Fascinating nonfiction read provides insights into modern Russian history

One hundred years after the October Revolution, which drove Russia into totalitarianism until 1991, Russian journalist and activist Masha Gessen sought to understand the past, present and future. 

Winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, Gessen’s new book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, follows seven Soviets as they transform into Russians between the 1980s and the 2010s. Gessen detailed the ways that a totalitarian society collapses and forms. Among these seven Soviets, the stories of Lyosha Gorshkov, a man who formed the first LGBTQ+ studies institute in Russia; Marina Arutyunyan, a psychologist who was one of the first students of Western psychoanalysis and Aleksandr Dugin, a fascist philosopher and political analyst who has been one of the strongest supporters of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly totalitarian tendencies, were told. 

These three figures, along with the additional four, all notably maintained connections to the Russian Academy. Gessen found that one of the major difficulties in understanding Soviet and post-Soviet Russia was the suppression of academic work. 

If the government suppresses historians, sociologists, political scientists and psychologists, it becomes much more difficult to understand, reflect or reform society’s ills and injustices. Gessen identified this crackdown on academic freedom as an attempt at “annihilat[ing] personal and historical memory ... an attack on the humanity of Russian society.”

Through these people, Gessen tours the touchstones of recent Russian history, from the attempted coup d’état by Boris Yeltsin in 1991 that threw off Soviet rule, to the immediate rise of a “gray, unremarkable man,” Vladimir Putin, as prime minister in 1999, to the various revolutions and counter-revolutions that excited Eastern Europe throughout the past decade and a half. 

While student readers are burdened with textbook readings and might be sheepish when approaching nonfiction books about complex topics, The Future is History should put that reluctance to rest. Gessen made a concerted effort to make both the concepts and the style accessible, defining her book as a “long Russian (nonfiction) novel,” rather than a stiff academic piece. 

In this area, Gessen has certainly succeeded with a readable and sentimental review of the past 30 years of Russian history and politics. Through detailed research and the in depth interviews with her seven subjects, Gessen skillfully depicted the personal and the political entities of the past and the feeling of Russia’s current totalitarian trance. 

The book’s title argues that the history of the Soviet Union’s authoritarianism is the best predictor for the future of Putin’s Russia; given Putin’s powerful tenure of holding a position in the government is stretching into its 19th year and outlasting every Soviet leader, besides Joseph Stalin, this assertion is well proven. 

Although it can’t be called a cozy fireplace read, The Future is History is a required reading for anyone who wants to understand Russia or the modern global order that Russia is helping to create. Gessen navigated the trauma of people who have spent decades robbed of real individual rights or powers in a totalitarian state. 

This book is also a useful proof for those who doubt the power or importance of the university. Without academia, understanding the world and the ways to fix it becomes a nearly insurmountable task.