A Look Back: Masha Gessen on Putin

On April 8, 2022, five years ago today, Russian-American journalist, bestselling author, translator, and activist Masha Gessen was in conversation with Senior Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum in the Wine Family Sanctuary at CBST. Looking back at this conversation half a decade later, it feels rather prescient as we live through a time when Russia has invaded and brutally attacked Ukraine and its people. Masha’s insights in this conversation feel perhaps more instructive and illuminating than ever. Here is an edited transcript of the first third of Rabbi Kleinbaum’s discussion with Masha Gessen. 

Welcome to our afternoon together exploring fascism and totalitarianism. We welcome Masha Gessen, an extraordinary person who is also a member of CBST. Masha has actually lived under such a such a government, and is bringing not only her intellectual acumen, which is enormous, but also profound personal experience.

Masha is a commentator on all different cable and TV news channels, of course. We all loved you on Samantha Bee. And, of course, we’re really thrilled that Masha is the Russian translator for the TV show The Americans, but Masha’s lips are sealed about plot developments. Believe me, I’ve already tried.

The first thing you should do when you leave here today is get the book The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen. If you have not read this book, to be an intelligent human being on the earth today requires this book to be one of the books you’ve read.

Masha, given your perspective, both the personal and the intellectual and the political, we hear these words “fascism,” “authoritarianism,” “totalitarianism,” “dictator.” How do we understand people like Putin?

Thank you for that introduction. It’s a great question. I also try to avoid using the word “fascist,” not because it’s inaccurate—I actually think there’s a very good argument to be made for it being accurate. It’s just that it tends to lead us down the rabbit hole of arguing what the small distinctions are between, say, Trump and fascists in history.

The word that I’ve been using is “autocracy,” which I think is more accurate than authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Authoritarianism and totalitarianism actually have pretty specific meanings, right? I mean, they’re not fixed. But one huge distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism is mobilization. Right?

Authoritarians basically want people to stay home and tend to their private lives while they accumulate power and wealth. Totalitarians want people to come out into the city squares and march in support of the regime, in an opposition to whatever enemy, real or imagined.

Putin, for example, started out as an authoritarian. After 2012, he became a sort of totalitarian-like, depending on mobilizing the population in support of him. And that didn’t used to be the case.

And how would you describe the arc that Putin took?

Putin was plucked out of obscurity by Yeltsin, the first Russian post-Soviet Russian president, and Yeltsin had pretty much annihilated everybody who was anybody in Russian politics, and was afraid with good reason that he, once his second term ran out, might be prosecuted for things that happened in the 1990s.

And so Yeltsin needed to find a handpicked successor, who would guarantee him immunity from prosecution. And because there he no longer had any allies, politically, political heavyweights who were allies, he was choosing from a lineup of basically faceless bureaucrats. And he picked Putin who had been a secret agent, secret police agent his entire life. He picked him almost at random.

I think this is actually important and instructive, because Putin was an accidental president.

But in Putin’s mind, that seems to have morphed into this idea that he was chosen. Because like most autocrats, he is predisposed to conspiracy thinking, he doesn’t believe in accidents, right? So there has to be a reason it happened.

And the fact that he had no background and no ambition to become president only reinforces this idea that he is the “chosen one.” And so that leads him to feel like he has a mission and to blurring the boundaries between himself and the regime and the regime and the state and the state and the country.

And so when people protest his regime and his power, he perceives them as protesting the country itself and as being enemies of the country itself.

Now, you can see hints of that in Trump, right? Trump is also an accidental president of a very different kind. But I’m convinced that even when he was running his campaign, he didn’t expect to win. And his victory is so bizarre, you know, 70,000 people in three counties. And he thinks that there has to be a reason. Right? I mean, we know he is predisposed to conspiracy thinking.

So, I think we see in Trump the sort of same sort of blurring of boundaries. When he talks about the way he talks about protesters, the way he talks about the media, the way that he has already floated the term “enemies of the of the people,” right? He sees himself as embodying this country.

Could you describe a little bit the Putin of today?

I think that Putin has built a mafia state. And “mafia state” is actually a term that is, that was pioneered by a Hungarian sociologist, Balint Magyar, who’s written a brilliant book called The Post-Communist Mafia State and also edited a collection of articles on the mafia state. And this is, this has become a runaway bestseller in Hungary, which is pretty amazing for an academic book to become a runaway bestseller. But I think it points to the precision of his diagnosis. He’s writing about the Hungarian regime, but also about the Russian regime.

A mafia state is different from either an authoritarian or normal, authoritarian, totalitarian kind of running country. And I think, again, it’s quite relevant to what we’re beginning to see. It’s run like a mafia clan.

A mafia state has a patriarch at the center of this clan. And what’s important about that is that the patriarch disposes and distributes. He has control of all the power and all the money. And then he distributes a little bit of that wealth. When we imagine Russia, usually in this country, we’re talking about oligarchs, right, which is vastly inaccurate. Because oligarchs, you know, existed in the 90s.

But the oligarchs made a deal with Putin when he first came to power where they surrendered their money and surrendered their power in exchange for being a part of the family, for getting pieces handed back to them. But they are in Putin’s control. So they haven’t had any agency in 17 years.

Another thing about the family is that it’s constituted not only on kind of a pragmatic basis, but on the basis of loyalty. And obviously, considerations of vengeance are really important. And remember, when we were first watching Trump create his cabinet, you know, and the reason why Rex Tillerson didn’t have a Deputy Secretary of State is because his candidate, his one candidate, for the Deputy Secretary of State, said something bad about Trump during the campaign, and that disqualifies him, right? Because loyalty is a prerequisite of being in the family.

And the thing about the family is that you can be born into the family, you can be adopted into the family, but you can’t gain voluntary membership in the family. And you also can’t leave the family when you want. You can be kicked out of the family. But in Russia, that’s been the case for a number of people who wanted to sort of desert the family and were punished harshly for it.

So that’s an important thing to understand about the kind of power structure that Putin has built, and also how interdependent people are on the power structure. So, when people talk about a potential palace coup in Russia, you know, I think it’s misguided because they don’t understand how everybody is dependent on everybody else.

But what’s happened in Russian society is that the signals that the mafia state sends out are interpreted in accordance with the Russian experience of living under totalitarianism for 70 years. So, when the mafia state cracks the whip, people revert to habits from a totalitarian past.

This excerpt covers the first eighteen and a half minutes of Rabbi Kleinbaum and Masha Gessen’s conversation. You can watch the full video of their conversation here.

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