'Sad And Absurd': The U.S.S.R.'s Disastrous Effort To Create A Jewish Homeland Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen discusses the Soviet effort, in 1929, to create an autonomous Jewish state in the country's far eastern region. Gessen is the author of Where The Jews Aren't.
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'Sad And Absurd': The U.S.S.R.'s Disastrous Effort To Create A Jewish Homeland

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'Sad And Absurd': The U.S.S.R.'s Disastrous Effort To Create A Jewish Homeland

'Sad And Absurd': The U.S.S.R.'s Disastrous Effort To Create A Jewish Homeland

'Sad And Absurd': The U.S.S.R.'s Disastrous Effort To Create A Jewish Homeland

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Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen discusses the Soviet effort, in 1929, to create an autonomous Jewish state in the country's far eastern region. Gessen is the author of Where The Jews Aren't.

Where the Jews Aren't

The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region

by Masha Gessen

Hardcover, 169 pages |

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Where the Jews Aren't
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The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the worst good ideas ever is how my guest, Masha Gessen, describes one of two Jewish states created in the world. The Jewish state that you know about is Israel. The one you probably haven't heard of, the one that Gessen writes about, is called Birobidzhan. It was created after the Bolshevik Revolution as a Jewish Autonomous Region. Jews who moved there had hoped to create a place of safety where Jewish culture and the Yiddish language could thrive. That's not how it worked out.

The history of Birobidzhan is told in Gessen's new book, "Where The Jews Aren't." She's a journalist who's also written books about Vladimir Putin, the Russian punk band Pussy Riot and the Tsarnaev brothers, who bombed the Boston Marathon. Gessen grew up in the Soviet Union deprived of many rights because she's Jewish. She emigrated with her family to the U.S. in 1981, when she was 14. As a journalist, she returned to Moscow. But she had to flee a second time to avoid a law that would've enabled the government to take away her adopted son because she's a lesbian.

Masha Gessen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So just give us the basic outline of - what was Birobidzhan?

MASHA GESSEN: So Birobidzhan was and actually still is nominally one of the two Jewish states in the world, the other one obviously being Israel. But Birobidzhan was formed earlier. It was part of a Soviet experiment. The Soviet Union initially conceived itself as a sort of anti-imperial empire in which every nation had the right to self-determination and to some sort of autonomy. And the Jews, who had before the revolution lived in the Pale of Settlement and had very limited civil rights, were supposed to be emancipated to be like other nations and therefore had to get an autonomy of their own. And so from the Soviet point of view, it was an attempt to make Jews like other ethnic groups living in the Soviet Union.

And so they were granted a piece of land on the Soviet-Chinese border, an impossible piece of land to inhabit and to cultivate. But tens of thousands of Jews moved there at certain times before World War II and then after World War II. And for a few years, very briefly, the official language of this region was Yiddish. So it's probably the only Yiddish-speaking state that has ever existed.

GROSS: And, you know, I think some of the attraction of the idea of Birobidzhan to Soviet Jews was that it would be a place where Yiddish would be the language because as you say, Hebrew was the language in Israel. And there was a lot of fear that Yiddish was dying out. And that fear has been absolutely proven to be true. Yiddish is hardly a functioning language in the world anymore. So that was also really appealing.

GESSEN: Absolutely. And Yiddish - you know, it's fascinating what's happened to Yiddish over the course of the 20th century. And obviously, the fact that 6 million Jews, many of whom were Yiddish-speaking, were killed in the Holocaust contributed to the death of the language. So it's not at the time that people were discussing Birobidzhan and the threat to Yiddish that nobody could've conceived of that. And that's - I mean, that's another thing that interested me in the story of Birobidzhan was that this whole discussion was happening on the eve of a catastrophe that no one could've imagined. And how we understand it is colored by this catastrophe.

But getting back to the subject of Yiddish, there were a number of Yiddish-language writers in what was then the Soviet Union who were very interested in Birobidzhan for that specific reason because Yiddish in their minds had sort of evolved very quickly from a purely spoken language, sort of the household language of the Jews in diaspora, to a literary language, to a language of culture. And it was - at the time, it was a very progressive movement. And there was a lot of interesting experimentation happening in Yiddish literature precisely because it was such a revolutionary act to start writing and creating literature in a language that had been perceived as sort of the language of the household.

I mean, own great-grandmother always referred to Yiddish as the jargon. She was a literary woman. She had grown up speaking Yiddish. But to her, it wasn't a language of literature. It wasn't a language of culture. So that idea in itself was - it sort of was synergetic with the whole pathos of the Bolshevik Revolution and this idea of creating culture out of things that had been disregarded before.

GROSS: So Birobidzhan was granted the status of Jewish Autonomous Region in 1934. And a resolution declared, for the first time in the history of the Jewish people, its burning desires for a homeland for the achievement of its own national statehood has been fulfilled. So this is 1934. So how many Jews go there then, and what's the early settlement like? What were you able to learn about that?

GESSEN: Well, the early settlement was a nightmare because the place wasn't in any way prepared to receive settlers. And I was able to learn about that from reading some of the documents, desperate-sounding reports sent back by local authorities to the center in Moscow basically saying, we're not ready for people. We need buildings. We need roads. Stop sending people - that sort of thing. But people were coming. They were coming because the state was paying for their tickets. They were one-way tickets to Birobidzhan. But also, of course, they were coming because after the revolution, a lot of the Jews had been catastrophically impoverished. They were not particularly wealthy people - most of them - before the revolution, but they all survived by being small businessmen.

And then, of course, when the revolution came and private property was outlawed, they could no longer be craftspeople and other kinds of small businessmen. So basically they were in desperate straits. And they thought that, well, at least in Birobidzhan they would be able to eke out a living, and they accepted these one-way tickets that were given to them. And then they alighted in Birobidzhan, discovered that they had basically no place to live or they could live in these very shoddily built barracks with giant holes in the walls because the logs had been shoddily put together in bitter winter. They also realized that they couldn't practice what they knew how to do and they couldn't cultivate the land.

Many people tried to escape. Most years, about half of the new settlers found a way to get back, to scrape together the money to escape Birobidzhan. A lot of the people who stayed we have to assume stayed because they couldn't get out. Some, of course, were great enthusiasts of Birobidzhan who continued to believe in its mission for decades in spite of everything that happened. And everything that happened included major purges in Birobidzhan in the mid-1930s, so very soon after it was formed.

GROSS: Right, so it's formed in 1934. By 1936, you have Stalinist purges and Jews in Birobidzhan are targeted.

GESSEN: Jews in Birobidzhan are targeted, and they're targeted in this very Soviet way specifically for what they came there for - for nationalism, for promoting the Yiddish language, for what they were told was a good thing just a couple of years earlier.

GROSS: By the government. (Laughter) They were told by the government.

GESSEN: By the government.

GROSS: Yeah.

GESSEN: Exactly. And it was really the first time sort of that the Birobidzhan project, which had barely begun, was aborted. So the project of creating a fully-fledged autonomy within the Soviet Union was at that point stopped, and the promotion of Yiddish culture and language at that point stopped. So it only lasted really a couple of years. And then until World War II, the status of Birobidzhan was sort of unclear. Fewer people were settling there. It was no longer being promoted.

And then after World War II, there was a lot of just really tragic sort of irony in what was happening to Birobidzhan because a lot of Jews who had survived the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, who had escaped Ukraine and Belarus before the Germans came in who wanted to move back to their homes, the state realized that because other people had been living in their apartments and houses for four years, again, there was going to be a major conflict between the returning Jews and the people who had occupied their houses.

I mean, this is not unique to the Soviet Union. The story of Jews who survived coming back to their homes in Europe and finding that they no longer had a home, that happened all over the continent. But in the Soviet Union, again, the '30s, you remember that they have this place called Birobidzhan, and they could send the Jews there. So Jews - many Jews were diverted from returning to their homes and sent to Birobidzhan.

GROSS: Was it meant...

(CROSSTALK)

GROSS: ...Was it mandatory for Jews to go to Birobidzhan, you know, if they didn't have a home, or was this just, like, an option they were given, a free ticket one way to Birobidzhan?

GESSEN: You know, the Soviet Union had extremely limited freedom of movement. So you couldn't exactly just buy a ticket anywhere and go and settle there. The authorities had control over where you could travel and also where you were literally permitted to live. Unless you had a stamp in your passport, your internal passport, that said that you were permitted to live in a particular place, you couldn't reside there.

So I was never able to find any kind of piece of legislation or what might pass for legislation that said we have to send the Jews to Birobidzhan. But it was a very sort of - it was a mass phenomenon that people were turned back. And I have to assume that they were being turned back by local authorities who would not give them permission to resettle where they had been and instead give them tickets to Birobidzhan, so it wasn't exactly voluntary.

GROSS: So how did the Soviet government justify sending Jews to one place? And I'm asking that because in 1934, Birobidzhan is declared a Jewish autonomous region, and it's supposed to be this, you know, idealistic place for Jewish culture to thrive. A couple of years later, there're Stalinist purges. And Stalin considers it kind of anti-Soviet to have this Jewish autonomous region. And then after World War II, it's like, OK, Jews, go to Birobidzhan. So what was, like, the larger, you know, kind of fake ideological reason or was there one?

GESSEN: There wasn't one of the time, not after World War II. I mean, in the great scheme of things that happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin, the great scheme of things that specifically happened to ethnic groups in the wake of World War II, where Stalin had entire populations packed up and moved across the country into permanent exile. And this happened to Crimean Tatars. It happened to Chechens. It that happened to the Ingush. And I could go on and on.

I mean, there were over a dozen different ethnic groups that were deported in their entirety. None of this was public. All of it was always done by secret orders of the Central Committee.

So in that great scheme of things, the movement of some Jews - not even all Jews - from some places to Birobidzhan begins to look almost mild. I mean, it's horrifying and especially from the point of view of Jews who were trying to return to a place of catastrophe, where most of them had families that had been killed because they hadn't been able to escape. You know, it's a mind-boggling, cruel tragedy. But in the context of the Soviet Union 1944, 1946, it was pretty much par for the course.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Masha Gessen. And her new book is called "Where Are The Jews Aren't: The Sad And Absurd Story Of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Masha Gessen. She's the author of the new book "Where The Jews Aren't: The Sad And Absurd Story Of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region." This is about a remote region on the Soviet-Chinese border that was declared a Jewish autonomous region in 1934. So a lot of Jews moved there hoping to start a kind of idealist Jewish culture where Yiddish would be the language. But a couple of years later, the big Stalinist purges started. A lot of Jews in Birobidzhan were targeted. Then after the war, a lot of displaced Jews were given free tickets to go to Birobidzhan, so Birobidzhan kind of started up again.

So Birobidzhan starts up again after World War II. A lot of Jews go there because there's no place else for them. They're given a free ticket by the government. But this experiment was ended again by Stalin shortly after the war...

GESSEN: It gets a little repetitive, doesn't it?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. What happens?

GESSEN: So in the late 1940s, Stalin had his anti-Semitic campaign. And Stalin in 1948, 1949, declared a war on so-called rootless cosmopolitans. Rootless cosmopolitans was code for Jews. Jews stopped being able to get jobs, to get into graduate school. And they were being purged all over the country. And, of course, Birobidzhan had to be targeted because there are Jews there.

And at this point, it was the cultural elite Birobidzhan that was targeted. I write about the poets and writers of Birobidzhan who were arrested. And they were accused of both nationalism and cosmopolitanism. So people in Birobidzhan - a lot of people were arrested, sent to prison for 10 years. They served a little bit less because Stalin ended up dying before their sentences were up. And then the rest of the Jews in Birobidzhan became terrified of being Jewish.

And this is probably the ultimate irony of Birobidzhan is that the people who moved there because they were Jewish or who were sent there because they were Jewish became afraid of talking about being Jewish and became afraid of speaking Yiddish at home or to their children or certainly on public transport because of the anti-Jewish purges that happened in their nominally Jewish state.

GROSS: One of the people whose story you tell in your book is David Bergelson, who was a writer. He wrote in Yiddish, and he supported the idea early on of this Jewish autonomous region. He saw it as a place where literature like his would find an enduring audience and where there would be other fellow Yiddish writers. He wrote a manifesto in support. He wrote two manifestos, I think, in support of...

GESSEN: Yes, yes, yes...

GROSS: ...Birobidzhan. And I don't know how long he actually lived there himself.

GESSEN: He didn't actually live there. He pretended to live there. He had a house there. He didn't spend very much time there. I don't think it was a very nice place to be, although he was very well-received there. Bergelson is a fascinating character. For students of Yiddish literature, he's a major figure. Most other people obviously have never heard of him.

But he was a real survivor, and he survived, as Jews often do, by knowing when to run and where to run to. He managed to survive the Bolshevik Revolution, leave the Soviet Union, move to Germany. He knew enough to escape Germany as early as 1933 and to return to the Soviet Union. And his price of admission back to the Soviet Union was of course, first of all, repenting for all the imagined things that he had done wrong but also promoting Birobidzhan. That was the role to which he was sort of called back to the Soviet Union.

So he was - he was the great pioneer, the great promoter of Birobidzhan, and he wrote articles for the Yiddish-language press outside the Soviet Union to entice Jews to move to Birobidzhan. At least a thousand families from the United States and from Latin America Jewish families went to Birobidzhan to settle it obviously in part because of Bergelson's articles.

GROSS: So in a way, he's kind of performing an act of Soviet propaganda, enticing Jews to move to this remote region that he himself doesn't live in. He is ultimately rewarded for this by Stalin by being executed on his 68th birthday on August 12, 1952. So I don't know if he saw that coming.

GESSEN: Yes. I think he saw that coming. I think that he was extremely smart in avoiding that for as long as possible. He stayed out...

GROSS: In avoiding execution.

GESSEN: Avoiding execution took a lot of art and smarts to avoid execution. I mean, to, you know, for a Jew and a writer and an emigrate to survive in the Soviet Union to his 68th birthday, that's quite a feat. And he wisely stayed out of Birobidzhan as soon as the purges began there in the 1930s. He had a very good sense of when he should keep a low profile and then when he should sort of come out waving the flag of whatever he needed to be waving the flag of. But his art or his luck ran out by the time he was 68, and he was part of Stalin's last execution.

GROSS: So you went to Birobidzhan in 2009, and it's quite a trip. I mean, from Moscow, you had an eight-hour plane ride plus a two-hour train ride. So I can only imagine what it was like before planes were available and you were just taking a train that far. It must've taken days.

GESSEN: It would take at least a week on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to get from Moscow to Birobidzhan.

GROSS: So describe what you saw in Birobidzhan in 2009. Just, like, physically, what does it look like now?

GESSEN: It's kind of an attractive place. It's more attractive than I expected. Parts of it are a sort of shtetl theme park and has these statues of Sholem Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer - of characters from Sholem Aleichem books. It has a giant theater. That's the Birobidzhan Philharmonic. That was supposed to be the home theater of the Jewish chamber theater, which I think performed there once or twice. It was based in Moscow. It's a place that's sort of falsified over and over again. It has - it has a Jewish community center and a synagogue that rarely gets a minyan, you know, a group of 10 men who can - that's...

GROSS: It's like a quorum at a synagogue.

GESSEN: Exactly.

GROSS: So, you know, just in terms of the levels of absurdity in Birobidzhan - so there's basically, as you described it, like a shtetl theme park. Are there any Jews living there?

GESSEN: It's about 200,000 people and about a thousand - 600 of them are Jews.

GROSS: Right. So one of every 200,000, so it's no longer an autonomous Jewish homeland by any stretch.

GESSEN: It was never - it never had a majority Jewish population, but it had a significant Jewish minority and it no longer even has that. But it does have sort of Jewish folk - a Jewish folk ensemble for schoolchildren, many of whom aren't Jewish.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Masha Gessen. Her new book is called "Where The Jews Aren't." After a short break, we'll talk more about Birobidzhan. She'll tell us about fleeing Russia twice - once because of anti-Semitism, once because of anti-gay laws. And we'll talk about Putin and Trump. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Masha Gessen. Her new book, "Where The Jews Aren't," is about the Jewish state you probably have not heard of, Birobidzhan. It was founded in the 1930s after the Soviet Union set aside a remote area, designating it a Jewish autonomous region. The Jews who moved there hoped it would be a safe place for Jewish people, Jewish culture and the Yiddish language to thrive. But it did not work out that way.

Gessen grew up in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was 14 because of anti-Semitism. One of her earlier books is about the rise of Vladimir Putin. Let's get back to our conversation about Birobidzhan.

What's life like now in Birobidzhan?

GESSEN: It's a Russian city on the Chinese border. Most of its trade is with China. It's very much oriented toward China, increasingly oriented economically and culturally toward China much more than Moscow. Moscow's inaccessible and very, very far away. Nominally it's still the Jewish autonomous region, so its Jewish identity pops up in really bizarre ways.

I spent several days looking for Jewish food in Birobidzhan. So first, someone told me that I should go to this Chinese restaurant and ask for the Jewish menu, so I went to the - (laughter) - I went to the Chinese restaurant, asked for the Jewish menu, they said, well, we've discontinued it because there was no demand. And then I went to another restaurant and it's menu contain the Birobidzhaner schnitzel. So I ordered the Birobidzhaner schnitzel, which turned out to be pork. And...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GESSEN: So they try because - because there's some Jewish tourism. Obviously, it's a very hard place to get to. But every so often somebody comes to Birobidzhan looking for something Jewish. So they try to accommodate.

GROSS: Did your personal story of leaving the Soviet Union inspire you to write about the story about the Jews who left their homes for this Jewish autonomous region, Birobidzhan?

GESSEN: Yes. I think that that's - that's what made me fascinated with Birobidzhan in the first place was this idea of Birobidzhan as an ideal place of escape from the dangers of an anti-Jewish world. And by the time my family decided to leave the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and we finally got out in 1981, Birobidzhan was not an option. Birobidzhan was sort of a joke, a thing of absurdity.

But I've always remembered it as an adult. And when I had an opportunity to write a book for the Jewish Encounters Series, which is what this is, I held, well, this was the Jewish topic that has consistently interested me throughout my life. And it has interested me because I've spent most of my life as an exile of some sort or another.

GROSS: You know, one of the themes of your book is how do you know when it's time to leave, and how do you know where to go? How do you know that the place that you've chosen is going to be a safe place? So that's something your family had to deal with when you were in your early teens. How did your parents know that it was time to leave?

GESSEN: Yeah, so that's been an object of my obsession for years. What is your responsibility to yourself, to your children, to your people to keep yourself safe and to keep your family safe? My parents decided to leave largely because they were raising children. And in the Soviet Union, being Jewish meant - we never had a Jewish identity - sort of a positive Jewish identity.

Basically, being Jewish meant that you could not hold certain jobs, you could not get into university - or a good university. You could not get into certain schools. You would get beaten up at school, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So my parents, who had been deeply traumatized by their own experience of entering the adult world and being turned away by universities explicitly for being Jewish - I think that they sort of looked at me and my younger brother - I remember them looking at us with sort of fear and perceiving our ambition - especially my ambition, I was older - with fear because they knew what kind of barriers we were going to bump up against as soon as we became older.

GROSS: So you write that your sense of yourself as Jewish was just, like, negative. It was only - it was defined solely by the things you weren't allowed to do and defined by the fact that you got beaten up all the time when you were in school. When you moved to America and over the years that you live there and now that you live there again, did your sense of being Jewish change at all?

GESSEN: I think it's always changing, and I think that part of becoming a real grown-up for me has involved coming to terms with the fact that my sense of being Jewish is always changing. - but as a very young person, I went through the same experience again that many - many other Russian Jews went through, which is that I - we landed in the United States, and we were greeted by American Jews who had formed this incredible movement.

It was really - it was really remarkable what American Jews had in fact been able to do for Soviet Jews to secure their right to immigrate. And the premise of that movement, the movement of Soviet Jewry in the United States, was that Soviet Jews weren't allowed to practice their Judaism. And they had to be given the right to emigrate either to Israel or to the United States, where they were free to be Jews.

Now, as far as we were concerned, we wanted a place where we were free not to be Jews because being Jewish was all about not being allowed to do things and not being like other people in bad ways. We had no Jewish culture that we grew up with. We had no language. We had no literature. We had no religious tradition. So all it was was what you weren't. And there was - there were many disappointed activists of this movement for Soviet Jewry in the United States who tried to mentor Jewish emigres from the Soviet Union only to discover that the Jewish emigres from the Soviet Union wanted to forget about being Jewish as soon as possible.

GROSS: One of the themes of your book and of your life is how do you know when it's time to leave your home because you're being persecuted and how do you know where there will be a safe place to go? And you face that question a second time as an adult and as a parent just a few years ago when you were living in Russia. And you and your partner - you're lesbians - were possibly threatened with having your children taken

GESSEN: away from you 'cause it looked like Russia was about to pass a law mandating that gay people could not be parents. So you got to the United States, where you've been living since when? Almost three years.

GROSS: So what ever happened with that law? Was it passed?

GESSEN: Well, we were targeted by a couple of things. There was one law that would've allowed the authorities to remove biological children from same-sex families. That law was never passed. It's still pending in the parliament. There's another law that bans adoption by same-sex couples and that can be applied retroactively, and that was passed in June 2013. Our oldest son is adopted, so we actually had to get him out of the country within days of the passage of that law, before it went into effect.

And part of the reason we were so panicked was that there had been an article in the largest newspaper in the country that mentioned our family by name and mentioned the fact that we have an adopted son. I didn't think that there was a huge risk that my children were going to be taken away. I - two of our kids are American citizens. Our oldest son, who's adopted, is an American citizen. I had alerted the embassy. But - so I thought that we had minimized the risks.

But the idea that my children could be confronted by authorities, that there was any risk at all, that idea was intolerable. And it was an interesting thing to experience because I generally have a pretty high tolerance for risk. I mean, I've - I was an opposition journalist in Russia for more than a dozen years. I've been the object of death threats on daily - on a daily basis for years and years and years. And somehow, that just sort of rolled off me. The moment I felt that my children could be threatened, that made me feel so helpless and so terrified that we had to get out.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Masha Gessen. Her new book is called "Where The Jews Aren't: The Sad And Absurd Story Of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region." Let's take a short break, and then we'll be back and we'll talk about Trump and Putin. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Masha Gessen. Her new book is called "Where The Jews Aren't: The Sad And Absurd Story Of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region." She grew up in the Soviet Union, moved with her parents to the U.S. in 1981, when she was 14, because Jews were then allowed to leave - or at least some Jews were. She moved back to Russia as a journalist and wrote for the Russian press and for the American press. She wrote a book about Vladimir Putin.

So there's been a lot of discussion during this campaign about Trump's connections to Putin. He has spoken highly of Putin. His former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, had worked with Viktor Yanukovych, who was the Putin-supported strongman of the Ukraine. You've written that you don't think that Trump is a Putin creation, but you're very worried about Donald Trump. What are some of your concerns?

GESSEN: I've actually just - I'm finishing this book - the book about Birobidzhan has just come out, but obviously that means that I've spent the last year working on an entirely different book. And the book that I've been working on is a book about totalitarianism and totalitarian societies and how that plays out in contemporary Russia. But that also has meant that I've been - I've spent a lot of time thinking and reading what great thinkers, great European thinkers, had to say about the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and '40s. And the things that they describe have a lot of relevance to what is happening today in the United States.

But one basic premise that a lot of great European thinkers were trying to get across in the 1940s and '50s was that modern industrialized society creates the preconditions for a fascist populist movement. Trump is leading a populist movement that has the potential to become a fascist movement. And he has all the earmarks of a fascist movement. It's the nativist idea, the - this idea of the great nation, its obsession with a non-existent greatness of the past. These are all hallmarks of a fascist movement.

GROSS: Do you consider demonizing specific populations as a characteristic of fascism?

GESSEN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the sort of othering certain populations, appealing to this sense of being under siege and being targeted, being endangered by other people, including people who weren't even perceived as other until the leaders started talking about them as other. That is also classic.

GROSS: When you hear about mass deportations, what do you think about? And I ask you that because you just wrote a book about, you know, autonomous regions that are part, like, opportunity to move and in part kind of deportation. And there were so many mass deportations in the Soviet Union.

GESSEN: It gives me the chills. I think that, again, this is like a whole other beast. Donald Trump, who claims at this point an imaginary right, but still claims this right to decide the fate of entire people who, the moment he sort of claims that right, stop being perceived as human. That - we saw a lot of that in the 20th century. And for the most part, we didn't see it in democratic countries, on the part of democratic leaders.

GROSS: Russia is implicated in the WikiLeaks documents that printed things from a DNC hack, Democratic National Committee hack. And there's this assumption that Russia is perhaps trying to sway the election toward Donald Trump. Also offered as evidence of that by some people is that it seems to be Russians who hacked two State Board of Elections - their websites. So I'm wondering what your take on that is. Do you think that Russians are behind those hacks and that that means Russians are trying to manipulate the election?

GESSEN: I think that manipulating the election is an inaccurate and too strong a term. I think Russians are trying to disrupt the democratic process, not just in the United States but all over the western world. And that's been a very important Russian strategy. It's not a coordinated strategy, and that's why I would stay away from the word manipulate. Russia has several agencies that are engaged in cyberwarfare. Russia has made cyberwarfare and cyber disruption a major part of its relationship with the outside world since at least the mid-2000s.

One of the biggest things that Russia did in 2007 was basically shut down the Estonian government for three or four days by using an army of hacks. And so we know that Russians do this. We know that Russians - I mean, the - it seems that the hacks into the DNC have been traced back to Russian intelligence agencies as definitively as anything like that can be traced back. But note that those hacks were carried out by two different intelligence agencies that apparently weren't aware of each other, which points to how not a concerted effort it is.

And also this happened last spring, so before Donald Trump was the Republican nominee and before actually most people took it serious - took the prospect of his becoming a nominee very seriously. So, again, this points to Russia as a disruptive force, which is dangerous and scary and effective as a disruption but not to Russia as the force that stands behind Donald Trump.

GROSS: Anything you want to add about the current election that you feel like you are seeing from a different angle than others?

GESSEN: Well, I think maybe the thing that we didn't talk about - and I don't know if this is - I'm sure I'm not the only person to have this brilliant idea - but, you know, we talked about what happens if Trump gets elected. But I think we haven't talked about what happens if Trump doesn't get elected.

GROSS: Want to answer the question you just asked?

(LAUGHTER)

GESSEN: Sure. So I think that, yeah, this is something that I've seen a little bit of talk about but, to my mind, not enough. According to the polls in the best case scenario, Hillary Clinton wins the election definitively with Trump getting a mere 40 percent of the vote. That's 40 percent of American voters who have gone to the polls to vote for Donald Trump. That's 40 percent of American voters who feel completely shut out of the democratic process in this country, feel completely alienated from the society in which they are living.

And I think we have to think about what a scary prospect that is, that huge number of people who feel not only alienated but if Donald Trump loses - which I hope he does - who feel also defeated. I think that the damage to the fabric of society that this election will have done is not going to be mended once Hillary Clinton hopefully wins the presidency. The damage is going to be staring us in the face, and we really have to - again, that's another argument for why it's so important to look at what has led to the rise of Donald Trump in this country rather than to look at his potential ties to Putin.

GROSS: Masha Gessen, thank you so much for talking with us.

GESSEN: Thank you.

GROSS: Masha Gessen's new book is called "Where The Jews Aren't." Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a newly released 1980 concert recording by the late Don Cherry. This is FRESH AIR.

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