Masha Gessen is a journalist, author and member of the democratic opposition to the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
She spoke recently with VOA’s Mark Snowiss about what she called the “third and final stage of Putin’s rule,” including “an all-out political crackdown that has led to the war with Ukraine” and a sustained assault on Russia’s beleaguered independent media.
Gessen writes in both Russian and English. In addition to books on Putin and the Russian feminist punk rock protest group Pussy Riot, she has been a prolific contributor to such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, New Statesman, Granta, Slate, Vanity Fair, and U.S. News & World Report.
She is a lesbian who has written extensively on LGBT rights and who founded the Pink Triangle Campaign for gay rights in Russia. She has been described as "Russia's leading LGBT rights activist."
Gessen is currently working on a book about the Tsarnaev brothers.
Mark Snowiss: Masha, thank you very much for coming to VOA and agreeing to talk to us.
Masha Gessen: Thank you for having me.
Mark Snowiss: You’ve spent most of your career in Moscow, looking at Russian society from many different angles. So much is happening right now in Moscow — looking out at the world, toward Ukraine, things happening in the Middle East, the domestic political situation within this very dynamic, changing country. What’s something that leaps out at you, what strikes you having just come from Moscow back to the United States?
Masha Gessen: So, what’s the one thing I want the world to know about Russia? I was actually most recently in Moscow in May — I'm still going back and forth. I moved to this country permanently in December, but I’m still reporting from Russia a fair amount. I think that what needs to be clear is that what Russia is going through now is sort of the third and final stage of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's rule. It’s the final stage, the most dangerous, the scariest — it may last a very long time, it may not.
But everything up until now has been working up to this stage. The first stage of his regime, which probably was the first five years, was [about] destroying the democratic gains of the 1990s. It was actually very systematic: he disassembled the electoral system, the Kremlin took over the media. Over the course of five years, every level of elections was either cancelled entirely, like with the gubernatorial elections, or transformed beyond recognition. Then there was a period of affluence and stasis after that had gone into effect, and sort of a system of balance of fear and power and money had taken hold.
And now for the last two years we’ve been living through an all-out political crackdown that has led to the war with Ukraine — that’s the only word to call it — there’s a war between Russia and Ukraine. And that is leading to the agonizing death of all the independent media — what remains of the independent media in Russia. It’s an all-out crackdown on political dissent.
Mark Snowiss: What prompted the shift to the final phase? Do you think it was preconceived, or was it sort of a natural evolution?
Masha Gessen: I think it's a natural evolution, [but] I think it was also fear — I mean [Putin] was terrified when the protests broke out, and because in his mind there’s no such thing as something that grows naturally. I mean he couldn’t actually conceive of a protest movement, or a protest culture, in the way that we conceive of it, and in the way that I think is right. People, for a variety of reasons — some because they’ve gotten wealthier and their priorities have changed, and some because they learned more about what was going on, and some because they just couldn’t take it any more — but for a variety of reasons, many people, from very different walks of life, and actually with a variety of political views, came together for these mass protests.
In Putin's mind that’s impossible. He sees everything as coming from above. So what’s actually happening in his mind is that he believes the Kremlin made grave mistakes that led to the appearance of the protest movement. That perhaps Vladislav Surkov, his former ideologue and main political operative, created too many movements, engineered too many groups, and some of them took on a life of their own.
Mark Snowiss: But, if I may, these mistakes you referred to probably, in Putin’s mind, went back a lot farther...the things he’s trying to correct.
Masha Gessen: Putin has a pretty short horizon, so I do not think he was thinking back to 2004 and the mistakes they made then. He felt like in 2011, [Vladislav Yuryevich] Surkov did something very wrong, and something went wrong. The other idea that’s been very strong, and has been key in this whole transformation, is that there has to be a puppeteer. So, it has to be the United States. So that’s why Putin's first reaction to the protests was — he said that they were personally inspired by Hillary Clinton. The reason is that, in his view, when he sees all these protesters, he sees not people protesting the regime, but people protesting Russia itself. Well, who protests the state itself? Only an enemy of the state. And who is the enemy? It has to be foreigners. The foreigners have to be driven by somebody. So, clearly it’s Hillary Clinton, who was the secretary of state at the time. That was why the initial stages of the crackdown were so focused on foreign agents — because that’s a literal expression of what Putin saw driving the protests.
Mark Snowiss: Let me ask you about Ukraine in relation to what we’re talking about. Most people look at Ukraine and see Russia’s involvement as Putin and the Kremlin not wanting Ukraine to slip over to the west, to have NATO on its doorstep. Is that the way you look at it, or do you see other motives behind this very strong resistance of Moscow to Ukraine changing its political orientation?
Masha Gessen: No, I see a lot more there. And, actually, it doesn’t take a genius to see it, you just have to listen to what they’re saying. What Putin is saying, what his current chief ideologue, Alexander Dugin, is saying. What they’ve been talking about for the last couple years, and what’s really got traction — and not just in Russia — is this idea of a civilizational conflict. And Dugin, to quote him, he says there is Western civilization, that believes there is such a thing as universal human rights, and that promotes a “post-gender” — as he puts it — and “post-human” reality. And by this he means the specter of homosexuality, transsexuality and all kinds of scary things that threaten tradition. And Western civilization wants to impose its values on the rest of the world.
And Russia's position is fine, if you want to do that in the West, you can do that, but don’t force it on us. There is no such thing as universal human rights. In our civilization we believe in tradition. So, there is Western civilization, and there is traditional civilization. And Russia is positioning itself as the leader of traditional civilization, as the leader of the anti-Western world. And that has also grown out of the initial political crackdown, because part of it was calling the protesters foreign agents, and the other part was calling them gay. And the anti-gay legislation, the anti-gay rhetoric, that began about two-and-a-half years ago, really gathered speed, and really helped create, or place, a national identity that Russia had been lacking. And this national identity is that, as the leader of the anti-Western world, as the defender of traditional families, as the defender of traditional religions... Russia now [has] this ambition of creating an anti-Western coalition in the world, and, actually, it has had some success.
Mark Snowiss: So, one more question for you, Masha, would be on the state of the media in Russia today. Can you give us your thoughts on that?
Masha Gessen: A few years ago I was a magazine editor. Now about half the people I used to work with have changed professions. Some of them are very happy in their new fields, but they just realized there is no place for them to work. I think the other half probably realizes they are working in their last jobs in journalism, because there’s no place to work — unless you want to service the propaganda machine.
Again, there has been an ongoing crackdown on the media since Putin came into office. On his first day in office, his first day in the Kremlin, there was a raid on the offices of Media-Most, the largest independent media holding at the time. Within a year, the state controlled all the broadcast television channels. Then we went through a very, very long period of, sort of, space closing in slowly. Now we are going through the final stages of space closing in totally and completely.
So there’s one independent TV channel, TV Rain, which was dropped by 80% of its cable and satellite providers last winter. So, they lost all of their advertising as a result, because their audience has dropped by about 80% — and also because they’ve become pariahs. They had to cut their broadcast hours by half, they had to cut staff by a third, they‘ve cut salaries. They raised enough money to keep going for three months, but their lease is running out [this week]. I think they’re going to shut down very, very soon. And it’s like a death watch for a number of these outlets. Another television channel in Tomsk — the last remaining independent regional television station, the last remaining one — is struggling to survive and has been off the air for most of the last few months.
Even the leeway that federally-owned television and print media are allowed, that’s really been taken away. So, for the longest time, there was this idea that there was going to be a more conservative, state-owned broadcast agency and a less conservative one. The more conservative one was [ITAR-]TASS, and the less conservative one was RIA [Novosti]. And within RIA, you could have small pockets of sort of quasi-independent reporting. I do not know how useful that illusion of free speech is. I think in some ways it is more insidious than doing pure propaganda. But, in any case, Putin liquidated RIA Novosti in December and replaced it with Russia Today, with the most odious propagandist in Russia at the helm. And that’s been at the forefront of the war effort. And, of course, a lot of what’s happened is the mobilization of the media that’s necessary for the war effort in Ukraine.
And the consumer authority has blocked access to several online outlets. The largest online outlet was also taken over by the state. That’s Lenta.ru, and the smaller ones like Grani.ru, and ej.ru, which are small news and news analysis outlets, you can’t access them from Russia. You can access them going through proxies [servers], but that’s cut their audiences down to nothing.
And, of course, there is a new law on the Internet that goes into effect on August 1, I believe, which requires any social network or email service or communication service operating in Russia to maintain, basically, FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service]-ready servers, with exhaustive information on users. So, I think that will lead to the shutdown of Facebook and Twitter.
And, finally, bloggers, stand-alone bloggers, are now required to register in much the same way as the media are. Anybody who has more than three-thousand, or, I think, two-thousand daily visitors is now, in the eyes of the law, equivalent to a media outlet. So, for example, I would be somebody like that if I were in Russia. I would be answerable under the law in the way that a newspaper is.
Mark Snowiss: Masha Gessen, thank you very much.