Winner of the 2017 National Book Award for Non Fiction.
From acclaimed Russian-American journalist Gessen, an examination of Russia in the post-Soviet period, when the public’s hopes for democracy devolved within a restricted society. Structured around the experiences of four principal individuals who came of age in the aftermath of the U.S.S.R.’s collapse.
...a magisterial, panoramic overview of Russia under Putin ... While the people she singles out are often vociferous opponents of the rearward direction of the New Russia, she gives at least equal time to the group the perestroika historian Yuri Afanasyev dubbed 'the aggressively obedient majority' and to the tens of millions of ordinary Russians who would be happy to go back to the USSR, more or less ... The characters’ personal histories add life and nuance to Gessen’s narrative. But it takes a while to get a handle on all of the players, who are as numerous as the cast of a Tolstoy novel, if less romantically clad. But portraying the politics of totalitarianism does not call for a romantic filter. Gessen’s reconstruction of the ongoing saga of Russia’s reversion to vozhdizm makes for thrilling and necessary reading for those who seek to understand the path to suppression of individual freedoms, and who recognize that this path can be imposed on any nation that lacks the vigilance to avert it.
...[a] fascinating and deeply felt book ... The story of the three older intellectuals is both poignant and frightening ... Gessen returns repeatedly to the question of what sort of regime exists in Russia today. As the subtitle of her book suggests, she believes that totalitarianism has reclaimed the country. Western political science associated totalitarianism with several features, including state terror, total absence of civil society outside the state, a centrally planned economy and domination by a single party. Gessen successfully shows how Putin’s Russia has gradually acquired these characteristics, though in muted and less extreme forms ... The one area where I wish Gessen had spent more time was in a deeper analysis of ordinary Putin backers.
...Masha Gessen’s remarkable group portrait of seven Soviet-born Russians whose changing lives embody the changing fortunes and character of their country as it passed from the end of Communist dictatorship under Mikhail Gorbachev to improvised liberalism under Boris Yeltsin and then back to what Gessen sees as renewed totalitarianism under Putin ...deft blending of these stories gives us a fresh view of recent Russian history from within, as it was experienced at the time by its people ... Through the eyes of her characters, Gessen manages to restore those possibilities, to convey how it felt to imagine that life in the new Russia could go in any direction ... She alternately zooms in on the lives of her characters and zooms out to give more general accounts of the major events of the time.