- “Stay Outraged”A Conversation with Masha Gessen
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“I like kitties and puppies and little animals,” Vladimir Putin told Masha Gessen in 2012.
This was a strange way for the Russian president to start a conversation with a journalist whose scathing biography of him was receiving rave reviews around the world.
When the two met, Gessen had just been fired as the editor of Vokrug Sveta, a popular science magazine, for refusing to cover one of Putin’s media stunts. (Putin had piloted a motorized hang glider while ostensibly escorting six endangered Siberian cranes to their winter homes.) Putin had reached out to offer Gessen her job back—apparently uninformed of her unflattering assessments of the former KGB officer. Gessen declined. She would never work “as a Kremlin appointee,” she explained later.
(“Don’t make compromises” would become one of her six rules for surviving an autocracy.)
Gessen was born in the Soviet Union, and moved to Boston with her family when she was 14. In 1991, she went back to Russia as a young reporter, and soon made her name as an LGBT rights activist and a Putin critic. In 2013, with the Kremlin threatening to take away the children of gay parents, she fled to the U.S. with her wife and kids.
Since then, Gessen has written or co-edited four books, including The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy on the Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings.
Having spent over two decades watching Russia slide into dictatorship, Gessen is now terrified of the damage President Donald Trump could do to American democracy.
World Policy Journal spoke with Gessen about Putin, the U.S. media, and what citizens can do to protect a country from authoritarianism. [End Page 55]
In The New York Review of Books, you called Russia a “mafia state.” What makes Russia a mafia state, and how does that differ from a fascist one?
The term “mafia state” was introduced by a Hungarian social scientist named Bálint Magyar. There’s nothing wrong with describing Russia as a fascist state; it’s just not very precise. A mafia state is a much more specific term, which was developed to describe a particular kind of post-communist regime. A fascist state, at this point, is such an expandable term that I don’t think it’s terribly informative. In the most general sense, a fascist state is a state that is run by a far-right, nationalist government on a basis of everything of the state and everything for the state. That’s pretty accurate when applied to Russia, although what you define as right and not right in a Russian context is a little tricky. And I wouldn’t call Russia a nationalist state—at this point, it’s an imperialist state. So “fascist” is just not informative.
You’ve argued that Trump could introduce to the world a “post-democratic mafia state.” How is that different from Putin’s post-communist mafia state?
It’s exactly what it sounds like. Magyar is very precise about the fact that what has allowed these mafia states to flourish in Hungary and in Russia is that they were built on the ruins of a totalitarian society. The instruments they can use and the way they can instrumentalize things like ideology is specific to societies that have lived through totalitarianism. In the States, we don’t have that experience at all, and we see society responding to the signals from Washington in entirely different ways—thank God—than you would expect in a post-communist country.
What warning signs should we be looking for to determine if a country is becoming a post-democratic mafia state?
“Post-democratic mafia state” is not a defined term. What I was writing in that piece is that Magyar has published two books and a number of articles on what constitutes a post-communist mafia state. But we don’t know what a post-democratic mafia state looks like. We know what mafia-like governments look like, and...