Between the two of them, the siblings Masha and Keith Gessen have written more than a dozen books and more than a thousand articles. Both live in New York. Both combine teaching and writing, often for this magazine, where Masha is a staff writer. Keith’s most recent book is a novel set in Russia, called “A Terrible Country”; Masha’s most recent book is also about Russia, a work of nonfiction called “The Future Is History.” The Gessen siblings often have differing views on their native country; at last year’s New Yorker Festival, in a rare joint public appearance, they interviewed each other about Russia, writing about Russia in a strange moment in Russian-American relations, and about emigration and growing up with the same set of parents in two different countries.
Keith Gessen: In late 2013, because of various unpleasant developments in Russia, you moved from Moscow to New York, after being away from the U.S. for twenty years. What was that like?
Masha Gessen: You and I both came to this country as kids, but I was fourteen and you were six. I do a very good impersonation of an American—I went to high school here—but I’ve spent most of my life in Russia. So, in 2013, it was an emigration for me, but it was also a kind of homecoming. The bizarre thing was that it was an emigration for the rest of my family, and especially for my teen-age kids.
The most difficult and, in some ways, the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been through was emigrating as a teen-ager. Now I was watching my teen-age children—who were fifteen and twelve at the time—go through that shock.
I think that when you emigrate, when everything you took for granted disappears, it’s a kind of loss of innocence. When you’re a kid, the world as you know it is just there. Suddenly, you emigrate and that’s no longer the case. It’s a break in reality that parachutes you into adulthood.
When you went back to Russia, in the early nineties, you were working for Russian publications. You were publishing books and articles in the U.S., but your day job was as a Russian-language journalist. And now you’ve moved back to the States and become primarily an English-language journalist, but still writing quite a bit about Russia. What has that been like?
For a lot of Russian opposition journalists, the last twenty years have been an experience of continuously being more and more marginalized, and, for a lot of people, it has ended with just giving up the profession. And I’ve had the luxury of coming here and coming to work at The New Yorker and having people read and respond mostly positively. I’m hardly getting any death threats. It’s lovely.
Has being here and writing about Russia changed your perspective in terms of what Americans need to know and need to hear?
I’ve been here for just under five years, and it’s been a very strange five years for how Russia is perceived in this country. So I have found myself with changes in bearings in who I feel allied with and how I see Russia.
You find yourself in the somewhat curious position of having been a person who was writing about Putin, and warning about Putin, for a long time, but now saying, “Hey, relax. He’s not actually so scary.” Sometimes I go on Twitter and see people calling you a paid propagandist for Putin.
It’s kind of amazing. And they say that because you have been skeptical about the significance of the Russian interference in the 2016 election.
They do. Let me ask you some questions. You’ve been reporting on Russia almost as long as I have, but you sort of parachute in and out, and I think you have that luxury of seeing the story from a remove much more often than I do. Do you ever feel a deficit, or do you only feel the luxury?
I have kind of fresh American eyes, right. In “A Terrible Country,” I wanted to communicate the experience of coming to Russia and having certain expectations from reading the news about the “bloody regime,” and then showing up and finding it doesn’t look at all like what you expected, and the bloody regime is a much more complicated and amorphous entity. Certainly, in the period described in the book, 2008 to 2009, it wasn’t dragging all that many people off in the middle of the night.
It doesn’t take that many people being dragged off to create a sense of terror, especially in a country that is used to terror. But, yes, regarding the question you were asking me earlier, about the personification of the Russian threat—in a way, I was one of the originators of that narrative, when I wrote a book about Putin, and now I find myself in the very strange position of saying, “Come on, he’s not that kind of monster. He is a different kind of monster, but not the kind of monster who has masterminded the takeover of the entire Western world.” He doesn’t have the mind for that kind of masterminding, among other things.
Do you feel partly responsible for this narrative?
Yes, a bit. But with journalism, or any kind of writing, there’s a very fine balance—there’s sort of a facile way of saying “We can’t think about the consequences of what we write at all,” which is wrong, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. It is so impossible to predict how much influence what you write will have, and what sorts of anxieties and imaginaries it will tap into.
You wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, in which you posit a kind of dichotomy in how people think about Russian-American relations. Some people think that everything that has gone wrong over the last twenty-five years was attributable to Russia and its intransigence. And then there are those who think that it was bad American policy and American failure to move past the Cold War narrative. And I think this split almost perfectly describes the stories that I have been writing versus the stories that you’ve been writing.
You mean, I am more likely to blame the U.S.?
Right. I think, as an American citizen, I look first to what my country has done to contribute to the problems of the world.
Do you ever worry that that actually overestimates American agency, that it’s a kind of a backhanded imperialist position?
Yes and no. I think you have to be careful. The article traced American policy toward Russia in the post–Cold War era, through the people who were inside the government running Russia policy.
The article began because I had watched Obama seem to really want to deëscalate tensions with Russia, to really deëmphasize Russia in general, which struck me as objectively correct as a policy. Russia is a troubled country that is declining, unlike its neighbor to the east, China, which is not declining.
And yet, under Obama, you get the Ukraine crisis and, eventually, the hacking of the Democrats. And I wondered, Why did that happen? Is there a deep state? Which, when I started working on this, I had not yet come across as an idea in right-wing discourse. And the partial answer is yes. Throughout the post–Cold War era, Presidents come and go, but there is a small core of policymakers that moves between the State Department and the National Security Council that has very strong views about Russia. And they’re quite convincing about why Russia is a threat, Russia has always been a threat, Russia will always be a threat.
Some of these people were at the center of debates over NATO and whether it should be expanded, in the early nineties, and their position was we have this historic opportunity to push the sort of “zone of stability,” as they called it, closer to the borders of Russia. Because eventually Russia will come back and threaten its neighbors—which, you could say, has been proved correct, or you can say this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the end, my position is that you have to look at what the U.S. has done. If the U.S. had had a very different policy, would we have had a totally different result? I don’t know.
Both of our grandmothers and our mom were translators, and I remember one of our grandmothers told me once that translating was like an addiction. She got this high from translating. You’ve translated a couple of books. Do you get that high from translating?
I consider translation a misery and a hell, but I have periodically come across writers who just don’t seem to have an analogue in English. In my view, things get worse in translation. Certainly in my translation. You subtract twenty per cent of quality from the original, so the original has to be really good in the Russian to turn it into something pretty good in English. There are a few writers that I’ve encountered where I thought, I really want my friends to read this, and n+1 has often been a vehicle for that. It was where we first published Ludmilla Petrushevskaya in English, for instance.
What was it about Petrushevskaya in particular?
Well, one thing is our mother loved Petrushevskaya. Our dad has a little archive, in the basement, of our mother’s old magazines, where she had published literary essays in the émigré press. Periodically, when I’m visiting Dad, I go down there and I flip through those to get reading suggestions. And our mom was one of the first people to write about Petrushevskaya, as far as I know, back in the nineteen-eighties, because Petrushevskaya had largely been banned in the Soviet era.
So there was that sort of personal connection. It struck me also that Petrushevskaya was the rare writer whose work didn’t need to change very much between the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. She was writing about these miserable families, mothers and daughters who just can’t get along, husbands and wives who hate each other, under the Soviets. She changed a few details, but it’s the same domestic situation. I found that really compelling, too.
You want to talk about our parents?
Some of your recent work has been reflecting on immigration. I loved your short piece about the TV series “The Americans,” which imagined what it would have been like for the protagonists to go back to Russia in 1987, and also thinking about the idea of our own parents going back to visit in 1987.
It led me to think about how much more you know about our parents than I do. Our parents were in their mid- to late thirties when we immigrated, and I grew up thinking, Well, basically, their lives are over, and so the only possible reason they could’ve emigrated was for us. What was it like from your perspective?
I remember, during the interminable period when we were waiting for permission to leave, there was one dinner party with other people who were in that strange liminal state, and one of the men there asked one of my parents, “Why are you planning to emigrate?” And this man’s wife said, “Why are you asking that stupid question?” and pointed to you and pointed to me. That’s the only reason that people would leave.
But, to our parents’ credit, I don’t think they ever said a word about doing it for us, and I actually don’t think they conceived it that way. I think that for them it was very important not to see us go through the experience of applying to university and experiencing what they did, which was explicit discrimination against Jews.
It’s one thing to know about injustice and unfairness. It’s another thing to come face to face with it and have it be completely unabashed. I think for both of them it was a formative experience, and they didn’t want to see us go through that. But mostly, I think, they thought they were doing it for themselves. They were in their mid-thirties. They had their entire lives ahead of them.
I’ve thought about what kind of courage it would’ve taken. I remember we had a friend who kept saying, “How do you know for a fact that the West exists? Have you seen any material evidence of the existence of the West?” We had not seen any material evidence of the existence of the West. And so they stepped into the abyss. Our mom died a long time ago, but our dad always says, “We thought of it as a great adventure.”
I had Russian parents in Russia. But you had immigrant parents in the United States. That must’ve been a terrible experience.
Well, I certainly experienced them as highly competent and quite impressive people in the domestic sphere, but often slightly helpless outside of our home, navigating the supermarket and the deli counter . . .
They never learned to navigate the supermarket?
Our mom was a great reader, but she was quite sensitive to the fact that her English was not great. So I did feel somewhat protective of them, and—a word that reflects less well on me—embarrassed, by their occasional helplessness.
What were they like as Russian parents in Russia?
Well, I think that’s one of the differences between emigrating and not emigrating—you just don’t think about your parents. They just are, and your place in the world just is, and I think, even as little as you were when we came here, you still had experienced enough to know that none of this is just the way things are. It’s not just that you have immigrant parents and other kids don’t have immigrant parents. It’s that there is a plurality of possibilities in the world.
There was an amazing fact I learned in one of your pieces, which is that our grandmother, Baba Ruzya, had to keep up the fiction that you were still in Russia.
Yes. Our grandmother was married to a nuclear physicist, and she was afraid that, if anybody found out that her daughter had emigrated, her husband would have problems in his job world. So she maintained this very long and elaborate fiction about my life in the Soviet Union, because I had friends in this town where she lived. They would ask her how I was, and so she had me living this embarrassingly ordinary life. She had me fail to get into college. I would have thought she would have greater ambition for me—send me into space or something.
But that story gives such a lie to this idea of the omnipresent state and the all-knowing secret police. I mean, she thought that if she just didn’t tell people that we went to America then nobody would know, and it appears she was right.
When I lived with our grandmother in Moscow a decade ago, when she was already going through dementia and forgetting things, she would have these phone conversations with her friends about me where she clearly couldn’t quite remember what I actually did, and so she would make stuff up. She would say, “He lives in California, and his life hasn’t quite worked out.” So it wasn’t just you.
You spent a year living with our grandmother, and wrote a book that is loosely based on that year. You originally set out to write something fairly different. Can you talk about that?
It’s a story about a guy, a loser, who goes to Moscow to take care of his grandmother, at the request of his swashbuckling, entrepreneurial older brother—who is not based on Masha—and he has this fantasy that she’s going to tell him stories about socialism, and he will write these stories down, and then it will help him get an academic job. And then he shows up and she can’t remember who he is, much less what Stalinist Russia was like.
Initially, I wanted to pack in everything that I had learned about Russian history and literature. So it was this story of him and his grandmother, and then there would be this twenty-page essay on the history of the Russian oil business, or the history of Soviet hockey. But then I finished a draft and I read it, and it was horrible.
Why was it horrible?
It was just really boring. I think if you have a dramatic story, like “Moby-Dick,” then you can get away with interspersing long essays about whaling and science, although people skip those anyway. But, if you have a story about a guy who is living with his grandmother, and they have arguments about how long to boil the kasha . . .
And the question is, is he going to learn to cook or not?
Yes. Then you can’t really get away with a digression that lasts twenty pages. What I realized, a few years into the process, was that the grandmother needed to be a central figure, not just as domestic background. Her life needed to make the central argument about what had happened after the Soviet Union fell apart.
Our grandmother hated the Soviet Union, and she was delighted when the Soviet Union collapsed. And then she lost her life savings, the town in which she lived fell apart, the research institute where her husband worked fell apart. She lost her sense of self in the world, I think.
It struck me that that story made a pretty good case for the post-Soviet transition being not so great and, in fact, including a great many victims. Once I made the grandmother a more central character, the book became better.
Talk about how you fictionalized our grandmother’s story. Why is this a novel and not nonfiction? I ask this as someone who has written a book about our grandmothers that’s a nonfiction book.
I think the grandmother part could have been written as nonfiction. It was the other characters who needed to be fictionalized in order to make sense.
One thing that I’ve thought about a lot in terms of the nonfiction-fiction question is that the most powerful memories of living with our grandmother were these very repetitive conversations. She would become worried about how much money she had in the bank, and there would be this whole saga about changing it to dollars from rubles, because she had heard that the ruble was collapsing. And going around from store to store along Sretenka—that stinky basement store with the cheese, and then going to the “market” with the six kiosks.
Some of your books are political books, but certainly a book like “The Future Is History” is really about people’s lives and their deepest hopes and emotions. And yet it does strike me that it’s hard to get that quotidian kind of grocery-shopping stuff into a nonfiction narrative.
I wonder if that’s a question of convention more than anything else. Is there an actual reason not to get the grocery shopping into a nonfiction narrative? There are all sorts of ideas about the scale of things in a nonfiction book, and that’s something I try to renegotiate in “The Future Is History,” where I actually try to focus either on things that are very, very small or on things that are really huge, big ideas about Russia, and not to focus on things that are in the middle, which is the subject of most nonfiction books.
But you’re right, I think, that there is—there is grainier detail in a novel like the one you wrote, combined with that aspect of zooming out and doing the war chapters of “War and Peace.”
You wrote a piece called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” It was written directly after the [2016 U.S. Presidential] election, very much in the heat of the moment. But I wanted to revisit that, and see how much you still think holds, and where you were wrong and right. You wrote, for instance, that the first rule for surviving an autocracy is “believe the autocrat.” When he says he is going to do something nasty, chances are he will. So when he says “Lock her up,” he’s going to lock her up.
That hasn’t happened yet . . .
It hasn’t happened.
What do you think that means?
It means that journalists should never make predictions, is what it means.
The way that piece happened—I’d been to a disastrous Election Night party, and kind of crawled away without saying goodbye. When I was on my way home, biking from Queens, I started getting phone calls and e-mails from people, saying, “What do we do now?” I was, like, “How should I know?”
It was a long bike ride, and I was thinking that there are actually things that I learned from living in a country that was creating an autocracy. I think I learned about how you survive mentally and spiritually in that. So, I thought, I will write an essay about that.
The basic rule—believe the autocrat—I completely stand by. What I was trying to get across was something that I had learned in the process of reporting my Putin book. I went back and listened to his interviews and his press conferences—and, fortunately, the man has such a small public presence that it was possible to listen to everything he had said and study it in some detail.
When I did that, I realized that he said exactly what he was planning to do. But people both in Russia and in this country had ideas about what he represented that had nothing to do with what he was putting forward and at the time.
In the U.S. at the time of the election, we were already starting to hear how Trump was going to become “Presidential,” that he was going to be transformed by the office. So my message was believe the autocrat. What he said he’s going to do—he’s going to do it.
At the time, it seemed completely unbelievable that he actually wanted to build the wall. People kept saying, “Oh, that’s bluster. He is just saying that.” I wish I had focussed on the wall more than on “Lock her up.”
Another rule is institutions will not save you. Do you think they’ve held up better than you had expected?
I don’t. I think the damage has been profound, and is perhaps more profound than I thought it would be in the first two years. The Kavanaugh confirmation is an illustration. Now here’s the great institution of the Supreme Court that just stands, I think, exposed, with the curtain pulled back in a way that a couple of years ago I don’t think we could have imagined. It is shocking.
What do you say to the argument that the real norm-breaking there was the refusal to seat Merrick Garland, or even to discuss Merrick Garland, by Mitch McConnell? That predates Trump.
Yes, Trump didn’t come from outer space. He did not actually come from Russia.
Trump has built on a lot of what has been happening here, and there are many ways to tell the story. I would argue for telling the story starting with 9/11. You can start it earlier. You can, with some difficulty, start it later. But, yes, Trumpism is a leap, but is a leap from a running start.
This is a silly way of phrasing it, and yet I’m going to. Who is worse, Trump or Putin?
I suggest we both answer that.
I’ll go first. From my perspective, Trump is worse. Putin, for all his mistakes and crimes, very much represents, I think, the middle of the Russian political spectrum, though I know it’s hard to gauge what exactly the Russian political spectrum is. But I keep going back to the state of Russian politics in the late nineties, when Putin was elected. The other candidates did not present a liberal alternative to what we eventually got.
Whereas Trump is a fringe figure who’s really pulled American politics quite a bit to the right. In that sense, in the context of the political regimes that they’ve come from, Trump strikes me as worse.
I’ll phrase it a little bit differently, but, fundamentally, I agree. I think that Putin represents the crushing of the hopes for a different Russia. Trump represents a betrayal of the abstract ideals on which this country was founded.
The entire time I lived in Russia, even as Russia started going to hell, I imagined that there was a place in the world that represented an entirely different set of ideals, and I talked to my kids about it. I was so happy that we happened to be here for the Presidential election in 2008. I went with them to the polls, and there was that moment of feeling like this country was better than even it thought it was. And that was just ten years ago. That, to me, feels like a much greater loss.