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Masha Gessen on the Ins and Outs of Russia

Interview with Masha Gessen, Russian-American author, journalist, and The New Yorker staff writer.

On Russian Americans supporting Putin:

I think that among Russian émigrés, it’s actually a very specific thing, which is that there have been distinct waves of Russian immigration.

My parents and I came here in 1981 as part of the Jewish immigration. We were fleeing the Soviet Union. My parents made the decision to step into the abyss. They knew nothing about the West or what was going to happen to them here. They thought they would never be able to see their friends and relatives in the Soviet Union. They made this decision to get out of the Soviet Union because it was so important for them to leave the Soviet Union.

People who came here — who were much more numerous — who came here starting in about 1990 and basically through that decade, who I think are the people you’re referring to — they were fleeing the collapse of the empire. They were not running away from the Soviet Union. They were not leaving Russia. They were leaving that sense of extreme instability and uncertainty that was created by the end of the Soviet Union.

So to them, there’s no contradiction between liking Putin, who came in and said, “I’m going to take you back to that imagined stability and predictability of the Soviet Union” — there’s no contradiction between that and what they felt when they were leaving. So I think it’s perfectly logical that they support him.

On fall of GDP per capita in Russia and totalitarianism:

Poverty and scarcity are actually very good for totalitarian societies. They maintain that sense of mobilization that’s essential for totalitarian societies.

This is actually not my idea, but I think it has a lot of merit, this idea that the mass protests in Russia that we saw in 2011, 2012 were partly a function of prosperity. People lived well enough that they had the luxury of demanding good governance. When you’re constantly worried about your survival, you do not actually engage proactively in politics.

On a stereotyped strong Russian women:

Where does that come from? I think that comes from life. Look, part of the Soviet experiment was this very strange gender-equality ideology. Strange because it was an enforced ideology. It was top-down. Women were almost equally represented in the workforce to men.

But of course, at home, they also did all the housework. Housework in the Soviet Union was not doing housework in the United States. It was washing clothes by hand, often in a communal bathroom or a communal bathhouse. It was cooking in a communal kitchen. It was getting food products in conditions of extreme shortages.

It was like this constant battle for survival and for the survival of one’s family. I think that that made women strong, productive, and created a kind of matriarchal family that wouldn’t exist if women weren’t also breadwinners on par with men.

On smiling in Russia:

I think that there’s a kind of grumpy and dark culture in Russia. Russians certainly have a lot of discernment in the fine shades of misery. If you ask a Russian how they are, they will not cheerfully respond by saying they’re great. If they’re miserable, they might actually share that with you in some detail.

There’s no shame in being miserable in Russia. There’s, in fact, a lot of validation. Read a Russian novel. You’ll find it all in there. We really are connoisseurs of depression.