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From THE FUTURE IS HISTORY: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen.

Published by
arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin
Random House LLC. Copyright 2017 by Masha Gessen.

PR O L O G U E

i have been told many stories about Russia, and I have told a few myself.
When I was eleven or twelve, in the late 1970s, my mother told me that the
USSR was a totalitarian stateshe compared the regime to the Nazi one,
an extraordinary act of thought and speech for a Soviet citizen. My parents
told me that the Soviet regime would last forever, which was why we had to
leave the country.
When I was a young journalist, in the late 1980s, the Soviet regime
began to teeter and then collapsed into a pile of rubble, or so the story went.
I joined an army of reporters excitedly documenting my countrys embrace
of freedom and its journey toward democracy.
I spent my thirties and forties documenting the death of a Russian de-
mocracy that had never really come to be. Different people were telling
different stories about this: many insisted that Russia had merely taken a
step back after taking two steps toward democracy; some laid the blame on
Vladimir Putin and the KGB, others on a supposed Russian love of the iron
fist, and still others on an inconsiderate, imperious West. At one point, I
was convinced that I would be writing the story of the decline and fall of the 1S
Putin regime. Soon after, I found myself leaving Russia for the second R
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timethis time as a middle-aged person with children. And like my mother


before me, I was explaining to my children why we could no longer live in
our country.
The specifics were clear enough. Russian citizens had been losing rights
and liberties for nearly two decades. In 2012, Putins government began a
full-f ledged political crackdown. The country waged war on the enemy
within and on its neighbors. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, and in 2014
it attacked Ukraine, annexing vast territories. It has also been waging an
information war on Western democracy as a concept and a reality. It took a
while for Western observers to see what was happening in Russia, but by
now the stories of Russias various wars have become familiar. In the con-
temporary American imagination, Russia has reclaimed the role of evil em-
pire and existential threat.
The crackdown, the wars, and even Russias reversion to type on the
world stage are things that happenedthat I witnessedand I wanted to
tell this story. But I also wanted to tell about what did not happen: the story
of freedom that was not embraced and democracy that was not desired.
How do you tell a story like that? Where do you locate reasons for the
absences? When do you begin, and with whom?
Popular books about Russiaor other countriesfall into two broad
categories: stories about powerful people (the czars, Stalin, Putin, and their
circles) that aim to explain how the country has been and is run, and stories
about regular people that aim to show what it feels like to live there. I have
written both kinds of books and read many more. But even the best such
booksperhaps especially the best such booksprovide a view of only one
part of the story of a country. If we imagine reporting, as I do, in terms of
the Indian fable of six blind men and an elephant, most Russia books
describe just the elephants head or just its legs. And even if some books
supply descriptions of the tail, the trunk, and the body, very few try to ex-
plain how the animal holds togetheror what kind of animal it is. My
ambition this time was to both describe and define the animal.
1S I decided to start with the decline of the Soviet regimeperhaps the
R assumption that it collapsed needed to be questioned. I also decided to
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focus on people for whom the end of the USSR was the first or one of the
first formative memories: the generation of Russians born in the early to
middle 1980s. They grew up in the 1990s, perhaps the most contested de-
cade in Russian history: some remember it as a time of liberation, while for
others it represents chaos and pain. This generation have lived their entire
adult lives in a Russia led by Vladimir Putin. In choosing my subjects, I also
looked for people whose lives changed drastically as a result of the crack-
down that began in 2012. Lyosha, Masha, Seryozha, and Zhannafour
young people who come from different cities, families, and, indeed, differ-
ent Soviet worldsallowed me to tell what it was to grow up in a country
that was opening up and to come of age in a society shutting down.
In seeking out these protagonists, I did what journalists usually do: I
sought people who were both regular, in that their experiences exempli-
fied the experiences of millions of others, and extraordinary: intelligent,
passionate, introspective, able to tell their stories vividly. But the ability to
make sense of ones life in the world is a function of freedom. The Soviet
regime robbed people not only of their ability to live freely but also of the
ability to understand fully what had been taken from them, and how. The
regime aimed to annihilate personal and historical memory and the aca-
demic study of society. Its concerted war on the social sciences left Western
academics for decades in a better position to interpret Russia than were
Russians themselvesbut, as outsiders with restricted access to informa-
tion, they could hardly fill the void. Much more than a problem of scholar-
ship, this was an attack on the humanity of Russian society, which lost the
tools and even the language for understanding itself. The only stories Russia
told itself about itself were created by Soviet ideologues. If a modern country
has no sociologists, psychologists, or philosophers, what can it know about
itself ? And what can its citizens know about themselves? I realized that
my mothers simple act of categorizing the Soviet regime and comparing it
to another had required an extraordinary measure of freedom, which she
derived, at least in part, from having already decided to emigrate.
To capture the larger tragedy of losing the intellectual tools of sense- 1S
making, I looked for Russians who had attempted to wield them, in both R
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the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. The cast of characters grew to include a
sociologist, a psychoanalyst, and a philosopher. If anyone holds the tools of
defining the elephant, it is they. They are neither regular peoplethe
stories of their struggles to bring their disciplines back from the dead are
hardly representativenor powerful people: they are the people who try to
understand. In the Putin era, the social sciences were defeated and degraded
in new ways, and my protagonists faced a new set of impossible choices.
As I wove these stories together, I imagined I was writing a long Russian
(nonfiction) novel that aimed to capture both the texture of individual trag-
edies and the events and ideas that shaped them. The result, I hope, is a
book that shows not only what it has felt like to live in Russia over the last
thirty years but also what Russia has been in this time, what it has become,
and how. The elephant, too, makes a brief appearance (see page 386).

From THE FUTURE IS HISTORY: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen. Published by
arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin
Random House LLC. Copyright 2017 by Masha Gessen.

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