Tag Archives: Masha Gessen

Which is worse? The book or the reviews?

I have yet to read Masha Gessen’s new book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. To be honest, I’m not sure that I will. The use of the word ‘totalitarianism’ in the title is so extreme that it rather discredits the product before one even looks at it. But, whatever the book’s merits or demerits, it surely can’t be worse than a couple of reviews of it I’ve read in the last few days.

Originally, I was going to write about a review by Heather Mallick in The Toronto Star. It’s got it all: Putin is a murderer (it’s all Putin, as if there’s nobody else in Russia); he’s ‘stoking hatred’ of gays; and he’s ‘trying to rebuild the cult of Stalin’. You know the drill by now. Mallick throws in a few other complaints. Apparently, there’s ‘no reliable traffic system’ in Russia. I’m not sure what that’s all about. But, just as I was about to pen a few words about Mallick, I stumbled across something else. No doubt you’ve had this sensation. You see something, and you know, you just know, that this is the one. It’s too perfect to miss. That’s how I felt on reading a review of The Future is History in this Sunday’s New York Times book review section by none other than Francis Fukuyama (he of the ‘End of History’). Rightly or wrongly, Fukuyama is considered one of the great minds of our time. Ho, ho. I’m beginning to giggle already. It’s worth reading this one. It’s a real gem!

The first half of Fukuyama’s review is fairly anodyne, but it really gets going at the bottom of the third column, where he writes:

This is what the Putin regime represents: an entire society psychologically damaged and unwilling to come to terms with its own past, leading to a widespread depression and belief that the country has no future.

I’m guessing that Fukuyama isn’t just making this up, but it is copying it from Gessen, but it’s psychobabble tosh nonetheless. ‘An entire society psychologically damaged’ – where’s the evidence for that? As Fukuyama points out, Gessen’s book consists of a survey of seven Russians, one of whom is the Levada Centre’s Lev Gudkov. So, let’s test the thesis by going to the Levada Centre’s website. What do we see there? What do Gudkov and co. tell us about Russians’ view of their future. Top left is a chart entitled ‘Evaluation of the state of things in the country’. And what do you know? Just under 60% of Russians think that their country is headed in the right direction. Only about 30% of Russians think that their country is headed the wrong way. Yet, Fukuyama says that there’s ‘widespread depression and a belief that the country has no future.’ Go figure!

But it gets better. One of the characters analyzed by Gessen is Aleksandr Dugin.  Fukuyama mentions Dugin’s eclectic intellectual background, and then adds ‘From there, Dugin invented something called Eurasianism.’

Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!

He, he, he, he, he!

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

Or as I said in another post, ‘#$@&%*!’

Yup, good old Frankie sure is one of the finest minds of our era. ‘Dugin invented something called Eurasianism.’ My sides are cracking. (For those of you who don’t know, Eurasianism is generally considered to have been ‘invented’, if that is an appropriate word, by Nikolai Trubetskoi, Pyotr Savitsky and others in the 1921 volume Exodus to the East.)

‘Dugin invented something called Eurasianism.’ !!!!

You’ve got to give to Francis. He sure knows how to tell ‘em.

And then, just to display his vast knowledge a bit further, he says: ‘Today, he [Dugin] would like to cast himself as the unofficial ideologist of the Putin government.’

The tears are pouring down my face! My ribs are aching! Go read my interview with Dugin, Frankie-boy. Right at the end. I ask him about his influence. And what does he say? ‘I have no influence. I don’t know anybody, have never seen anyone, I just write my books, and am a Russian thinker, nothing more.’ So, sure, he would ‘like to cast himself as the unofficial ideologist of the Putin government.’ That’s the way it is.

Fukuyama goes on to add some other nonsense, but I think this is enough. You get the point. I’ve read some pretty bad book reviews in my time, but I’m pretty certain this is the worst. Why the New York Times would give a book like this to somebody like Fukuyama to review I can’t imagine. (Because the book has ‘History’ in the title?) It’s not like he has the slightest bit of knowledge about Russia. And that’s the problem. So much of this Russia stuff is written by people who haven’t got a clue. As a result, they approach the subject with a totally uncritical mind. Is Gessen’s methodology sound? Can one really draw broad sweeping conclusions about Russia from an analysis of seven very untypical people? And are those conclusions in any case valid? These are the sort of critical questions one would expect a reviewer to ask? But neither Mallick nor Fukuyama try.

Having said all that, Fukuyama made my day. ‘Dugin invented something called Eurasianism.’ I’m still laughing.

Cheesy liberals

I have written some unkind words before about Russia’s liberal opposition. Let me be clear: this not because I am illiberal, or think that Russia wouldn’t benefit from having a more liberal order. Far from it. Rather, my criticisms derive from my sense that the people who publicly represent what is called ‘liberalism’ in Russia do a very bad job of it, in part because they give the impression of not liking their own country very much and preferring all things foreign. This makes many of their compatriots dislike them and what they stand for. Consequently, they harm the process of liberalization from which Russia would benefit.

Today’s New York Times contains a classic example: an article by Masha Gessen complaining that because of the Russian government’s counter-sanctions it’s impossible to buy proper Western European cheese in Russia any more – all that’s available is disgusting Russian muck. But not to worry, because Masha’s rich friends are able to pick up the good stuff at the Caviar House & Prunier Seafood Bar in the departure lounge of Heathrow airport’s Terminal 4, which is apparently doing a roaring trade in cheese for travelling Russians.

Who are these people who are still able to take holidays in Europe despite the depressed ruble, and furthermore are able to afford the extortionate prices of the shops in Terminal 4? Not your average Russian, one can be certain. Gessen’s article seems to me quite extraordinarily out of touch. It also overflows with the sensation that everything Russian is awful (for instance, ‘the reappearance of Soviet-era cheese, with its unparalleled blandness and waxlike texture’), while everything Western is superior. This is perfectly expressed in the following passage:

‘It’s my first time in Europe after all that’s happened,’ the journalist and filmmaker Inna Denisova, a critic of the annexation of Crimea, wrote on her Facebook page in February. ‘And it’s exceedingly emotional. And of course it’s not seeing the historic churches and museums that has made me so emotional — it’s seeing cheese at the supermarket. My little Gorgonzola. My little mozzarella. My little Gruyère, chèvre and Brie. I held them all in my arms — I didn’t even want to share them with the shopping cart — and headed for the cash register.’ There, Ms. Denisova wrote, she started crying.

If you want to know why Russian liberals languish at about one percent in the opinion polls, you have your answer right there.