then tried to impose this model on other countries after 1945 in Eastern Europe and Mao did the same in Asia in Tibet, Cambodia, Mongolia, North Korea etc. it continues today in China. Gessen tells us in her book that since 1999 under Putin, Russia is returning to the good old ways of the Soviet Union but under a new guise. It would be too crude now to reimpose a Soviet model, so Putin instead has married the nostalgia for the Czarist regime, the Supremacy of the Orthodox Church with the Totalitarian ideal of the Soviet regime which gives stability Russians crave. Giving us a new Czar Putin who unites factions within his authority and glorifies the exceptional nature of Russia in an ideology of nationalism which echoes the old glories of Imperial Russia. What Gessen is also showing us is how Russia never was a democracy and had no democratic institutions, the Russian knew Imperial orthodoxy under an absolute ruler with the Russian Orthodox Church as co-ruler then they simply moved into a new system aping the old with the Bolchevik and then Communism.
It’s a fascinating book, a great read and explains a lot about Russia and Putin today. With the gradual withdrawal of the USA from the World stage, an inept President who is too intellectually lazy to understand how the USA is simply being eclipsed, Russia is stepping into the void like China is doing and they are not losing time.
But Gessen in her book also shows us the danger of a population who is willing to give up on a more inclusive open form of society and government for the security of stability at all cost. In a way she is saying that we in the West are also at risk. Countries like Poland and Hungary are falling back into the old ways. The rise of the Alt-Right and Christian-Conservative movements in the USA with a President who shows openly his contempt for the Constitution puts the USA on a similar path. A good read and one that makes you think about what is going on around us.