Foreign Affairs Focus on Books: Keith Gessen on Russia's Soviet Legacy

"All countries struggle to square their histories with their self-images," writes Keith Gessen in the July/August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs, "but over the past two decades, Russia has found the history of the Soviet era especially vexing and difficult to accommodate." Justin Vogt, deputy managing editor of Foreign Affairs, recently sat down with Gessen, co-editor of n+1, to discuss how Russia is grappling with its Soviet legacy today. A transcript of their conversation is available below:

VOGT: Hi, welcome to "Foreign Affairs Focus on Books." I'm Justin Vogt, deputy managing editor of Foreign Affairs. We're joined today by Keith Gessen, novelist and journalist. He's the co-editor of the magazine n+1, and he's written many times about Russia for The New Yorker and many other publications. Keith, welcome to Foreign Affairs.

GESSEN: Thanks for having me.

VOGT: You have a review essay in the current issue of the magazine, the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, and it deals with two books. The first of those is the historian Orlando Figes' Revolutionary Russia, 1891–1991: A History, and the second is the political scientist William Zimmerman's Ruling Russia: Authoritarianism from the Revolution to Putin.

We're going to get to these books in a second, and I think the way to do it would be to ask you a little bit about a question that comes up at the beginning of your piece, the question being, why, 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has Russia not been able to become something more like a normal country? Can you tell us a little bit about that question and how these two books shed light on that question?

GESSEN: Right, so is Russia a normal country? It's been argued that, in fact, it is a normal country. Ten years ago, there was a famous article in Foreign Affairs saying Russia -- called "Russia, A Normal Country?" -- which argued that basically Russia politically, although it's not where one would want it to be, nor is it where the Russians would want it to be, it's about where a country of its economic development is going to be.

Since then, I think it would be a little bit harder to argue that Russia is on a path toward democracy. In fact, William Zimmerman shows that Russia has been sliding backward since -- really, since 1996. So the question of normal -- again, Zimmerman opens his book with a discussion of what normal meant to people in 1991. And it's a very interesting discussion. He says, you know, for Gorbachev and Yeltsin, normal meant becoming something like a Western European -- for Gorbachev, it was more of a social democratic country, for Yeltsin, it was unclear what it was, but it was certainly, you know, normal, civilized European country, right, with a certain -- with a certain standard of living.

For the coup plotters in 1991, they also used the language of normal to say...

VOGT: This is the coup that was launched to try to get Gorbachev out of power.

GESSEN: Yes, the -- the reactionary coup from the sort of KGB and the old guard in August 1991 to try to stop perestroika. And, you know, Zimmerman points out that they, too, said, you know, we're no longer living in a normal situation, there's no law, there are no rules. It's impossible to live normally, right?

So there is this other kind of idea of normal which is basically the Brezhnev era, right? So kind of social stability, social equality, stasis, right? For a lot of people, that is what they think of as normal, and you can understand why they think that.

So in a way, there's never been a consensus in the post-Soviet Russian state among the Russian political elite about which direction -- which of those two directions they really want to go, right? And you can see this with -- you can even see this really in Putin, who always has been Putin. He's always been Putin. And yet early in his administration, in his first administration, he was much more of a kind of -- a bit more of a Westernizer than he clearly is at the moment.

VOGT: The Figes book has a sort of more historical cast, and it seems to me that the way he deals with this is to essentially say that, from the moment of the Bolshevik revolution, this society was doomed to be abnormal, that there was no way that it could ever become a sort of normal functioning state. Tell me a little bit about that thesis.

GESSEN: Yeah, I mean, I think what these two books are is two different approaches to what the Soviet Union was. So for Figes ...

VOGT: I think it's "Figes," yes.

GESSEN: ... Figes -- for him, the Soviet Union is a total rupture in the history of Russia, right? And Stalinism is its apogee, right? So, you know, for the first 10 years, it was heading towards Stalinism, and finally you had Stalinism, and then for the last 40 years, it was sort of retreating, but really falling apart, because Stalinism is what the Soviet Union was.

Interestingly, Zimmerman covers the same period of time, pretty much, mostly from the revolution -- he goes a little bit past 1991 -- for him, the Soviet Union was something that went back and forth. In 1917, initially, with the Bolsheviks, you had a certain amount of certainly intra-elite conversations about what the country should be doing and which direction it should be going. You had arguments. Lenin tended to win the arguments. But you had these arguments. Of course, under Stalin, you didn't really.

But then after Stalin, you started having those arguments again, at least among, you know, the rulers of the country, so it wasn't just one person in charge. So Zimmerman really shows a kind of going back and forth. For him -- and, again, the word "normal" comes up and it's interesting -- he has the concept of normal authoritarianism, right?

VOGT: Right.

GESSEN: So, you know, you go -- he has four stages. There's democracy, competitive authoritarianism, normal authoritarianism, and then he calls it mobilizational authoritarianism, which is really totalitarianism, that's Stalinism.

But for a lot of the twentieth century, Russia has been -- and before that, in the nineteenth century and the eighteenth century -- Russia was much more of a normal authoritarian country. You didn't have elections, but you did have at the top certain conversations and a kind of response from the top to demands from below.

VOGT: That gets at this question about what is the Soviet legacy, I think that for a lot of American observers and Western observers, we tend to look at that as a uniformly negative thing, the Soviet legacy of authoritarianism. But Zimmerman seems to paint a slightly more complex picture, and you talk about that in your review, as well as some other things about the Soviet legacy that, you know, American readers might not be aware of. Can you explain that a bit?

GESSEN: Right. So, you know, one of the spots or places where this essay began was a conversation that we were having about, you know, why hasn't Russia worked through this historical legacy in the Soviet Union? Why hasn't it said the Soviet Union is bad and horrible?

And as I was researching this piece, you know, I read a few things that really kind of made me question that premise. I mean, you know, one of them is simply that you look at Germany, right? And Germany is this sort of model state that has really worked through Nazism and said, clearly, Nazism is bad and we must do whatever the opposite of that is.

One of the people I read, a writer named Alexander Etkind, he points out that if you look at -- we think of Germany that way now, but if you look at writing about Germany in the 1960s, a lot of people were saying, look, it's 20 years after the war. In fact, there hasn't been this real discussion and reckoning with Nazism, and we need to do that, right? And this was -- so the argument -- Etkind's argument was that really Russia is just about where the Germans were in the 1960s.

VOGT: In other words, don't ask for too much, too soon?

GESSEN: Yes. Another complicating factor is that -- well, there's numerous complicating factors. One is that the Soviet Union lasted much, much longer than Nazi Germany. You know, Nazi Germany lasted for 12 years. There were lots of people who remember what it was like before Nazi Germany and could create a kind of situation where they thought like they were not part of that regime. Truthfully or untruthfully, at least it helped talk about it.

In the Soviet Union, there was nobody who remembered -- in post-Soviet Russia, there's nobody who remembers what it was like before. Also, there's the fact that -- and Zimmerman's book is pretty good about this, although he's mostly dealing with elite decision-making. You know, after Stalin's death in 1953, the country was no longer totalitarian. There were some decent things about it. They built a lot of housing. They built a lot of infrastructure. They found a lot of oil. And when you talk about the Soviet legacy in Russia right now, and actually across the post-Soviet space, there is a lot of infrastructure that was built.

People live in houses that were mostly built during the Khrushchev and the Brezhnev eras, right? They ride the metro that was built -- started being built by Stalin. The tremendous oil wealth that has funded the Putin regime for the past decade-and-a-half, that was mostly discovered by the Soviets. These are old Soviet wells.

So it's an ambiguous legacy. And to demand of the Russians that they reckon with it, you know, how well has the U.S. reckoned with slavery, you know, or segregation? It takes a long time, and people coming from abroad to demand that you do this is problematic.

VOGT: Let's talk a little bit about what's happening right now in Russia and in the Ukraine crisis. I think to some people, it seems as though this crisis may be stabilizing a bit. There have been elections in Ukraine. The Russian forces at the border withdrew recently. This massive mobilization was withdrawn. What's your take on what's happening there right now?

GESSEN: You know, it changes every day, so it's very -- it's very difficult. I think last week I felt like the separatists in eastern Ukraine don't have much time, they're fighting among themselves, they've begun to kill one another. However, the Kiev -- the government in Kiev, it's so-called anti-terrorism operation, which initially I thought seemed like a reasonable reaction, really seems to be a disaster. There's a lot of civilian deaths. It seems to be turning a lot of people in eastern Ukraine who were not very sympathetic to the separatists, it seems to be turning them against the government.

The real danger, it seems to me, aside from the fact that there's going to be this low-intensity, but it doesn't feel low-intensity if you're getting shelled, you know, civil war there is that the Ukrainian state, which really seemed like it was on a promising -- you know, Maidan, the overthrow of Yanukovych, that seemed for all its problems -- and there were ultra-nationalist elements, there was no left-wing presence, really, on Maidan, you know, which would have given it a more kind of more strongly anti-oligarchic agenda -- nonetheless, it seemed like a very promising turn of events for Ukraine.

And the real danger is that the newly elected president is yet another oligarch and that with the pressure coming, whether you think of it as Russian or pro-Russian or pro-Soviet in the east, that it's going to really make this regime further right-wing, more nationalistic, and, you know, really, you know, kind of set on ignoring or destroying the people in the east, which does not seem to be a promising direction for Ukraine.

And meanwhile, it seems like the reaction of the Western intellectual community, especially the American intellectual community, to the really pretty radical and certainly unpleasant rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin, which really does want to think of itself as a separate civilization from the West, and that's kind of the wager that they're placing right now, I feel like people in the U.S. have also started to talk about a clash of civilizations, Europe versus Russia, and that, I think, has not been helpful.

VOGT: Great.

GESSEN: So what will happen next? I mean, I think it's going to be more of the same. And clearly the Russians are not being very helpful.

VOGT: Keith Gessen, thank you very much for speaking with us and thank you for watching.

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