Winner of the 2017 National Book Award for Non Fiction.
From acclaimed Russian-American journalist Gessen, an examination of Russia in the post-Soviet period, when the public’s hopes for democracy devolved within a restricted society. Structured around the experiences of four principal individuals who came of age in the aftermath of the U.S.S.R.’s collapse.
...a magisterial, panoramic overview of Russia under Putin ... While the people she singles out are often vociferous opponents of the rearward direction of the New Russia, she gives at least equal time to the group the perestroika historian Yuri Afanasyev dubbed 'the aggressively obedient majority' and to the tens of millions of ordinary Russians who would be happy to go back to the USSR, more or less ... The characters’ personal histories add life and nuance to Gessen’s narrative. But it takes a while to get a handle on all of the players, who are as numerous as the cast of a Tolstoy novel, if less romantically clad. But portraying the politics of totalitarianism does not call for a romantic filter. Gessen’s reconstruction of the ongoing saga of Russia’s reversion to vozhdizm makes for thrilling and necessary reading for those who seek to understand the path to suppression of individual freedoms, and who recognize that this path can be imposed on any nation that lacks the vigilance to avert it.
...[a] fascinating and deeply felt book ... The story of the three older intellectuals is both poignant and frightening ... Gessen returns repeatedly to the question of what sort of regime exists in Russia today. As the subtitle of her book suggests, she believes that totalitarianism has reclaimed the country. Western political science associated totalitarianism with several features, including state terror, total absence of civil society outside the state, a centrally planned economy and domination by a single party. Gessen successfully shows how Putin’s Russia has gradually acquired these characteristics, though in muted and less extreme forms ... The one area where I wish Gessen had spent more time was in a deeper analysis of ordinary Putin backers.
[Gessen] has injected a much-needed dose of calm and logic into the current US hysteria over Russia. Her emphatic rejections of conspiracy thinking around Russiagate in her New York Review of Books pieces particularly stand out. Unfortunately, she does not always exercise that sort of temperance in her discussions of Russia itself ... The bulk of Gessen’s narrative describes the ways in which these people try to make sense of the larger events happening around them. A gifted writer, Gessen is at her best when she’s recounting her characters’ experiences ... Leaving aside the inherently problematic notion that Russians are powerless to understand their world without a separate class of intellectuals to explain it to them, the picture Gessen paints of them as lacking the capacity for individual thought and action has a particular history. The depersonalized figure of Homo sovieticus, a kind of Communist golem unable to shake its slavish mentality or embrace the 'inner freedom' of liberal democracy and capitalism, has been around for a long time ... Gessen deserves much credit for her sensitivity to the plight of Russians seeking to figure out who they now were and who they should become. Yet her suggestion that trauma can be—and has been—deliberately used as a political instrument of the state seems less persuasive.