Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Masha Gessen: The Decline of Democratic Values in Russia is a Warning to the World

by Nomad

Never heard of Masha Gessen?

This Russian-American journalist has an important message for liberal democracies around the world.
Examine what happened in Russia and never think it can't happen in your own country.

A Touch of Irony in St. Petersburg

The other day I was reading the headlines in The Moscow Times and I saw an item that seemed to come straight from the days of the Soviet Empire. That was a time when the Kremlin attempted to muzzle writers and suppress their works.

Reportedly, customs officials in St. Petersburg stopped a best-selling book (ordered through Amazon) entry. It would, it was explained, require that the buyer, human rights lawyer Sergei Golubok, provide a written assurance that the material was not extremist in nature.

On the surface, this would seem to be just a bureaucratic nuisance but it could also be the first step in possible prosecution. Once your name is on the document, it can be used against you in a court and the prosecutor will decide whether the book is extreme or not.

The book in question was Masha Gessen's "The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia."
Ironic, huh?

Anti-Extremism Laws: A Useful Tool

From 2011 to 2017, the Russian government began implementing new anti-extremist and anti-terrorist legislation. The aim was to curtail the threat of ISIS propaganda. However, the government left a kind of backdoor for itself: the exact definition of what was and what was not extremist. That vagueness and inconsistency of the laws allowed the state prosecutors free reign to file charges at their own discretion.

The laws also expanded the censorship of online dissemination of information, such as social media, websites, and blogs. The same legislation has been used to promote religious intolerance inside Russia. That's in direct conflict with the 1992 Russian constitution which provides for freedom of religion and for freedom of expression.

A 2017 study by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, reported:
Vague and problematic definitions of “extremism” in Russian law give the authorities wide latitude to interfere in peaceful religious observance and perse­cute believers.

Although many of these legal tools have existed for a decade, the Russian government has only recently begun to wield them in sustained campaigns designed to punish or exclude “non-traditional” reli­gions and religious movements, sometimes in concert with the wishes of the Russian Orthodox Church, which functions as a de facto state church.
However, the overly broad laws also give rise to a gamut of absurd and con­tradictory prohibitions and prosecutions that demon­strate the fundamental ambiguity of the government’s official definition of extremism.
Predictably, the laws have been used to strengthen Putin's ruling party's control over free expression and access to dissenting views. And in turn, to aid in Putin's anti-democratic agenda.

Who is Masha Gessen?

Given what we have seen in Russia, nothing should surprise me. But it did lead me to wonder who the heck is this Masha Gessen?
 And perhaps, more importantly, why would authorities be so intent on keeping her books out of the hands of Russian citizens?

In many ways, Moscow-born Gessen is the Russian version of Rachel Maddow. A journalist, the author of ten books, "Russia's leading LGBT rights activist," ("probably the only publicly out gay person in the whole country"). Gessen is, above all else, an outspoken critic of Russian leader Putin.

In 2012, she penned the national bestseller called The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. In her book, she writes about Putin's rise to the unassailable power.
“Possibly the most bizarre fact about Putin’s ascent to power is that the people who lifted him to the throne knew little more about him than you do. . . . Everyone could invest this gray, ordinary man with what they wanted to see in him.”
This nondescript little man was a former KGB operative who in the messy Yeltsin era put on the mask of a democratic reformer. That facade lasted only as long as necessary. Once he had firm control of the nation- or as firm as any Russian leader ever has- Putin discarded his mask.  Gessen describes him as a “hoodlum turned iron-handed ruler.”

Only in March of this year, Putin said that he'd reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union if he could. He is not alone in his nostalgia. Regret about the collapse of the Soviet Union is not unusual in Russia — in fact, it is widespread.
As the Washington Post reported:
The most recent numbers, from a survey conducted in November 2017, show that 58 percent of Russians regret the U.S.S.R.'s collapse, while just over a quarter do not.
However, it should also be noted that the pro-Soviet sentiment peaked in 2000, just as Putin was coming to power. Perhaps Putin is reminding some Russians that the good old Soviet days were not always so glorious.

Here's an interview with Gessen conducted earlier this year. Of particular interest is Gessen's take on the complicated Trump-Putin relationship.

When Extremism is the Truth You are Not Allowed to Hear

In her current book, "The Future is History" Gessen focuses on the fall of the Soviet Empire, the hope of democratic reforms and, with Putin's hold on power consolidated, the crushing of that dream.

In the prologue of her book, she writes:
When I was a young journalist, in the late 1980s, the Soviet regime began to teeter and then collapsed into a pile of rubble, or so the story went. I joined an army of reporters excitedly documenting my country’s embrace of freedom and its journey toward democracy.
I spent my thirties and forties documenting the death of a Russian democracy that had never really come to be.
The death of Russian democracy was both a suicide and a homicide.
The specifics were clear enough. Russian citizens had been losing rights and liberties for nearly two decades. In 2012, Putin’s government began a full-f ledged political crackdown. The country waged war on the enemy within and on its neighbors. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, and in 2014 it attacked Ukraine, annexing vast territories. It has also been waging an information war on Western democracy as a concept and a reality.
And most Americans- including lawmakers- were unaware of that war. For them, Russia was a fallen superpower, stripped of its Soviet trappings.
It took a while for Western observers to see what was happening in Russia, but by now the stories of Russia’s various wars have become familiar. In the contemporary American imagination, Russia has reclaimed the role of evil empire and existential threat.
This, despite mountains of evidence, is dismissed by the Kremlin as Russia-phobia and hysterical paranoia.
The crackdown, the wars, and even Russia’s reversion to type on the world stage are things that happened—that I witnessed—and I wanted to tell this story. But I also wanted to tell about what did not happen: the story of freedom that was not embraced and democracy that was not desired.
In this extended interview recorded 2017, Gessen looks into the Putin mystique. You will probably never heard of a better analysis of the Russian leader than the one Gessen offers in this discussion.

In a Time of Deceit

In a strange way, the clumsy attempt to throttle access of Gessen's book only validates its premise. Soft-spoken Gessen is an unlikely revolutionary.  In a normal time, in a normal country, she would be brushed off as just as opposing view.

Yet, being labeled an extremist by Russian authorities shouldn't be a great surprise. After all, Russia is a place where journalists can be murdered without much fuss. 

In fairness, it's not just a Russian problem. The war on the truth is a worldwide trend. Putin is just the de facto leader at the moment.
Reputable independent news organizations are now being called "enemies of the people." We are living in a time when bloggers are matcheted in the street or publicly whipped by court order for expressing secularist views. This is a time when a journalist can be lured into a murder trap on foreign land and American presidents shrug off the contract killing with "the world is a dangerous place."  
As George Orwell said:
"In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."
Here's a speech that Ms. Gessen gave in Queensland, Australia in October 2017. It is called "How to Destroy Democracy."