In December, 1991, the unthinkable happened as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) dissolved into fifteen separate countries. Known informally as the Soviet Union, the USSR seemed at times indestructible to those viewing the union from abroad. But within dissension had been brewing for many years in the wake of the tyrannical reign of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). His successors embarked on a period of de-Stalinization that thrived under the administration of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (1894-1971). The Soviet Union remained a superpower and in direct competition with arch-rival the United States. It dissolution shocked the world and left the future of the former Soviet republics in limbo. In the aftermath of the monumental and historic collapse, the individual republics established their own rights to self-governance and in some cases, completely rejected Russian rule. Tensions between many of the nations continues to this day. Currently, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin serves as the President of Russia, and is as much of a controversial figure as many of his predecessors. His appointment by late President Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin (1931-2007) gave many Russians hope that a new direction was in store for the beloved country. Today, as we look back at the time that has passed since he was chosen to lead Russia, we can see a tortured nation still suffering from systematic oppression and what is rightly described in this book as totalitarianism.
In 2017, Gessen was hired by The New Yorker magazine as a stiff writer and she continues to be a leading voice for LGBT causes in her homeland of Russia. She hails from Moscow and is acutely aware of the persecution that she and many others face because of their sexual orientation. In Russia, the government embarked on a crusade against the LGBT community that began to flourish in the 1990s with the passing legislation against “homosexual propaganda”. The change in society which gave license to open discrimination of LGBT citizens is nothing short of barbaric. The murder of Vladislav Tornovoy marked a point of no return and although outrage at the crime was widespread, homophobia continued to increase. There are many ugly truths to be told and this phenomenal book that reveals the dark side behind the Iron Curtain, we can see first hand how Russia missed its opportunity to move away from the iron grip of Leninism and embrace democratic ideas. Some Russians undoubtedly wish to return to the Soviet days while younger Russians wish to move forward and transform Russia into a country of which they can be proud. To understand life in the Soviet Union and in new Russian society, Gessen interviewed several individuals, each with their own story to tell that will prove to be riveting to readers. Their names are Lyosha, Masha, Seryozha, and Zhanna and they each devoted a year of their time to tell Gessen about the Russia they know and in some cases, have left. Zhanna may be familiar to some readers as the daughter of Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov (1959-2015) who served as the First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin.
Gessen takes up deep inside their lives in post-Cold War Russia as Perestroika becomes of the official policy of Moscow. It is cited as one of the reasons of the fall of the USSR and a major factor in the resurgence of totalitarianism. The debate will continue for years but what is clearly apparent is that life in the Soviet Union was one of hardship, poverty and the loss of hope. These stories should remove any illusions readers may have of a high quality of life for the average Russian citizen. This is a sobering look at the daily struggles Russians face and the relentless abolition of individual liberties. Homosexuals became easy scapegoats and in the book, we follow Lyosha and his struggle to maintain a stable life in the midst of fierce homophobia supported and encouraged by official government policy. Masha and Zhanna would later become voices for the opposition while Seryozha would come to learn about the privileges attached to his family’s residence in “Czar Village”. Each faced their own struggles and their anecdotes reveal the dark transformation of Russian society as the departing Boris Yeltsin hands over the reigns to the former director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). Putin wasted no time as President of Russia and has placed the country in a vice grip, showing no signs of relinquishing his hold on power.
Where this book truly excels, is the author’s clarity in explaining the failures of Moscow post-Stalin and the importance of neighboring Crimea and Ukraine. Both territories have become hotbed issues during Putin’s presidency and increased tensions between Moscow and Washington, with the latter establishing punishing sanctions. The promise of hope, which existed for a brief time in Russia, seems to be receding on a regular basis as the Kremlin extends its totalitarian grip as far as it possibly can. Many have fled Russia, making a home in other parts of Europe and Brighton Beach, a small enclave in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York. As the author points out, Seryozha stopped responding to her messages in 2015, but the others have each made the tough decision to leave the places they called home in search of a better life, free from the grip of Putin’s regime. Slander, political oppression and even assassination, are hallmarks of Putin’s tactics to stifle the voices of perceived enemies of the state. Large numbers of expats will not return to Russia as long as Vladimir Putin remains determined to keep the men and women of their homeland held firmly in subjugation. Gessen has dared to speak out, risking persecution that has plagued other brave voices that have done their best to expose the facade created to cover the realities of Russian society. Opposition of any kind is not tolerated and the descriptions in the book of the actions towards those who dared to speak out have the markings of the classic police state.
Many misconceptions about Russia exist, mainly due to incorrect reporting and propaganda released by the Kremlin. But as we can see through Gessen’s work, life in Russia is quite different from the image the has been projected by officials. Persecution, oppression and famine are just some of the daily factors that make life in Russia a hard one to live. Deception and mistrust have become widespread and are eerily similar to the climate of suspicion created the Third Reich. The Soviet Union is long gone and in spite of Putin’s agenda, it will never again rise to the heights that it reached during the Cold War. And as the younger generation of Russians continue to find ways to make their voices heard, Russia will be faced again with a moment of monumental change. But in order for it to move forward, the people will have to ask what kind of Russia do they want for future generations? Do they want a true democracy or do they wish to endure several decades of rule by Vladimir Putin? The voices in the book have made their positions clear. It remains to be seen if anyone truly listens. They know the Russia that you and I have only read about. The Russia they know is a cold place, mostly closed off from the outside world and a nation that can never shake the ghost of Joseph Stalin and his mentor Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), known to the world as Vladimir Lenin. But if Russia chooses to listen, the message is loud and clear that the future is history.