The Future is History

In this sweeping history of Russia over the past four decades, Masha Gessen ( argues that totalitarian Soviet mentality did not die out with the Soviet Union.


Gessen reveals what life is like under the Putin tyranny through a cast of characters. For example  Lyosha, a young gay man in a toxically anti-gay provincial town; Masha, daughter of a single-mom Moscow businesswoman; and Seryozha, grandson of the architect of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. When we get to the dramatic conclusion in the protests and crackdown that follow Putin’s 2012 re-election, we share the heartbreak of Zhanna Nemtsova when her father, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, the last of the 1980s young democrats to keep protesting against Putin, is murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin.


A strength of this book is that Gessen is a native Russian speaker and her footnotes are filled with Russian-language sources, whilst many of her insights could come only from a person who has lived in Moscow. The author points to what has become known as ‘the Stalin barometer’. In the revolutionary year of 1989, as Soviet newspapers were filled with long-buried revelations of Stalin-era atrocities, 12 percent of those polled said Stalin was among the ‘greatest people who have ever lived’. By 2003, the number had climbed to 40 percent. Gessen borrows a phrase from a data analyst, Lev Gudkov, when he came up with the diagnosis of ‘recurrent totalitarianism’ to explain these alarming numbers. It is a disease among the Russian people that seems to have no remedy.


We are going to have to get used to the idea that Putin’s Russia is an aggressive revisionist power. It has invaded Georgia and Ukraine whilst ruthlessly crushing dissent at home. Its totalitarian impulses are seen in the Bolotnaya Square protests of 2012 and the Crimea takeover of 2014. There is no inevitable law of history by which all nation states in time will become cheerful liberal democracies.  So, although we rightly fear tin pot dictators who acquire nuclear weapons, and fear Islamic terrorism, we should definitely fear the totalitarian nation which is Russia.


Check if this sobering contemporary history is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at



528 pages in Granta Books

First published 2017

ISBN  978-1783784004



Masha Gessen

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