putin stalin

The Future is History- How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

By Masha Gessen (One World, £18.99, 560 pages)

I have on my wall a cardboard name plate for the German Democratic Republic, taken from a conference table in New York on the last day of that Communist state’s existence. It was from a ‘Two Plus Four’ ceremony, by which the unity of the two Germanys was ‘agreed’ to by the Four Victors of the Second World War. Yes, these four countries– France, the UK, the US and the USSR – still had this ‘power’ in 1990. And still do, indeed, on the UN Security Council. But in reality it was just a legal formality : Communism had collapsed and Germany was reunited to become the centre of power in Europe.

Its hard to believe now and I often look at this nameplate and reflect on the world as it, almost completely divided into Cold War blocs. All of Eastern Europe was under a grey Communist rule and international affairs had a predictable and even manageable course to it, compared to our current volatile era of Brexit, Trump and global Islamic terror.

But those who look back nostalgically at the certainties of this time, and its cosy spy dramas and space race rivalry, would be greatly mistaken. Whatever about the chaos and challenges and struggles of modern life, there is something unbelievably grim and demoralising about an entire country – an entire continent, indeed – being controlled under an authoritarian system.

But this is what happened under Communism and foolish Irish politicians who recently praised the anniversary of the 1917 Revolution should reflect on this, and on the further depths of death, starvation and imprisonment that occurred when Communism was accelerated by Stalin and his military dictatorship. The only good thing about Stalin is he helped defeat the even more insane evil of the Nazis, but it’s a small consolation.

Russian author Masha Gessen is under no such illusions and traces the tyranny of the Soviet system right back to its origins. Idealistic revolution did not disintegrate into the tyranny of control and conformity – it created it. Choice, diversity and personal development were necessarily eroded, an important dynamic to appreciate when smaller elements of the same political impulse are peddled to us today.

The young author thus focuses specifically on the erosion of the social sciences under Communism and the near abandonment of psychology and modern psychiatry, unless it was for the artificial purposes of the State. If Communist nirvana has been reached, was the thinking, why would anyone need improving or analysis ?


Gessen (above) whose book weaves personal narratives, with political history and analysis, focuses on individuals close to these academic fields, and brings out their humour and humanity as they struggle to get on and survive in the Communist system and then in the post Soviet era.

And it is the latter that the book is most interesting about, as the relief and optimism at the collapse of Communism gives way to envy, depression and new forms of corruption and dictatorship under Boris Yeltsin and then of course Putin, about whom she has written a separate biography.

Vladimir Putin is not just a power-hungry kleptocrat who ‘took over’ Russia and reduced its democracy, she argues : he is a creation of the dysfunctional system, which has never had a proper democracy and which actually craves a strong man who can maintain order, but also pride and self-respect, an important requirement in a Russia which has always seen itself as imperial and globally dominant.

I recently reviewed here ‘Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War’ by Peter Conradi, which expertly shows how the West hugely underestimated this aspiration and fuelled Putin’s rise. This is a not a belief based on economic power, by the way – Russia is not even in the top ten world economies – but here too Putin has presided over considerable success, a fact not sufficiently addressed in this book, or elsewhere indeed. Without relative prosperity, the long suffering Russian public would tolerate the regime’s other unsavoury features.

Frustration at how much the public will tolerate is shared by many of those Gessen has interviewed here, like the daughter of Boris Nemtsov, a liberal reformer who was assassinated in 2015, and the grandson of Alexander Yakovlev, a thinker behind the perestroika and glasnost ideas which brought the whole system tumbling down. There was, in these early post Soviet years, the promise of a different and better journey, but it didn’t happen and today Gessen lives in New York.

It was in New York that I got that GDR nameplate. But it was also there, in the UN General Assembly, that I would look up at the big scoreboard on resolutions, as a young plenary delegate, and see how the world voted. This was 1990, and on most resolutions there was just a sprinkle of green lights for the West (including Japan and Australasia etc) many orange votes for the abstainers and very many red lights still for the Communist bloc, and for the mainly left leaning Third World.

All that was about to change, of course, but we should be grateful for this valuable, gripping and disturbing book, as a grim reminder of the system of control created by the Soviet Russians and how it managed to export its misery all over the world.