The Return

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews
More insights from journalist and gay rights activist Masha Gessen’s revealing interview with The Lumière Reader.

At the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, the feisty Putin critic talks about Dmitry Medvedev being Putin’s First Lady, why her Boston bombers book is exciting, her family, and Leonard Cohen live. Photography by James Black.

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AB: I quite liked New Yorker Editor David Remnick’s one-liner where he referred to Putin as “Batman to Medvedev’s Robin.”

MG: The analogy I’ve used when I still had to talk about Medvedev, which I don’t anymore, was Medvedev is the First Lady. He had a ceremonial robe, he was there to reach out to the disenfranchised. By who he was reaching out to, you could tell who was perceived as the disenfranchised in Russia. So he’d visit a prison one day and talk with the inmates, and the next day he’d meet with the intelligentsia. That was his audience; everybody who was not part of Putin’s support base.

AB: The same journalists who were gulled by Putin were fooled by Medvedev?

MG: There was a little more reason to do that, because at least Medvedev’s rhetoric was substantial. And I think that has had a bit of a positive consequence. I remember listening to his address to parliament and thinking, “wow we haven’t heard a political speech like this in many years,” because Putin’s rhetoric is bureaucratic and Medvedev’s was substantive. No actions ever followed the rhetoric, when on September 24, 2011 Putin appeared at the United Russian Conference and said “we have it all arranged, now Putin will be President and Medvedev will be Prime Minister,” that was a much heavier blow for having had three-and-a-half years of Medvedev’s nice rhetoric… My father’s name is Alexander.

AB: What did he do?

MG: He was a computer scientist, now he’s a computer forensic specialist. He’s still working.

AB: You write poetically of your feeling for snow when you arrive at your dacha in The Man Without a Face’s epilogue. I appreciate the book’s dedication to your partner, Darya Oreshkina, “who has made me happier and more productive than I have ever been.” Also the mention of her father at one of the big anti-Putin protests in Moscow.

MG: It’s hard getting babysitting because their grandpa’s at the protest… I have two questions for you. I have to get a souvenir for my kids. These jade things [gestures at mine], do they have a particular meaning?

AB: Mine is from a carver based on the East Coast, he uses only pre-1840 tools/methods. There are various meanings. I wear my one for good luck, say for important interviews, or when I travel, to keep me safe.

MG: Perfect. I’ll get some for my kids, to give them on my return. I broke my tablet computer this morning and I urgently need to get a couple of paperbacks to take on the plane with me. Have you seen anything in the festival that really strikes you?

AB: I’ll show you at the bookstall downstairs?

MG: Good.

AB: Sri Lankan Shehan Karunatilaka, who studied in New Zealand, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Chinaman. His session with Melbourne journalist Gideon Haigh was hilarious.

MG: I had a great time talking to Gideon last evening. We were sitting in the corner at the writer’s party for two hours. He’s wonderful.

AB: Max Hastings, he’s feisty, in the vein of Churchill. In All Hell Broke Loose, his book on WWII, he’s going back over important statistics, and from the human perspective. He was talking to a former head of the British Army who was completely wrong-headed on the statistics: the massive Russian civilian and military casualties, the whole Russian dimension (“The Germans didn’t know they were fighting people inured to suffering”, Hastings argued), on the Eastern Front. You’d know all that already, I presume?

MG: Not necessarily. It’s always good when there’s some stuff in the book that you know, it makes you feel smarter. Have you checked out the Leonard Cohen biography?

AB: Yes, it’s really good. Sylvie Simmons is lovely, I interviewed her. One of the strengths of her book is she got access to the muses. She spoke to Marianne, she spoke to Suzanne.

MG: Oh good!  So that’s my aeroplane book.

AB: She wrote a terrific article on Johnny Cash, too. She had five days with him during the last year of his life, around the time of that video ‘Hurt’, after June had died, and he was alone in Tennessee.

MG: He’s a great character.

AB: Amazing. You persuasively argue how Putin’s brutal Chechnya policy was key to his former popularity in The Man Without a Face. It’s good to see your skills and experiences, particularly regarding Chechnya, being recognised with the book deal on the Boston bombers.

MG: Yes. I’m under strict orders not to discuss it [yet]. It’s exciting for me to write because obviously I know a lot about Chechnya, and I was a Russian immigrant in Boston, so it falls into place.

AB: Have you seen Leonard Cohen live? His 2010 Wellington gig is probably the greatest concert I’ve ever seen.

MG: I haven’t been to a lot of concerts, but Leonard Cohen is definitely the greatest concert I’ve ever seen. I distinctly remember the effect of listening to his songs on my iPod incessantly, and then hearing them live. Somehow they acquire depth of sound when you know how they’re performed.

AB: For two decades you’ve been a pioneering gay rights activist in homophobic Russia. You’d appreciate New Zealand’s inclusive attitude towards gay people?

MG: It seems to be.

AB: With everything you’ve got on at the moment, I don’t suppose you’ve managed to experience much of New Zealand?

MG: Unfortunately not. I have to be disciplined about going back to my hotel room to work. I’ll have to come back.

© James Black 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at blackphotographic.

“Putin’s a small guy in every sense,” Masha Gessen’s sharp, mordant humour was also on display in her interview with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart in February 2012. Alexander Bisley interviewed Gessen one week ago. His exclusive is here

Alexander profiled New Yorker Political Editor Rick Hertzberg in 2010, and wrote about Zyagintsev’s ‘The Return’ in 2005 (“Russia is a mess, but the artists are still managing to make some terrific films.”) He tweets @alexanderbisley, and can be emailed at Thanks to Alice May Connolly for transcription assistance.

Filed under: ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews


Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.