MillerComm Lecture Series: Masha Gessen, “Retrofitting Totalitarianism in Putin’s Russia”

Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen

Journalist, author, and activist Masha Gessen spoke to a packed audience at Knight Auditorium on October 25, 2016, discussing her current work on contemporary Russia in a MillerComm lecture entitled “Retrofitting Totalitarianism in Putin’s Russia.” Combining her deep knowledge of contemporary Russian society and politics with an analytical frame of totalitarianism, Gessen eloquently argued that in Russia, the state and society are in two different modes. The state is in what Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar has referred to as a post-communist mafia state: it’s run like a family by a patriarch who distributes money, power, and favors, and one cannot enter the family unless invited, “adopted,” and cannot leave the family voluntarily. Society, according to Gessen, is in a period of “recurrent totalitarianism” (with the original referent as the Soviet state under Stalin). “Like a recurrent typhoid fever… It’s not quite as lethal, but the symptoms are exactly the same.”  In contemporary Russia, recurrent totalitarianism is fueled by “the memory of the memory of terror.”  As Gessen stated, “It’s not that people say they like Putin because they’re afraid of the consequences if they speak their true opinion…. They’re telling the truth.” A product of totalitarianism, according to Arendt, is that it robs people of the ability to form opinions.  As a consequence, there is doublethink in society: Putin’s popularity rating increased to 82% since the invasion of Crimea, yet Russians’ sense of economic well-being has decreased. In a normal society, those two lines would have to intersect, Gessen argued, but not in a totalitarian society and not in contemporary Russia.

In the last two decades, Gessen has emerged as a unique voice in American media, providing astute insight into Russian society and politics, and standing firm in her critical analysis of Putin and contemporary Russian politics. The power of her work, however, is not just in her ability to elucidate Russian politics and society for American readers, but in the global trends and concerns that she unpacks with singular clarity. Her MillerComm talk was classic Masha Gessen – combining perceptive analysis with sharp wit, and a devastating frankness about the social and political troubles of our times.

While visiting the University of Illinois, Gessen also visited classrooms and participated in a public conversation with Christopher Benson, professor of Journalism and African American Studies. Gessen and Benson discussed the changing environment of journalism today; the ways that global social media shapes narratives of geopolitics; the payoffs and perils of being a critic as well as a reporter of the news; and the challenges of keeping up with the 24-7 news cycle. The event was hosted by IPRH.

MillerComm lecture hosted by: The Program in Jewish Culture & Society/ Krouse Family Visiting Scholars in Judaism and Western Culture Fund and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center; in conjunction with: Center for Global Studies, Cline Center for Democracy, Department of Anthropology, Department of English, Department of Gender & Women’s Studies, Department of History, Department of Journalism, Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures, Department of Sociology, Hillel, Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trangender Resource Center, Program in Comparative & World Literature, Spurlock Museum, Women & Gender in Global Perspectives Program.

Dr. Maureen Marshall is the Associate Director for REEEC. She earned her PhD at the University of Chicago in Anthropology in 2014 with a thesis on “Subject(ed) Bodies: A Bioarchaeological Investigation of Lived Experiences and Mobile Practices in Late Bronze-Early Iron Age (1500-800 B.C.) Armenia.” Her research focuses on the bioarchaeology of early complex polities and empires in the South Caucasus and Eurasia. She is also the Associate Director of Project ArAGATS, the joint American-Armenian project for the Archaeology and Geography for Ancient Transcaucasian Societies.

Contributions by Matthew McWilliams, a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year for the study of Russian. 

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