A brilliant if somber look at modern Russia, a failed democracy, by prizewinning journalist Gessen (The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, 2015, etc.).
First there were the serfs, and then “Homo Sovieticus,” the gloomily obedient men, women, and children who waited in bread lines and slaved in mines and factories. Are they the avatars of the good old days? With Vladimir Putin’s rise and increasingly absolutist rule, there may be something to the old saw that the Russian soul craves authoritarianism. Yet, as Gessen, who has written extensively on Putin, writes, that may flat out not be so. As she notes in this urgent chronicle, examining the Russian character through sociological instruments was frowned on, even banned, until the late 1960s, when Yuri Levada, who turns up at several points in this long narrative, began to look at how ordinary Russians thought about their society. For one thing, later surveys showed that although some wanted “rockers,” “hippies,” and “pederasts” (read: homosexuals) to be “liquidated,” a far larger number advocated tolerance, especially younger Russians. Those younger Russians are the focus of the author’s character-driven approach, a kind of nonfiction novel that compares favorably to the work of Svetlana Alexievich. One of Gessen’s cases in point, a still-youngish woman named Masha, has learned to work every angle thanks to a resourceful mother who, among other things, figured out ways to “teach Soviet Jews to beat the anti-Semitic machine.” By all rights, Masha, entrepreneurial and smart, ought to be in the forefront of Russian development, but having run afoul of Putin’s regime, she is effectively a nonperson, “a de facto political prisoner.” So it is with Zhanna, whose father, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down on a Moscow bridge in 2015, “with the Kremlin as the backdrop for the murder.” All Gessen’s players harbor the low-level dread on which totalitarian regimes thrive—and all, a refrain has it, believe that their country is dead.
A superb, alarming portrait of a government that exercises outsize influence in the modern world, at great human cost.