Author, journalist Masha Gessen discusses Russian politics in Graham Chapel
Russian-American author and journalist Masha Gessen spoke at Graham Chapel about her most recent book, “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” as part of the Student Union Trending Topics lecture series Friday.
Gessen, best known for her LGBTQIA* activism and criticism of world leaders Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump, focused her lecture on the dynamics of lingering totalitarianism in post-Soviet Russia.
“The Soviet mindset was a set of constant contradictions and games that Soviet citizens played with the state,” Gessen said. “One game that was made into a popular joke by Soviet citizens was ‘we pretend to work and they pretended to pay us.'”
Russian Club president Hilah Kohen and Olivia Brinich, both seniors, worked with Student Union to bring Gessen to campus.
“We chose her because the whole Trending Topics series idea is bringing in people to speak on the pressing issues. For example, the political situation between Russia and the United States is very interesting right now, and Masha is an expert on that,” Brinich said. “Between the political and social issues that she is an expert on and that she advocates on, we felt like it made her a very interesting person to speak to the students here.”
Gessen commented on President Trump’s Jan. 30 State of the Union Address in the context of how she witnessed totalitarian regimes develop.
“I’m really suspicious of mobilization of any kind. I found the State of Union Address abs lutely terrifying, just with the number of applause lines. Just that, just the ritual. He [says] five words, pauses, [and] everyone has to get up and applaud,” Gessen said. “It reminded me of Central Committee meetings that would go on for like 48 hours, where there was constant applause inflation. And then that would be in the paper—the amount of applause he got. That really freaks me out.”
Gessen concluded her talk by discussing the sociopolitical reality of Russian society.
“[Post-Soviet Russia] created a totalitarian society in the absence of a totalitarian regime,” Gessen said. “We used to believe that totalitarianism required ideology and terror to exist, but there is no ideology to speak of and there is definitely no state terror. [Still,] the lived experience of living in Russia is of living in a totalitarian society.”
Michael Henderson, a student who attended the lecture, said he found Gessen’s words inspiring.
“It was stimulating,” Henderson said. “I hadn’t given much thought to [the topic of Russian politics] and should definitely look more into it.”
“I just think Masha Gessen is doing extremely important work and I hope that this will inspire people to continue the conversation,” Kohen said. “I hope this continues to resonate with coursework and on campus for time to come.”