The Future Is History | Masha Gessen

Summary of: The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
By: Masha Gessen


In The Future is History, Masha Gessen dives deep into the past and the present of Russia, providing a close examination of its political and societal changes. The book explores the reasons behind Russia’s regression into totalitarianism, dissecting its history starting from the Bolshevik Revolution, examining the impact of Gorbachev’s perestroika period, to the rise of Vladimir Putin. As you read through this summary, grasp the key moments in Russian history and gain insight into the forces that shaped this nation into what it is today. The summary examines the challenges faced by the citizens during the various transitions and ultimately, the consequences for the broader society.

The Rare Female Psychoanalyst of Soviet Russia

Marina Arutyunyan, a female psychoanalyst, was a rarity in Soviet Russia due to the suppression of social sciences and humanities by the Bolshevik Revolution. The ideal man promoted by Marxism did not value self-reflection and individuality, leading to the censorship of leading thinkers such as Sigmund Freud from Russian universities. However, psychology and humanities made a comeback in the 1960s, but most Russian professors lacked knowledge due to decades of suppression. This lack of sociological understanding led to a rough start in conducting research polls, and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms set off psychological and political consequences for the citizens little understood by the country’s leaders.

The Perils of Perestroika

In 1988, Gorbachev appointed Alexander Yakovlev to implement the Perestroika initiative. However, many government officials were in direct opposition to it, and others were more concerned with how the Communist Party was falling apart. Despite Yakovlev’s hopes that the initiative would eventually succeed, even he did not anticipate the complete disintegration of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union just a few years later. Additionally, the Center for Sociology was attempting to “shape the new man” and resolve socioeconomic issues, but their findings from a 1988 poll showed that only 5.6% of the population believed in Marxism or Leninism. Younger generations were also less Communist-minded and more individualistic. However, the extinction of Homo sovieticus was proven to be misleading.

The Chaos and Uncertainty of Post-Soviet Russia

In 1991, following a tense standoff between Boris Yeltsin and Gennady Yanayev, the Soviet Union was rocked to its core. Gorbachev resigned, Yeltsin took power, and confusion and anxiety set in. The future of the newly liberated Russia was uncertain, with questions about which territories would be included and what currency and passports to use. This uncertainty took a psychological toll on the population, creating the perfect conditions for an authoritarian leader to step in, as noted by psychologist Erich Fromm.

The Fallout of Economic Reform in Post-Soviet Russia

The legalization of private commerce in post-Soviet Russia drove home the differences in income and wealth among citizens, leading to the emergence of class distinctions. With newly open borders and the rise of flashy displays of wealth, many Russians felt poor for the first time, experiencing feelings of jealousy and resentment. Local leadership positions were handed out by President Boris Yeltsin, sometimes to unqualified candidates. While some officials lived in exclusive villages with newfound riches, others were plunged into poverty, leading to acts of desperation such as children resorting to sex work and neighbors hunting for food.

Uncovering Soviet Atrocities

Yeltsin tasked Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev to expose Soviet atrocities that had been hidden for decades. Despite the horror they uncovered, much of it was too complex and illogical to make public. Meanwhile, the ongoing Chechen conflict brought about casualties, leading to Yeltsin’s decreasing popularity. Nostalgia for the simpler times of the Soviet era was gaining ground, which was exemplified by a popular propaganda musical called Old Songs About the Most Important Things. It was apparent that Russians, still mostly uninformed about past atrocities, were all too happy to return to a time when things were predictable and relatively uneventful.

Putin’s Rise to Power

In the late 1990s, Russia faced chaos and a feeling of “no future.” Russians were looking for stability, which Putin promised through decisive action. The air raids by NATO in Serbia and the apartment-building bombings further strengthened Putin’s image of a strong leader who could bring stability back to Russia. This led to his rise to power as he became the prime minister and then the president.

In the late 1990s, Russia faced uncertainty and a sense of hopelessness embodied in the phrase “budushchego net” or “no future.” Despite having their options expanded, Russians still felt the budushchego net moment. Chaos befell Russia, and people were looking for someone to bring stability back into their lives. Russia’s efforts to prop up its economy came to an end when it defaulted on loans. In 1999, air raids by NATO in Serbia, which Russians saw as being masterminded by the US, further undermined Russia’s authority. Meanwhile, while the military campaign was underway in Chechnya, apartment-building bombings occurred, resulting in chaos and anxiety. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel and Yeltsin’s recent appointee to run the secret police, promised swift and decisive action in bringing the perpetrators to justice. This led to his appointment as prime minister followed by his election as president, and he emerged as a strong leader who could bring stability to Russia.

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