ofGreat title, huh?
So this is about the most depressing book I've ever read. The reason is the current context and the war in the Ukraine - this book predicts it and not only explains the current war but show how it is inevitable.
Masha Gessen gave us a 500+ page crystal ball. The author, a native Russian expat who grew up and lived through all the changes she talks about, traces the time from the fall of the Soviet Union until a few years ago through the experiences of a few real people, most memorably a woman journalist whose politician/activist father is murdered *(that's her, right?), a sociologist, a psychiatrist and a gay professor who she follows through the process of coming out, getting a degree, teaching and finally leaving Russia when it becomes untenable.
The book begins with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It all happens faster than Gorbachev can handle. He's overtaken by the populist Yeltsin, man of the people. He declares Russia for Russian. He attempts, in his drunken inconsistency. But in this revolution, there's no constitution, to transition, no balance of power. Some legacy systems are left from Soviet Union. Basically, it's just a feeding frenzy and opportunists thrive. Two things happen here, and she uses Erich Fromm's book Escape from Freedom as a touchpoint. In his book, Fromm talks about two kinds of freedom - "Freedom from ..." and "Freedom to ...". "Freedom From" is the most basic kind of freedom. Freedom from oppression. Freedom from physical violence. Freedom from physical constraint. Freedom from hunger, etc. Freedom to ... is more complicated - it implies responsibility. It means that you have freedom to go, and choose, and decide. "Freedom To" can be terrifying. Alot of people don't want "Freedom To" - they want their choices made for them. That's why there are charismatic leaders, henchmen, yes-men, cults and gurus to lead them, and of course, totalitarian states. So basically this is what happened. Russia achieved freedom and open-ness, ie glasnost, and everyone's lives increased incrementally while the people at the top grabbed for more and more and more. And even though people could now get cheese and toilet paper and Starbucks and McDonalds hamburgers (who pulled out of Russia because of the invasion of Ukraine, btw) they looked around at the people at the top and particularly at The West and they felt envy and a loss of identity. They had always defined themselves as other and now they were on their own. In steps Putin. He gives them back their identity and takes away their scary freedom - one again, they know who they are. Conservative, not Western, they people that complain about their lives but since they can do nothing about it - once again - they are released from responsibility.
But not everyone. The interesting thing to note in light of current circumstances is how Kyiv & Ukraine came to be the anti-Moscow - the pace where the dissidents and rockers gathered. Those with a rebel attitude. This is explained by the concept of schismogenesis, as defined in The Dawn of Everything - (see review below) - the idea that cultures and people define themselves in reference to neighbors - a sort of nation-state version of sibling rivalry. So, the tighter the repression became in Moscow, the more Kyiv became the anti-Moscow. Which is one dynamic that made this present war inevitable.
The second thing that's just horrifying and I mean I was literally highlighting passages on every page - is the alt-right ideology and propaganda coming out of Russia and particularly Putin's mouth. He told us what he was going to do - and moreover, since the anschluss of Crimea and the invasion Georgia & eastern Ukraine, with every engineered election, his approval ratings go up, even as people's true freedoms and quality of life go down, in terms of food they can buy, places to go, charm and art and all the beautiful choices, little and big that make life as a human being worthwhile.
I'm summarizing here, but as a final point, I'd like to note how jaw-droppingly similar the "conservative" narrative has been in Russia to what we have on the alt-right here - the emphasis on "family values" - the mistrust and despisal of other in the form of gays, people of color. The constant public red-herring dialogue about issues that don't really matter - stuff that's completely made up, ie, in case of Russian, pedophilia, in the case here, the emphasis on "gun rights" and "pro-life" as badge issues, which in the scheme of things, should not be public issues at all. I've got to say it was very eye-opening - and even more terrifying that the foregone conclusion of Russian interference and manipulation in the election - skills that happen to be old hat for them - the state has been creating entire fake political parties in order to put on a show for a sham-election; creating a few fake Twitter feeds and Facebook groups was absolutely no problem at all. Again, the worst thing is the conservative alt right narrative. (frankly Fascist, I don't know what else to call it). it's the same line of BS we have going on here - it's like Trump, and now Le Pen are taking notes. This is how to harness people's hate, insecurities and fear and create a power grab. In the book, they talk about how La Pen's narrative is proving surprisingly effective, when she came in 3rd in a Municipal election! She gave Macron a run for his money in France's most recent Presidential election.
Anyway, Ukraine knew this was coming. They knew they would fight. No surprise on their part. As for the rest of the world, I hope they continue to surprise us - Russia, the U.S. and everyone.