SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Mitt Romney received a lot of ridicule during the 2012 presidential campaign when he said Russia was the No. 1 geopolitical foe of the United States. How many Americans - Democrats and Republicans - would disagree with that now?
Masha Gessen, who is the daughter of Soviet dissidents, one of the founders of the Pink Triangle Campaign in Russia and a respected writer on Russia who now lives in New York, has written a book about what she calls the story of freedom that was not embraced in democracy, that was not desired. Her book is "The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia." Masha Gessen joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
MASHA GESSEN: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Let me begin with a question this blunt. Is Russia and Vladimir Putin trying to cause unrest in the U.S.?
GESSEN: Is he trying to cause unrest in the U.S.? Yes. But, you know, if you are going to - I wouldn't draw the conclusion from it that we know something about collusion during the 2016 presidential campaign.
SIMON: No. But what about the misinformation campaign that we keep discovering more about, hacking, what seems to be just a lot of Russian involvement on a lot of different fronts? Why - what is the Russian interest in causing unrest or consternation in the United States or Western Europe?
GESSEN: Well, actually, I think that causing unrest and consternation is an end in itself. And part of it - part of the goa; is psychological. You know, all of us are interested in seeing our worldviews affirmed. And Russia's worldview - the Russian - the contemporary Russian ideology is that the whole world is rotten. Everybody is corrupt. Everything is for sale. Elections and the United States are just as rigged as they are in Russia. And so sowing the kind of disruption that Russia is sowing first and foremost pursues the goal of affirming that view.
SIMON: Much of your book is devoted to the stories of four Russians who'd hoped that when the Soviet Union came undone, free speech and democracy would take hold. What happened instead?
GESSEN: Well, actually, those four Russians were much too young to hope for anything when the Soviet Union collapsed. They were preschoolers or kindergarteners when the Soviet Union collapsed. But what happened - and I was interested in them because they came of age - you know, they - or they became human beings in the 1990s, a period that is variously portrayed as a flowering of democracy or as a period of chaos and, you know, robber barons and that sort of thing.
And both of those things are true and not true in about equal measure. What happened instead was that Russia didn't embrace democracy. Russia didn't embrace freedom. And that's what I tried to write a book about, which is a difficult task - to try to write a book about absences.
SIMON: I didn't know until reading your book that the Putin regime has incinerated food in a country with a history of famine. Why?
GESSEN: It wasn't extraordinary then. This was a few years ago after Putin had introduced counter-sanctions in response to the Western sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. And the counter-sanctions were very much designed to make Russians feel the brunt of sanctions - right? - because the sanctions that are imposed by the West wouldn't necessarily sort of mobilize the population against the West.
GESSEN: But banning food products from Western countries had an immediate effect. And - but there was also a lot of contraband. And so one of the measures against the contraband was incinerating food once it was exposed as contraband. And it - really it was a display of something that I think inspired terror in a lot of people in a country that has known famine and in a country where a lot of people have feared starvation in living memory.
SIMON: Yeah. We certainly have our own struggles with bigotry in the U.S. But it's hard not to go through your book and not be staggered by the persistence in Russia of anti-Semitism and prejudice against gays. What role does this play?
GESSEN: You know, I actually wouldn't call it prejudice against gays because I think it conveys the sort of impression that it comes from the grassroots, that this is - that the Russian population is homophobic. Not that it isn't. But what we're really talking about is a concerted campaign by the Kremlin over the last five years to single out and target LGBTQI people as, you know, scapegoats in the country, as the chosen other.
SIMON: Towards the end of your book, you use a phrase that chills me, where you say that in Russia today, quote, "life is a foreign agent."
GESSEN: Well, a foreign agent is a reference to one of the key parts of Putin's political crackdown of the last five years, which is, to crack down on civil society, he introduced laws that constrain organizations that receive any foreign funding. And among other things, they have to register as foreign agents, which really makes it difficult for them to function. But toward the end of the book, one of the characters in the book, a psychoanalyst, talks about what she says may be a death drive in Russia. And she sort of, you know, morbidly entertains this idea that, what if we're witnessing the end of a civilization? Somehow countries end - right? And maybe this is one of those things.
SIMON: Masha Gessen - her book "The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia."
Thanks so much for being with us.
GESSEN: Thank you for having me.
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