The brave author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin tells ALEXANDER BISLEY why she decided on Sunday to leave Russia.
Masha Gessen, the inspirational (and mordantly witty) mother-of-three with the big book deal on the Boston Bombers, talks Vladimir Putin, Pussy Riot, and filmmaker Alexei Balabanov. Photography by James Black.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: On stage at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival earlier this afternoon (Sunday, May 19) you said in response to the risk you face for courageously criticising Putin: “That’s my least favourite question. When I was working on the biography, I kept it secret. My partner she knew, my editor, no one else knew I was working on it. When the book came out to a great deal of publicity throughout the West, I think it gave me some kind of protection. It sounds horrible, but the death of Anna Politkovskaya taught the Kremlin that the cost of killing high-profile critics in the West is extremely high… There are journalists and other people in much greater danger than I am precisely because the eyes of the world aren’t on them. Because nobody knows their names.” You told Kim Hill yesterday your son’s going to boarding school in America this year because of the significant risk to his safety?
MASHA GESSEN: And I’ll probably join him soon. We’ll probably go to New York. I haven’t said that in 20 years. Last year I was in Sydney and my answer to this question was, “This is my home, Putin can leave. I’m staying.” I can do the work in Russia, and I would do the work in Russia, but I have three kids and it’s one thing to bring up your kids in a place that’s risky and difficult; I think in many ways it’s enriching them, and I’m glad my kids have that experience. It’s another thing to bring up your kids in a place that’s hopeless. Now that I’ve lost hope, I need to take them out.
AB: You describe Putin as a “bloody executioner,” saying he’s created the climate where it’s open season on journalists and opposition politicians and dissidents. On March 4, 2012, his “re-election” night, Putin cried: “We showed that no one could impose anything on us.” How do you think he’s going to respond to growing opposition? Will he crackdown harder?
MG: I think at this point they’ve set in motion just this unstoppable countdown machine. He’s going to turn the screws tighter and tighter. That brings more and more pressure on the people—it’ll ultimately explode, the longer it goes on the more violent it will be and also less the likelihood of a good outcome of something good coming afterwards. The worse life is and the less hope there is, the more people leave [Russia].
AB: So the murdered politician Galina Starovoitova, whose killing you began your prologue with, represented the hope of Russia changing. There’s not much of that hope now?
AB: A year and a half ago you hadn’t lost hope?
MG: Even a year ago I hadn’t lost hope.
AB: I particularly enjoyed the story in your book’s 2013 afterword of refusing to do the propaganda story about Putin hang-gliding with the cranes and being fired. Then being in Prague and getting the summons call from Putin himself as you go past Kafka’s grave. You go to the Kremlin, and the ‘no one’s driving the bus’ theory resonates, the press office staffer doesn’t even know where his office is. You meet Putin, and he’s cartoonish, flat, ignorant—doesn’t seem to know about your book, your critical articles about him. He appears the isolated dictator, who people don’t want to bring the bad news. That’s a spectacular story isn’t it?
MG: It’s my favourite part of the book; it’s only in the new paperback. It bore out a lot of my hypotheses about his personality, and the way the government is being run. It’s a little ridiculous that it should require my meeting with Putin, but the reason that story has gotten a lot of play in Russia and abroad is that we don’t normally hear of people meeting with Putin for any length of time on an informal basis. The meetings are always tightly controlled: either he spends time with members of the presidential pool; and you have to remember that it’s not the editors who appoint the presidential pool, it’s the Kremlin. If it’s someone outside the presidential pool then normally it’s a six-hour wait for a five-minute meeting. So 20 minutes and you actually get to talk and argue with him, that’s unheard of—or at least unheard of among people who’ve written about it. That’s why I think it deserved pretty close scrutiny and certainly it was pretty spectacular. We were walking to the meeting and I asked the more senior press person what the format of the meeting was and she said, “what do you mean?” I said, “How long is it going to be, and is it on the record?” and she said, “I don’t know.”
AB: You’ve got this endearing, sharp Russian wit.
MG: Thank you. That’s very good to hear.
AB: Are there humourists in any medium you draw inspiration from?
MG: I spend my days cycling when I’m not writing and I listen to podcasts all the time while I’m cycling. I really love the Moth Podcast—it’s a similar format to what was used at the gala opening here in Auckland, the short, spoken-word. There’s humour in there. I love Slate’s podcasts, especially the Slate Culture Gabfest. I think they’re very smart and very funny at the same time; I love the way they take things apart.
AB: I appreciate your writing at places like Slate, Vanity Fair and the New York Times. Last year you said you didn’t think Russians had to wait six years: “Tyrants create a trap for themselves.” But on May 7, 2013, your prognosis was gloomy in ‘Standoff on Bolotnaya Square’. “It was Monday evening, as Moscow’s latest protest rally was beginning, and the mood was anything but uplifting—and nothing like what it was a year and a half earlier, when Russia’s so-called Snow Revolution began with hundreds of thousands of newly minted activists happily discovering one another in cities and towns across the country. For a few months back then it seemed that this emergent force might actually bring down Vladimir Putin’s regime… This unhappy standoff may last a very long time.”
MG: The blog, which has been going since November 2011, has this very clear narrative arc; it starts out distant and ironic, and then the protest movements started and I got more and more excited. The mood of the blog has been going steadily down over the last seven or eight months or so, dark chapters of the Putin crackdown.
AB: Despite all the dysfunctional and humiliating things in Russia, there are inspirational Russian writers and artists. There are several Russian filmmakers that don’t necessarily reach a large Western audience that are very good.
MG: There’s a Russian filmmaker who died today actually, Alexei Balabanov?
AB: He wasn’t very old was he?
MG: Fifty-four. It’s very sad because he was certainly the best director of more recent times, and I think he’s done some very significant stuff. She’s not in the same league, but I like Dunya Smirnova. I’d recommend you, Kokoko. It’s very small-scale, intimate, lovely film. Another good one she did recently was Two Days.
AB: Any particular favourites by Balabanov?
MG: Cargo 200 is brilliant, incredibly dark. It’s based on a Faulkner story, which I think a lot go people don’t realise. So I think he’s really brilliantly transferred that to Russian soil—the Russian psyche. But my favourite moment in the film, is when there’s already a decaying body in the compartment, and the mother of the police officer is letting someone in and there’s all these flies inside (because there’s this decaying body) and she says, “we have flies.” Sometimes when there’s just a single line in a book, or moment in a film, that is so precise—it’s such a precise snapshot of the way pathology is normalised. I thought it was absolutely brilliant, and I like the film otherwise but that single moment made it completely worth it.
AB: What about the filmmaker Alexei German Jr’s work, particularly The Last Train?
MG: I haven’t seen that one. I’m not crazy about his other films. Do you like it?
AB: His others I’ve seen were more mixed, but The Last Train is great. It’s about the end of World War II. Have you seen In the Dark and Tishe!?
MG: No. You’re obviously better versed in Russian filmmaking than I am.
AB: I wouldn’t say that. Pussy Riot are amazing—
MG: It’s a great work of art. Seriously, I’m writing a book on them, probably out in March, where the premise is the making of a great piece of art—how does that happen? I think the tragedy of living in a police state is that it has a way of killing everything, so you get very little variety and there’s a great paucity of cultural conversation and the [ensuing] lack of cultural production.
AB: I liked a lot your recent post on the Pussy Riot parole hearing and how it seemed like it was running like a fair parole session and then the judge decided—or she got the word from somewhere else—to go back to the old farcical show-style. At least, given the Western media are interested, they’re not being tortured, which happens to other Russian dissidents. How are Pussy Riot doing in prison?
MG: They’re coping. I think that it’s a very difficult life. You can tell from looking at Nadia at the last hearing, she’s not looking well, she’s gained weight, she’s still incredibly charismatic, I think they will get through this intact, it’s difficult but it’s not debilitating. It may have been more traumatising for Katja who got out after six months and she is in the most very odd position—just profound loneliness, lost and not knowing who she is—she’s not one of the ones in prison, she’s not one of the ones who’ve avoided prison. She doesn’t have a lot of liberty to—
AB: Doesn’t have her creative outlet—
MG: Right. She lives in fear of being put back in prison so she can’t take risks. She’s devoted herself almost full-time to writing judicial complaints and trying to fight the sentencing. I asked her, “Why are you doing this? It’s pointless; it’s tedious, pointless work. You could just lay low you have less than a year of being in parole to go, you can do what you want,” and she said, “No, no I have to, it’s my duty I have to do this.” At the same time, the ones in prison don’t feel like she’s doing her part.
AB: Because they’re going through worse—
MG: And their spokesperson said they want her to be very public. She’s not well suited for that in the first place; but she’s also scared.
AB: What about Shostakovich, you like his Ninth Symphony right?
AB: You play it on occasion?
MG: The older I get, the less music I play. I used to be able to work to music but now I can’t even live to music; I find it too distracting. I become difficult to live with because I go home and I make everybody turn the music off.
AB: You’ve got difficult work to do all the time. What do you think of that Churchill quote, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”?
MG: I think it’s brilliant. That and his “Trying to fathom Kremlin politics is like watching a fight among bulldogs under a carpet—you hear much growling but have little idea what is going on.”
AB: You convincingly argue Alexander Litvinenko’s polonium poisoning is the smoking gun against Putin. Because he had that incredible Morgan Tsvangirai constitution, Litvinenko survived for an extraordinarily long time.
MG: Exactly. His friend Alex Goldfarb, who’d previously devised the plan to get him into Britain, he’s a microbiologist. Goldfarb organised a lot of the research, brought Britain’s top poison experts into Litvinenko’s hospital room.
AB: That classic Bushism where he foolishly talked about looking into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. There was September 11, 2001, Russia being seen as an ally on the war on terror. Journalism’s big resourcing decline that decade. For a long time this narrative of Putin being the energetic, liberal reformer—an embarrassing amount of journalists had no idea what was going on?
MG: There are circumstances that created that situation, but still I think the western media is abdicating its responsibility. Partly because of over-confidence.
AB: New Yorker Editor David Remnick has written some good things on Russia.
MG: I loved his book Lenin’s Tomb. I think it’s one of the great books written about Russia. I didn’t like Resurrection.
AB: You incisively pointed out that the Pussy Riot case had shown to the West—had got into the popular consciousness—the true colours of Putin’s regime.
MG: It’s an incredibly important case, in addition to showing the true colours, it will serve the opening battle in the cultural war that is very much part of the crackdown. That’s how Pussy Riot, the homophobic laws, they all fall into line. All of that shows his power base: who the other is; who the enemy is.
AB: Is there a message you want people to take away from your trip to New Zealand?
MG: Buy the book.