Is this how Russia ends?
An interview with the writer Masha Gessen about why Putin might dare a nuclear strike on Poland, what democratic leaders don’t grasp that authoritarians do, and what Russia might look like after Putin
One day, Vladimir Putin will no longer lead Russia. And, according to the writer and journalist Masha Gessen, there may then no longer be a country called Russia to lead.
This was one of many startling analyses I heard in my conversation the other day with Gessen, a Moscow-born, New York-based journalist and writer who is one of our leading thinkers on democracy, autocracy, and the social conditions that foster them. They are the author of several books, including The Future is History, a masterwork about Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and, most recently, Surviving Autocracy.
We spoke about Putin’s endgame in Ukraine, about why to take his nuclear threats seriously, about the West’s hypocrisy in #StandingWithUkraine unless it’s a little inconvenient, about the modern anxieties that have fueled the authoritarian resurgence around the world, about why democratic leaders fail to speak to those anxieties as effectively as autocrats, and about what Gessen envisions for a Russia beyond Putin.
Our conversation is below. Today’s interview is open to all. If you enjoy these posts and the labor that goes into them, will you subscribe to support The Ink?
“The Russian Federation is a truncated empire, waging its last big imperial war, which it will eventually lose”: a conversation with Masha Gessen
You have described Russia as having become a “totalitarian society.” When and why did it cross that line and enter that definition in your mind?
The definition of totalitarianism is a pretty contested thing. I've been having an internal debate about it, because the argument I made in the The Future is History is that it had already become a totalitarian society. Possibly not a totalitarian state, but a totalitarian society. What's happening now is that it's become an actual totalitarian state.
We learned over the 20th century how totalitarian societies act. My argument in the book was that you could see a society act like that even when the state wasn't applying the broad terror that we've come to accept as the definition of a totalitarian state.
In a totalitarian society, the state actually can't apply direct pressure on every person at all times, but people can apply that pressure on one another. Totalitarian societies depend on horizontal enforcement of behaviors, whether it's something small like parents telling their children not to say things in school because it could get the family in trouble or something quite large like we're seeing in Russia now — for example, painting the letter Z on the walls and parking doors of people who have signed anti-war petitions. Between those two extremes, there's a continuum of people enforcing ideology and behavioral norms without the state directly requiring them to do so.
The other important thing in a totalitarian society is the absence of public space and public opinion. People are constantly asking the wrong question about Russia, asking, Do people support the war? There’s a recent poll showing that people support the war. At this point, it's an actual totalitarian society with actual terror. What are you going to do? It's like asking people, Do you support the war, or would you like to go to prison for 15 years?
But in a totalitarian society, it's not like people have to hide their opinions. It's that they don't have the possibility to form an opinion. Not just because of disinformation, although that matters, but also because it's a matter of survival to be able to mirror back to the state what the state wants you to say. For most people, there isn't even the possibility of taking the time or mental energy required to form opinions. That's not an option because having an opinion is too dangerous.
I once asked my Indian grandmother about how she learned as a little girl in an intensely patriarchal world not to speak up and not to voice her opinion. She said, First, you articulate your thoughts and you get in trouble. Then you think the thoughts, but you stop saying them. Then, finally, you learn to stop thinking the thoughts.
That's on a private level. That's remarkable that your grandmother was able to say that. But on a society-wide level, you're already born or brought into a society where having an opinion is not an option. The defining characteristic of Russian society is loneliness. It's an incredibly atomized society. It's a society in which most people have shrinking social circles as they get older, which is actually not unlike the U.S.
It's a society in which there is no shared space that is not controlled from above. There is no participation in any spontaneous activity that is possible from below. It often places people in crowds, but it renders them profoundly lonely.
There are so many analyses in the media about what Putin wants as well as these debates about his rationality or irrationality. Is he going crazy? Is he paranoid? Does he want power in a conventional way that we can understand? Timothy Snyder had this point about Putin caring about things we don't value. What is your fundamental understanding of his motivation?
I don't think he's particularly mysterious. I find all of this speculation really annoying because what is crazy but another term for somebody existing in coordinates that you can't see?
What Putin has been doing for many, many years is building up to a big war. At a certain point, I felt crazy for saying it because the big war kept not starting. But the logic of his rhetoric, the logic of his actions, the logic of totalitarianism in general — all of these things required a big war. Since his Munich speech in 2007, there has been a constant and open insistence on re-establishing Russia as a great power and a refusal to recognize what's referred to as the world order.
There is the constant glorification of what Russians call “the great patriotic war.” The repeated reminders to the world that Russia fought the Second World War and won it for the universe. That message is unambiguous. The message is that because Russia won the war, it has the right to at least share in world dominance. It earned that right by winning World War II. It earned the right to be a superpower. But the saber-rattling that was involved in this unceasing celebration of the victory in World War II was also a message to both self and the world that we can repeat the big war.
The logic of totalitarianism is imperial. It is expansive. You can only fully mobilize a population if you have a big war to mobilize behind. There was a cheap version of that mobilization when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. Most Russians were elated and gave a level of totalitarian support for the non-military victory. But that effect wore off after a while, and now you have to have a bloody version of the big war.
What do you think is a path out of this current war?
I don't think peace in good faith is possible. The best-case scenario is a long pause in the fighting necessitated by Russia's clear military failure. Even though the only reason for the pause is this failure, and it's not that Putin has achieved his aims, from his point of view, it would be a temporary respite for Russia to regroup and strike again. But if we're lucky, that pause would be somewhat extended, and then maybe he'll die. That's the best-case scenario.
Worst-case scenario, a nuclear strike.
Either Ukraine or Poland.
Is that the worst-case scenario but an infinitesimally small possibility in your mind?
It's not at all small. Rule No. 1 is to listen to and believe the autocrat. Putin keeps reminding the world that Russia has nuclear weapons. I'm really terrified by a couple of interviews given recently by Dmitry Peskov, Putin's press secretary, and Sergey Karaganov, an influential foreign policy expert in Kremlin-adjacent circles.
Peskov was asked whether Putin will rule out nuclear weapons, and he said no. That's a matter of policy. Clearly, that is a decision that's been made. That’s on the table. If it’s on the table, as Chekhov teaches us, it is going to strike sooner or later. Of course, there is still the question of whether he will die sooner than he pushes the nuclear button.
In the Karaganov interview, he goes on about how the NATO treaty is basically fiction and how Article Five doesn't obligate NATO countries to come to the defense of other members. This is a very important idea in both Russian and Ukrainian foreign policy circles for different reasons. Nothing happens automatically in NATO. If it's a war of nerves, NATO is likely to lose because of its lethargic, complicated structure.
Russia is essentially saying, What are you going to do if we fire a tactical nuclear weapon at a military airport in Poland? This is something that they see themselves justified in potentially doing because those military airports are being used to supply military equipment to Ukraine. Considering there's no automatic response, do you want to be drawn into a shooting war with Russia?
We keep hearing on this side of the Atlantic that we don't want to be drawn into a shooting war with Russia. It's being heard loud and clear there, too, and it's being interpreted as basically shifting the goalpost further and further away from the Russian border.
For you and your Russian friends and colleagues of your generation, there have been a lot of difficult things over the last many years. Why was it this moment, as much as or more than any other, that caused many young and middle-aged people to give up on any kind of future in Russia?
That's a great question. The answer is that this is really unthinkable. Most of what concerned my friends and acquaintances after Russia annexed Crimea was what happened to Russians domestically, the surreal mental and political mobilization in the sense that good people became really marginalized. Any autocratic regime renders people provincial and mostly focused on themselves.
The thing is, you can't keep focusing on yourself and your terrible losses when your country is bombing Kyiv. Once you can no longer focus on how horrible things are for you, you have to escape. I think it was really what I described in a New Yorker piece for a lot of people. It just felt unbearable to be there – being inside the plane that's bombing places that people recognize, where they have friends, where they had visited many times. This you can't look away from. If you can't run from the images, you can at least run from the country.
Why do you think anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is so important to Putin's message? And why invoke J.K. Rowling and cancel culture, as he did recently? What work does that do for him?
At this point, it's very familiar to us. It's how the American right weaponizes fear of your kids turning trans. It's shorthand for the decadent West. It's shorthand for the Other. It's the promise of returning to an imaginary past when there was nothing that made you uncomfortable, like having to accept weird gender stuff and other queerness.
The message is: If you want to feel at home in the world again, if you want to feel at home in your country again, we have to get rid of this Western contagion. In bringing up J.K. Rowling, the ideology is opportunistic. It's in the ether. Harry Potter is among the most widely read books in Russia, just like it is in much of the world. He heard or read somewhere that J.K. Rowling is afraid of trans people, too. So he mentioned her, and that she's suffering for it.
There are dispiriting parallels between what has happened in America in recent years and what has been happening to Russia. I wonder what connections you would draw, if any, in terms of what laid the groundwork in the U.S. and in Russia for a more authoritarian turn.
I spent much of my writing career thinking about World War II. I have this mental map of how the world was going bad in the ’30s and how the thing spread. I feel like I'm watching that pattern recur now. On the one hand, we're watching the war in Ukraine. At the same time, Viktor Orban gets reelected in what is probably largely an accurate reflection of what Hungarians want. Marine Le Pen makes gains in France. I feel like I'm watching the dynamic map again and that contagion spread.
Erich Fromm very accurately describes preconditions for autocracy in Escape From Freedom. He wrote in the late 1930s and looked at extreme economic anxiety and mass displacement. Extreme economic anxiety related not only to hyperinflation in Germany but more broadly to a changing world, a world in which it was impossible for people to imagine who they'll be and how they'll live some years from now, or where their children will be. Those are conditions that are very much present in many parts of the world. There are kinds of societies and governments that try to address anxieties, and there are kinds that don't. We definitely have the kind that doesn't. I think that's a culture-wide failure that isn't concentrated on the right.
Is the point you're making that, in a sense, the bad guys do address those kinds of anxieties whereas the good guys don't?
Yes, that is the point I'm making. I think we see some attempts from the Biden administration to address those anxieties, but they're meek, unconvincing, and unsustainable.
Shifting to America, I think what is so challenging is that you have this anxiety about a changing racial and gender order. People are, as you say, not able to make sense of themselves in a future that they can't quite see and are anxious and resentful about it, and all the old -isms are flaring up.
It seems like the only answer that well-meaning leaders offer is policy. Policies are helpful and useful, but I'm convinced by what you describe, which I think is happening in America, India, Russia, China, and various other places that don't share the same history: a large number of people are not able to see their future self on the far side of change and are losing sleep over it.
Yes. And I think that you don't address it with policy or through a technocratic approach to politics.
How do you approach it?
I think you approach it on the level of community. Every so often, Biden gives a speech where he comes across as a caring elder statesman. But what he really should be doing is having weekly fireside chats. The most extraordinary political speaker we have seen over the last month and a half is Zelensky, right?
He models political speech. It is not about policy, and it is not about military strategy. It's about people. No matter who he is addressing, he's addressing people directly. He's speaking directly to their experience. Whether he's addressing the Italian Parliament or the Knesset, he talks about the experience of the people in the room. When he's addressing Russians, he's addressing their experience, including their experience of watching him speak and then asking them for something. When he's addressing Ukrainian people, he's offering them care and understanding. He doesn't talk about it in terms of policy.
That's the way politics is done in Ukraine. One of the most amazing speeches I saw was in the second week of the war from the mayor of Kharkiv. He was saying there's no heat, the conditions were bleak. “My dears,” he called his citizens. He urged them to go into the metro underground, where they would be safe from the shelling and there was enough soup and warm blankets for everybody.
I thought, What would this sound like if this were happening in a Russian city or an American city? Can you imagine an American politician addressing people as "My dears?" You don't have to exercise your imagination all that much. We have just been through a terrifying pandemic. A pandemic is not the same as having your city bombed, but that's a matter of gradations when you're sitting at home alone not knowing whether you will survive. You feel just as scared, right?
What we need is recognition on the part of politicians that people all over the world are in this state of extreme anxiety, for very good reasons, and they need to be addressed as "my dears." We can't just leave it to the bad guys to address the anxieties.
The other day, Biden gave a speech in Poland, trying to rally the world's democracies in a contest against autocracy. I wonder what you make of the framing of that contest.
The way that sanctions are both conceived and portrayed by the Biden administration, by other Western administrations, and largely by the media is as punishment for the Other, which is, of course, the way that war is usually fought.
And, to be sure, the devastation inflicted on ordinary Russians by the current sanctions is immense. People are losing jobs. People are facing extreme inflation. There are vast shortages of almost every imaginable kind of medication. People who are insulin-dependent, people who have cancer, and people who are in any way dependent on life-sustaining medication are going to die. Make no mistake about it: this is war.
But the kind of sanctions that haven't been implemented and would actually affect the regime's lifeline relate to energy. It was the last thing that the United States tackled in its approach to sanctions, and it's still very much incomplete. In Europe, the Baltic states are leading the way, and it was only this week that they said they were going to stop buying energy from Russia. It's been six weeks of Ukrainians dying from bullets and shelling and starving to death and five weeks of Russians facing death from lack of life-sustaining medication.
Europeans are saying, Well, it's impossible for us to give up Russian gas. What does impossible mean? Impossible means expensive. Impossible means it would cause great hardship to actual Europeans. So it would cause the kind of hardship caused if they went to war. Wars are expensive for the countries prosecuting them, and they're also risky to the lives of their citizens. What they’re trying to do with sanctions is prosecute a war without incurring great expense and without creating actual hardship for the citizens of their countries.
It's like the fantasy of the drone war.
Exactly. So in that context, talking about the great battle for democracy and how we're all fighting for it rings hollow, because we're not all fighting for it. We're fighting for it only as long as it doesn't cost us too much or doesn't jeopardize the reelection prospects of the current governments in any Western European country.
The West is aiding Ukrainians while wiring Russia money every day for oil and gas.
Exactly. Biden's speech was not a great democracy speech because it was hypocritical.
The accepted rhetoric of "We don't want to be pulled into a shooting war with Russia" translates as "We feel bad, but we'd rather Ukrainians die than risk the lives of our own citizens." I'm not saying it's completely wrongheaded, but it does undercut any rhetoric of solidarity.
Can you see another incarnation of Russia after this? What does it look like to you if you allow yourself some hope?
I don't think there will be a Russian Federation within its current borders or anywhere close to them when this is over, provided there is a “when this is over.” I do have a little bit of hope.
The Russian Federation is a truncated empire, waging its last big imperial war, which it will eventually lose. I don't know what kind of devastation it will wreak on the world before it does, but it will lose. It may lose its last great imperial war the same way Germany lost theirs after devastating the whole world. When it does, the empire will break up. I think there will be a State of Moscow and a State of St. Petersburg. I think dozens of countries will end up existing on the largest landmass in the world.
I hope to live long enough to help create something in the new State of Moscow. But it may be a while.
Masha Gessen is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of several books, including “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.” This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.