What sort of country would compel you to flee it, draw you back ten years later, then force you away yet again after two decades? Masha Gessen knows the answer all too well, having dedicated their career to writing and reporting about Russian society from both within and outside their native country. A true polymath, Gessen’s wide-ranging books and articles cover mathematics, history, human rights, counterterrorism, and much more.
Masha joined Tyler in New York City to answer his many questions about Russia: why was Soviet mathematics so good? What was it like meeting with Putin? Why are Russian friendships so intense? Are Russian women as strong as the stereotype suggests — and why do they all have the same few names? Is Russia more hostile to LGBT rights than other autocracies? Why did Garry Kasparov fail to make a dent in Russian politics? What did The Americans get right that Chernobyl missed? And what’s a good place to eat Russian food in Manhattan?
Watch the full conversation
Recorded June 19th, 2019
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: I’m honored tonight to be here with Masha Gessen, who is one of America’s most influential public intellectuals, also one of Russia’s most influential. Masha is a very regular columnist for the New Yorker, as you all probably know. She’s written many books on all kinds of topics, including Soviet mathematics, Putin, her grandmother’s genetic screening, and just about anything else you might find interesting. Masha is a true polymath and extremely impressive to all of those who know her. Masha, welcome.
MASHA GESSEN: Thank you very much.
COWEN: We just dive right in.
COWEN: Obviously, the first question: why was Soviet mathematics so good?
GESSEN: Soviet mathematics was particularly good in the second half of the 20th century, basically because of the arms race, because the Soviet Union realized . . . World War II created the conditions for the Soviet Union to become a superpower. They realized very quickly that the way to make that happen was to develop weapons technology.
So there was a huge organizing and recruitment effort around the country to find kids who particularly have a math aptitude. Yank them out of wherever they were living; put them in specialized boarding schools or specialized schools in their city if they lived in a big city. Give them an elite mathematics education — actually a broad education but with a focus in mathematics. Put them through excellent colleges and then create conditions in science towns for them to live.
They were truly privileged and lived in these incubator conditions. It was amazing because it was really the only area in the Soviet Union where intellectualism was prized and privileged. It drew probably a broader range of people than just kids who are interested in mathematics.
COWEN: Was the Soviet system of math competitions useful?
GESSEN: There’s some debate about that. The Soviets were certainly extremely good at math competitions, both in the country and internationally. It’s been many years since I wrote about this, so I can’t now remember the statistics, but basically, they were always either winners of the International Math Olympiad or somewhere in the top three.
It was a great feeder system for the weapons industry, but you didn’t see a whole lot of research mathematicians come out of the math competition system. They seem pretty much in parallel tracks.
COWEN: What about the emphasis on physical training and athleticism and just being in great shape? Magnus Carlsen does that in chess. Does it matter for math?
GESSEN: It was part of the system. Whether it matters for math, we don’t know. But we know that the extraordinary Soviet mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov, who designed the Soviet mathematics education system — he had this idea that it had to be what he imagined Greek schools to have been like. He felt that a good literary education, a high level of physical culture, and mathematics were the keys to success.
COWEN: Why is it that so many dissidents came from the Soviet worlds of math and physics? There seems to be a correlation. What’s causing what?
GESSEN: I don’t know the answer. I can tell you my personal hypothesis. My hypothesis is that for people who are both trained and inclined to think in rigorously logical ways, it is particularly difficult to adapt to the Soviet system of doublethink. When we talk about this inclination now, I think we talk about people being spectrum-y or being neurologically different and, therefore, having difficulty with the illogical, irrational ways of life.
But I think we can retroactively diagnose a lot of dissonance with that because, basically, what we’re talking about is, there is the conditions of not just survival but of being reasonably comfortable while living in the Soviet Union were the conditions of doublethink. You had to be able to live inside untenable contradictions all the time. The opposite option was to confront those contradictions, but to basically be thrown out of society, to be in extreme discomfort.
Think about the type of person who would prefer the discomfort of being completely ostracized to the discomfort of living inside the tension. I think that that goes some way to explaining why so many people came from math and physics and the exact sciences.
These days, when I look at Greta Thunberg, who I was actually, I’m pretty sure, the first American journalist to interview her — the now 16-year-old Swedish girl who went on school strike and has started this worldwide climate change movement.
She is diagnosed with autism, and she’s very, very clear about talking about how intolerable she finds life with the way that adults are not acting rationally in the face of climate change and how, for her, it is an absolute necessity to confront it. I really recognized that spirit of Soviet dissonance.
COWEN: You’ve written a biography of Grigori Perelman. At some point early on, before he was famous, he tried to get a job at Princeton by basically just demanding one. Would it have been good for his career as a mathematician to have gotten that job? Let’s say they’d given him tenure: “Do whatever you want.” Good for him? Bad for him?
GESSEN: Well, we don’t know. There’s little evidence that he would have enjoyed teaching. Basically, the conditions that allowed him to . . .
For those who don’t know — I assume everybody knows who Grigori Perelman is. He proved the Poincaré conjecture and published his solution on arXiv on the web without any explication. It took three groups of mathematicians about three years each to actually delve into his proof and conclude that, yes, in fact, it worked. Since then, Perelman, who turned down the million-dollar prize, has basically disappeared.
COWEN: You don’t know what he’s doing now?
GESSEN: He claims to not be doing mathematics. Last I heard, he was going to move to Sweden where his sister lives, but I haven’t had it confirmed that he moved there.
But the conditions that clearly allowed him to create his proof were conditions of solitude and calm in St. Petersburg. Would he have done the same thing at Princeton? Would he have found those conditions? Probably. I don’t know that it would have made much of a difference.
COWEN: I have so many questions about Russia proper. Let me start with one. Why is it that Russians seem to purge their own friends so often? The standing joke being the Russian word for “friend” is “future enemy.” There’s a sense of loyalty cycles, where you have to reach a certain bar of being loyal or otherwise you’re purged.
GESSEN: Yeah, I don’t know that I agree with the premise of that question. What kind of purges are you talking about?
COWEN: People who stop being friends with those who were previously close friends. Whereas Americans will drift apart and ignore each other.
GESSEN: Oh, I see what you’re saying.
COWEN: But there’s a discrete break in Russian friendships as I see it.
GESSEN: Ha, that’s interesting. I don’t know that I agree, but I think that — and this may answer your question — Russian friendships are much more emotional and intense than American friendships.
When I moved back to this country five and a half years ago, it was like this sense of whiplash because I had a lot of friends here, but I had been absent for 20 years. I would get together with my friends, and then two hours later, our get-together would be over. I’m like, “Well, what was the point of that? Was that just to let each other know that we still exist?” Because you don’t really get into deep conversation until about four hours in and a number of bottles of alcohol. If you’re going to —
COWEN: We’re missing the alcohol here tonight, right?
GESSEN: We’re missing the alcohol here tonight. But if you’re going to really get down, it’s like a 3 a.m., 4 a.m. proposition. You can’t just have dinner and go home. Then I realized this was really a way to be very productive because I could go back to work. I write at night. I could work after seeing friends, which was amazing, but something that I have never experienced in Russia.
I think that maybe that’s what you’re referring to. Maybe you’re just referring to the emotional intensity of Russian friendship, where it’s hard. It’s like lovers, even in this country, don’t really drift apart usually. You have to break up. You can’t just stop calling, and go from talking every day to talking every few weeks, and then forget about each other’s existence.
COWEN: In Russian grade school, as I understand it, it’s often the case you sit in the same room and literally the same seats, next to the exact same people, year after year after year. Is that a good system or a bad system?
GESSEN: That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer. It is true, and it’s very odd to me because my older kids were educated partly in Russia and partly here. My youngest son is now in elementary school here. I find it pretty disorienting that every year Americans reshuffle their classes and put kids in a new social situation.
There’s something amazing to having gone through life from the time you’re six or seven with the same people. I think it can foster really incredible friendships. It can also foster awful dynamics, obviously.
COWEN: Why has Russia basically never been a free country?
GESSEN: Most countries have a history of never having been free countries until they become free countries.
COWEN: But Russia has been next to some semifree countries. It’s a European nation, right? It’s been a part of European intellectual life for many centuries, and yet, with the possible exception of parts of the ’90s, it seems it’s never come very close to being an ongoing democracy with some version of free speech. Why isn’t it like, say, Sweden?
GESSEN: [laughs] Why isn’t Russia like . . . I tend to read Russian history a little bit differently in the sense that I don’t think it’s a continuous history of unfreedom. I think that Russia was like a lot of other countries, a lot of empires, in being a tyranny up until the early 20th century. Then Russia had something that no other country has had, which is the longest totalitarian experiment in history. That’s a 20th-century phenomenon that has a very specific set of conditions.
I don’t read Russian history as this history of Russians always want a strong hand, which is a very traditional way of looking at it. I think that Russia, at breaking points when it could have developed a democracy or a semidemocracy, actually started this totalitarian experiment. And what we’re looking at now is the aftermath of the totalitarian experiment.
COWEN: But it’s striking to me, if I speak to non-Jewish ethnic Russians living in the United States — where they have access to all the media — most of them still seem to be pro-Putin, right? And Putin is not a democratic leader. He is, in numerous regards, a pretty nasty autocrat. Russians living in this country — again, non-Jewish, non-Armenian, whatever — seem to support him. What accounts for that ideological strand in Russians?
GESSEN: I think that among Russian émigrés, it’s actually a very specific thing, which is that there have been distinct waves of Russian immigration.
My parents and I came here in 1981 as part of the Jewish immigration. We were fleeing the Soviet Union. My parents made the decision to step into the abyss. They knew nothing about the West or what was going to happen to them here. They thought they would never be able to see their friends and relatives in the Soviet Union. They made this decision to get out of the Soviet Union because it was so important for them to leave the Soviet Union.
People who came here — who were much more numerous — who came here starting in about 1990 and basically through that decade, who I think are the people you’re referring to — they were fleeing the collapse of the empire. They were not running away from the Soviet Union. They were not leaving Russia. They were leaving that sense of extreme instability and uncertainty that was created by the end of the Soviet Union.
So to them, there’s no contradiction between liking Putin, who came in and said, “I’m going to take you back to that imagined stability and predictability of the Soviet Union” — there’s no contradiction between that and what they felt when they were leaving. So I think it’s perfectly logical that they support him.
COWEN: Now you’ve been a major advocate of LGBT rights. If you think about Russian culture, do you think it’s more homophobic than average compared to other autocracies? If so, culturally, why might be that the case?
GESSEN: Oh, not at all. I think that the anti-gay campaign that has been a centerpiece of Russian politics for the last now seven years is completely Kremlin manufactured. I think most Russians had never given the subject any thought, which is, of course, why it’s so effective.
COWEN: But they haven’t given up the campaign. It’s endogenous that they’re continuing it. It’s, in some way, succeeding. There’s a positive public response.
GESSEN: Right, but —
COWEN: But a country like Turkey, which is a close neighbor of Russia’s — it seems homosexuality is more accepted, even though it’s maybe in quiet ways.
GESSEN: Well, actually, Erdogan has also managed to traffic an antigay sentiment quite effectively. This is a theme that we’re seeing, really, in common among many autocrats in the world right now. It’s not surprising that hatred is getting traction. Campaigns of hatred get traction, especially when you control the media in the country. How could it not get traction?
It’s particularly effective, of course, because there was no language, there was no conversation, really, about sexuality before that campaign began. It wasn’t pushing back against anything that existed. It was just occupying a vacuum. Once the Kremlin started a conversation about sexuality, it owned it.
COWEN: How constrained is Putin, in your view? What’s your basic model of how Putin rules and what he can do and what he can’t do?
GESSEN: I’ve never thought of it in terms of constraint. I think that he has a natural inclination for economy, an economy of means. He’s not a totalitarian-type leader, in the sense that he wants to exert only as much force as necessary to continue accumulating money and power.
COWEN: Which of those two does he care about more, money or power?
GESSEN: Well, they’re inextricably linked. He measures his money in power and his power in money. He has applied force when he has encountered resistance. The application of that force has created totalitarian-type conditions in Russian society. But he has not created terror. He has created selective enforcement and has gone after signal enemies and random people in order to create a sense that he controls the country and to minimize the possibility of any kind of resistance.
COWEN: Say, in 2011, you seemed to think that Putin was on the verge of losing power, and that doesn’t seem to be the case. How have you updated your model of how that works? GDP per capita in Russia has fallen for the last five years in a row. That can’t be good for him. What is he doing —
GESSEN: Oh, it’s very good for him. It is very good for him.
COWEN: Why? Explain.
GESSEN: Well, because Russian society has reconstituted itself as a totalitarian society. Poverty and scarcity are actually very good for totalitarian societies. They maintain that sense of mobilization that’s essential for totalitarian societies.
This is actually not my idea, but I think it has a lot of merit, this idea that the mass protests in Russia that we saw in 2011, 2012 were partly a function of prosperity. People lived well enough that they had the luxury of demanding good governance. When you’re constantly worried about your survival, you do not actually engage proactively in politics.
The mass protests in Russia that we saw in 2011, 2012 were partly a function of prosperity. People lived well enough that they had the luxury of demanding good governance. When you’re constantly worried about your survival, you do not actually engage proactively in politics.
COWEN: What’s the chance that Putin leaves office alive? Probability, if you had to give a single number.
GESSEN: I learned my lesson from 2011 that journalists should never make predictions.
COWEN: But a probability is better than a prediction because —
GESSEN: A probability is —
GESSEN: Well, all right. Let’s say 50–50. Either he leaves the office alive or he leaves office dead.
GESSEN: I think he plans to be in office for life.
COWEN: When you met Putin, what was that like? What was your impression, viscerally?
GESSEN: That was bizarre.
Some history: I met Putin about six months after publishing an unauthorized biography of him that came out in about 20 languages and became a best seller in many of them. And he didn’t know about the book. That was really interesting because it’s obvious why he didn’t know about the book. In order for him to know about the book, someone would have to tell him about the book.
GESSEN: And nobody wanted to be that person.
But my experience of meeting him — he called me and said that he wanted to meet for a different reason. It had nothing to do with the book. I couldn’t tell anybody about it because I was afraid of having the meeting canceled.
I was in Prague that day. I texted my editor in New York and said, “I have to talk to you. Get on GChat.” She got on GChat, and I said, “Putin just called me, and he wants to meet.” She said, “Well, I’m really scared for you.” I’m like, “Are you kidding?” She said, “How are you feeling?” I said, “Well, I would be more excited if it had been Perelman, but this is really good.” Perelman was the first person that I wrote a book about who didn’t talk to me, and Putin was the second.
It was the sense of meeting a character from your book because the experience of writing nonfiction isn’t that different from writing fiction, in the sense that you have all this available information. Then you construct a character to the best of your ability based on the available information. At that point, I felt like I had constructed him. It was like getting a phone call from the protagonist of your novel who says, “I want to meet.”
Then you really want to see whether you got it right. Part of me wanted him to be exactly like the person in the book, and part of me wanted him to be different. Part of me wanted to make a discovery, to have him be more interesting, more deep, more human because the guy in my book was pretty two dimensional. And he was that. He was completely two dimensional —
GESSEN: — exactly the guy in my book, which was both gratifying and disappointing.
COWEN: Why did Garry Kasparov fail at Russian politics and overthrowing Putin?
GESSEN: That’s a great question.
COWEN: Garry is a good friend of yours, right?
GESSEN: He’s a friend of mine. I think he is absolutely brilliant, and he is also charismatic. I actually went on the road with him for a bit in, I guess, 2005. When I was done, I came home and I literally said to my partner, I said, “I want to quit journalism and go work for him. He’s amazing. He has an understanding of the world and politics and people like no one I’ve ever met. He is the smartest person I know. I just want to work for Garry.”
It’s actually painful to see him living in exile on Upper West Side and having not just failed — anybody can fail in trying to overthrow a regime — but really having failed to make a dent. I think that most of it is that Putin controls the public sphere.
Garry tried to run a fairly traditional campaign, organizing campaign, where he just traveled the country and met with people. He’d get to a town, and the hall that they had rented would be shut down, and he wouldn’t be able to talk to people. Or every person who was supposed to meet with him would have gotten a threatening phone call. He couldn’t do the grassroots-level organizing that he set out to do and that he put all his resources and money toward.
Alexei Navalny, the anticorruption campaigner, has shown how you can do organizing in a country that has destroyed the public sphere. And basically, it’s through the internet; it’s through creating your own media universe, which, in a sense, is what Donald Trump has done as well. I think there are great limitations even to that strategy. But that’s not what Garry was doing.
COWEN: What’s the biggest American misconception about modern-day Russia right now?
GESSEN: I don’t know. Throw some at me, and I’ll tell you whether they’re misconceptions or not.
COWEN: How about the stereotype of the strong Russian woman? There’s a belief that there’s a particular kind of woman in Russia: highly accomplished—
GESSEN: Oh, yeah. Oh, she’s out there.
COWEN: Super strong.
COWEN: Almost like a superwoman.
COWEN: Is this true or a misconception?
GESSEN: True, 100 percent true.
COWEN: It’s true. Where does that come from?
GESSEN: Where does that come from? I think that comes from life. Look, part of the Soviet experiment was this very strange gender-equality ideology. Strange because it was an enforced ideology. It was top-down. Women were almost equally represented in the workforce to men.
But of course, at home, they also did all the housework. Housework in the Soviet Union was not doing housework in the United States. It was washing clothes by hand, often in a communal bathroom or a communal bathhouse. It was cooking in a communal kitchen. It was getting food products in conditions of extreme shortages.
It was like this constant battle for survival and for the survival of one’s family. I think that that made women strong, productive, and created a kind of matriarchal family that wouldn’t exist if women weren’t also breadwinners on par with men.
But also, I think there may be something about women that is just more adaptable and more likely to take responsibility. We really saw this after the Soviet Union collapsed, or even during perestroika, when men who lost their jobs and lost their bearings would often — and I’m trafficking stereotypes, but they are rooted in research — men would stay at home and feel useless and lost.
And women would go out and get new careers and new professions and new training and figure out ways to make money because they have to ultimately support the family. But what’s your hypothesis?
COWEN: Here’s another possible misconception about Russia. I’m an American. I walk down the street in Moscow. It seems to me people don’t smile very much. Now they, in turn, may see me smiling and think I’m stupid—
GESSEN: Absolutely, yes.
COWEN: — because I’m smiling. Now, were they actually less happy? Or is that just a cultural difference, that they don’t smile as much? And where does that come from?
GESSEN: Yes, people in Russia certainly do not smile as much. Yes, when I moved here in 1981, I thought Americans were so strange. We moved to Boston, not the smiliest city in this country.
COWEN: Quite the contrary.
GESSEN: Certainly not the friendliest, and I thought Americans were absurd. They will say hello to you in the street for no reason. Yeah, I found them very unreasonably friendly.
I think that there’s a kind of grumpy and dark culture in Russia. Russians certainly have a lot of discernment in the fine shades of misery. If you ask a Russian how they are, they will not cheerfully respond by saying they’re great. If they’re miserable, they might actually share that with you in some detail.
There’s no shame in being miserable in Russia. There’s, in fact, a lot of validation. Read a Russian novel. You’ll find it all in there. We really are connoisseurs of depression.
There’s no shame in being miserable in Russia. There’s, in fact, a lot of validation. Read a Russian novel. You’ll find it all in there. We really are connoisseurs of depression.
I think that it’s part of the culture; it’s part of the literary culture. It’s part of the narrative. It is also a function of powerlessness. According to Hannah Arendt, the defining condition of totalitarianism is loneliness. I think she is exactly right in her diagnosis. This is something that is often overlooked in her writing, but it’s an incredible humanistic discovery that she made in writing about totalitarianism.
When I teach Russian literature, I teach it through that lens — 20th-century Russian literature — the lens of loneliness.
When we also look at some of the social phenomena in Russia, a lot of them — for example, excess mortality — are explainable through mass depression.
COWEN: Now, America’s a freer country, a richer country, I hope a more stable country. Yet you moved back to Russia at what age? And why did you move back there?
GESSEN: I was 24 when I first went back. I was already a journalist. I just went back on a story, and I thought . . . First of all, I was blown away by feeling at home, which is something I didn’t expect. I had moved when I was 14. I had no sentimental attachment to Russia at that point.
I really expected it to feel like a foreign country where I was reporting, and I just happen to speak the language, and feeling physically comfortable in a way that I never did in New York. I love the city, but somehow, just the way the light fell, the way that the air smelled, everything about it was so comfortable.
I’ve talked since to many people who went back to their childhood countries, not necessarily Russia. It is a sensation that catches you unawares often, and it is incredibly powerful. That was part of it. It’s not like I was walking around and thought, “Oh, my God, I’m going to move back. This is home.” Not at all, but it was very powerful.
The other thing was that it was the most interesting place in the world. It was March 1991. The Soviet Union still existed, but it was in such turmoil, and people were having such important conversations. And they were having them in a way that actually made it feel like those conversations would have consequences. So it was irresistible to me as a journalist. I started going back and forth. Then after a couple of years, I realized I should stop paying rent here and just move to Moscow.
COWEN: Why did you move back here the second time, what, six years ago?
GESSEN: About five and a half years ago. Yeah, the antigay campaign started. I was, at the time, parenting three children with a woman. The state was threatening to take my oldest son — who’s adopted — away. That didn’t leave me any choice. We packed up and left.
COWEN: In which way is American society more collectivist than that of Russia?
GESSEN: My initial response would be in no way.
COWEN: But say you go to a high school football game.
GESSEN: I’ve never been.
COWEN: Isn’t there a part of you that thinks, “Oh, my goodness, all this conformism. I’ve read Tocqueville. We Russians are the true individualists. What are all these people doing shouting at the same time over nothing?” Is there no part of America that brings forth that reaction in you?
GESSEN: I probably haven’t had that experience in America, Tyler. I’ve never been to a high school football game.
COWEN: We’ll bring you sometime.
GESSEN: My oldest son — he graduated from high school here in New York, but he went to a specialized music-school high school, not a football-playing school. My second child is unschooled.
COWEN: Let’s see if you can talk me out of another possible misconception about Russia, and that is, I have this sense that there are only about five first names for women in Russia.
COWEN: There’s Masha, there’s Anya, there’s Natasha. Why is this? Why is this the equilibrium? Why don’t more people deviate when naming their children?
GESSEN: Russia is a conformist society and people . . . Yeah, my friends have kids who have different names. But it only became possible, really, to give your children names that mark them out after the Soviet Union collapsed. All of my friends have the same name, and then all of our children have bizarrely different names.
COWEN: In the middle of all these conversations, there’s a segment called overrated versus underrated. I’ll toss out some notions, and you tell me if you think they’re overrated or underrated, okay?
GESSEN: Oh, God, overrated.
GESSEN: I can’t stand them. Sorry.
COWEN: Bagels — overrated or underrated?
COWEN: Especially in New York?
GESSEN: I’m thinking more globally.
COWEN: Spending time on Facebook?
GESSEN: It depends on what you do.
COWEN: For you?
GESSEN: For me, it’s essential. It’s essential to my work. It doesn’t feel like a waste of time. Sometimes it’s a waste of time. But if it’s a waste of time, it’s basically me working inefficiently. But it’s an essential part of my work.
COWEN: American television as a whole — underrated or overrated?
GESSEN: Currently, probably overrated.
GESSEN: I think we’ve gotten used to the idea that we’re in the golden age of television, which, in the sense of how many things are being produced, is absolutely true. But there used to be the presumption that if something is on television, it’s probably terrible. If it has any redeeming qualities to it, that’s already extraordinary. I think we’ve gone over to the opposite side where we assume that something is a masterpiece.
For example, I had to endure the five episodes of Chernobyl because I had to write about it, and it was really an ordeal. I thought it was terrible, and not just because I thought it was reductionist, but I thought the writing was awful, the dialogue was horrible. I don’t know why it was incredibly well received by critics among others. It’s like we no longer have an ear for bad writing on television.
COWEN: Why was the last year of The Americans so good? I know you’ve worked for the show as a translator. But what made that so magical toward the end?
GESSEN: I thought all of it was actually amazing, but The Americans is like the exact opposite of Chernobyl in the sense that it’s actually . . . And it was a very strange experience for me as a translator. I translated all the Russian scenes in the last three seasons, and there was like almost nothing in the dialogue. Everything that happened in The Americans happened not in what people said, but what they felt, how they acted things.
In that sense, it was very good filmmaking. Whereas in Chernobyl, everything is processed and dispensed and explained and overexplained in dialogue. I think that what made The Americans so good and made it get better as it went on was the psychological depth of not speaking things out, but showing things and showing relationships develop and disintegrate onscreen without everything having to be spelled out.
COWEN: Tolstoy’s long short story, Hadji Murad — overrated or underrated?
COWEN: In America.
GESSEN: In America? Underrated.
COWEN: How do we fix the college admissions scandal?
COWEN: A simple question.
GESSEN: We nationalize higher education.
COWEN: What does that mean?
GESSEN: It means we have to talk about it, to learn to think about higher education as a public good. There has to be a way to create publicly funded higher education that doesn’t cost an impossible amount of money for most people who want to get a higher education. I think it would also have the result of leveling the field among colleges.
There are lots of normal countries that have normal higher education where—
COWEN: But they have worse systems than we do it, it seems. German higher education is nationalized. It’s close to free. It seems starved of funds, lower quality than what America produces, and Germany’s a smart, fairly effective country.
GESSEN: I don’t know that it’s necessarily lower quality than what America produces. How do you measure that?
COWEN: Say Nobel Prizes or the value of the degree in terms of earnings or—
GESSEN: I don’t think Nobel Prizes are a great way to measure it because a lot of people come to the United States to do research in university settings and end up winning Nobel Prizes. That doesn’t tell us a whole lot about the difference between higher education in this country and the countries that we draw from.
Look at Australian education. Next to free, basically the stress of getting into a university is . . . It exists, but it’s so much less than it is in this country. You basically assume that you’re going to go to university in your city — the best university or the second best or the third best. You’re going to get in. You’re going to get an education. That education is going to allow you to work professionally after.
Yes, depending on your grades, you’re going to get into the better or the worse university. It doesn’t have the import that it has here where young people feel like their lives depend on it, depend on where they get in, which seems just absurd.
I’m rambling because this is very close to home, because I’m also involved in these arguments with my kids about their education. I say to my daughter, “Look, it doesn’t matter which college you go to. You can get a really good education anywhere” — which is true in this country — “and you can also be miserable anywhere. Just look at some places. Look at what looks good to you. Have a few safety schools. Relax!”
She’s just, “No, no. You don’t understand. I’m never going to be successful if I don’t go to one of the best colleges.” That is patently not true. But that’s the kind of stress environment that is created, even for an unschooled kid outside of high-pressure high school environment, even with a parent who is like me.
COWEN: It was about 15 years ago that you described, with very powerful writing, the choices that you took when you learned you had a diagnosis of having some cancer mutations. If I understand this correctly, you chose to have a double mastectomy, but not to have your ovaries removed. You wrote about this in a book.
Fifteen years later, what would you say to someone who faces the same diagnosis today? What advice would you give them? Or how does it look different to you 15 years on?
GESSEN: I haven’t fully kept up with the research. I did end up having my ovaries removed when I was 50. But I’m really glad I had the extra more than a decade of hormones.
I would say do your research. I think that some of the interesting things that I found when I was researching . . . And the reason I ended up writing a book is that when I found out I had this deleterious mutation — this was really in the early days of this kind of thing — I realized I couldn’t process information.
Then I thought, “Oh, well, I used to be a medical reporter. I used to be able to read medical papers and actually process the stuff. I just have to stop thinking of myself as the person who is trying to make a decision and think of this as a research project.”
Then I sold a series of stories to Slate, and the project was to conduct a series of interviews with people who could give me information that would help me make a decision. Then at the end of the series, make a decision. I did that over the course of something like eight weeks for Slate, and I cast a much wider net than you normally would. Normally, people would go talk to an oncologist and a genetic counselor and make a decision.
COWEN: You went to the Harvard economist David Laibson, right?
GESSEN: One of the people I went to, yes, and many other people. But yes, that was actually one of the best interviews, although he . . . We devised a formula together, and the formula suggested that I should have both the oophorectomy and the mastectomy. But then I ended up deciding to just have the mastectomy.
But one of the things I realized — and this is just a small illustration of people’s heuristics — I realized that doctors were pushing women to have oophorectomies, the removal of the ovaries, and not mastectomies because an oophorectomy is a very easy surgery, and you cannot see outward expressions of it.
The easy surgery has a much greater impact on health. Everything in your body is hormone dependent in some way or another, so it completely changes the functioning of the body. Whereas the more complicated surgery that a mastectomy is and that has clearly visible results actually has no impact on health whatsoever.
But doctors have this very strong bias that results from what is an easier surgery with a shorter recovery time, but then no long-term consequences seems like a better solution to them.
COWEN: How did that whole experience change your sense of what is valuable in life?
GESSEN: You ask all the really easy questions.
Actually, I don’t know that it changed my sense of what is valuable in life. I definitely think that life is more important than breasts, but I probably thought that before that question was put to me as well. But it actually had an impact long term on how I think about gender.
GESSEN: I was not, at that time, particularly thinking about experimenting with gender. I was perfectly happy living as a woman and having all the organs that go with that. Then as I went on and shed the organs that go with womanhood, I thought, “Well, now I’m the body without organs and hormones. What I am I going to do about this?”
I’ve actually made decisions about hormone replacement as a blank slate. I went on female hormones at first — I went to estrogen — I mean female and male. Obviously, both men and women have both estrogen and testosterone, but in different proportions. And I felt horrible. I felt really, really awful taking estrogen. I thought, “Hell, let me go in the other direction.” I started taking testosterone, and I’m having a lot more fun on testosterone than I did on estrogen.
I felt really, really awful taking estrogen. I thought, “Hell, let me go in the other direction.” I started taking testosterone, and I’m having a lot more fun on testosterone than I did on estrogen.
GESSEN: I’m on a very low dose. But that has created a nonbinary gender situation for me. But for me, the physical stuff was primary, and then the gender stuff was secondary.
COWEN: Now I have a few questions about what I call the Masha Gessen production function — how you manage to do and be what you are. First question, super simple like the others: how is it you manage to read so much in so many different areas? You have a book on terrorism. We didn’t even get to talk about that, right? You have a book on Pussy Riot that hasn’t been mentioned. How do you absorb? What’s your trick?
GESSEN: Well, you assume that if I write, I read.
COWEN: There are footnotes in all of these books.
GESSEN: This is true. I don’t actually think I read an extraordinary amount. I’m a pretty slow reader. It’s just I have the luxury. I have a year or two to write a book, and I can read extensively on the topic. I absorb very well, and then I forget it all. A friend of mine once called me an empty pot.
COWEN: How do you manage to follow politics in two very different, very large countries at the same time?
GESSEN: I’m always feeling like I’m not following enough, like I’m not getting enough information.
COWEN: So your dream is to follow more rather than less? That’s depressing in a way. [laughs]
GESSEN: My dream is to feel like I have a better handle on things. Russia is much simpler in a way. Very little happens, in fact, or what happens is more or less the same thing over and over again.
That’s what I mean when I say that spending time on Facebook is really part of my work. I try to have a sense of the temperature of the air, the flavor of the conversation. That’s where social networks, used strategically, I think, are extremely useful. It’s the kind of research tool that I didn’t have as a young journalist, and I really appreciate it now.
As for American politics, I’m always in fear of missing stuff, like major stuff. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I bike a lot, and whenever I’m biking, I’m listening to podcasts. I try to switch among podcasts a lot. But then I go hiking, and I go offline for 24 hours, and stuff happens. Then I discover that it happened days later because there’s another news cycle. I mean, the insanity of the news cycle is impossible.
COWEN: Putting normative questions aside, just analytically, what do you wish you understood about American politics that you feel maybe you don’t?
GESSEN: That’s a question that is actually objectively impossible to answer.
GESSEN: Because if I understood what I don’t understand, then I’d go and understand it, wouldn’t I?
COWEN: Well, I might feel I wish I understood how Congress influences regulatory agencies more than it does, or voter behavior might be the thing I don’t understand, or what presidents actually seek to maximize, or state and local government.
GESSEN: No, I think that those are research questions, so I don’t feel a deficit in that area because you can always do the research to answer a research question.
I think there are cultural deficits that I have because I didn’t grow up here. In fact, I haven’t lived here for most of my life. In some ways, that gives me a good perch because it’s sometimes really beneficial to write about things as an outsider, as an informed outsider. But I think where I’m at a huge disadvantage is race politics. Not having grown up in this country, I never feel on solid footing.
COWEN: You don’t seem to write about it much, if at all. Is that impression correct?
GESSEN: That’s correct, yeah, because I don’t feel I can.
COWEN: Yeah. You had an early career as a journalist in Chechnya, right?
COWEN: How did that shape your later views? That must’ve been quite formative.
GESSEN: I don’t know. Well, one way it shaped my views is that I’m a pacifist. I think that being a war reporter will do that for you. That’s actually influenced how I bring up my kids. There are never guns in the house. There are no war games. I talk to them at length about why that is.
COWEN: And that sticks, you think?
GESSEN: Yeah, of course. It can’t not stick. I mean, it may be traumatic because they don’t get to play with some of the same things that their friends play with, but it makes an impression.
COWEN: What is your most unusual writing habit?
GESSEN: I write by hand.
COWEN: You write by hand?
GESSEN: I write by hand. I write longhand.
COWEN: And someone types it into a computer? Or that never happens?
GESSEN: [laughs] No, I write books longhand, and then I type them up chapter by chapter. I write a chapter out longhand and then type it.
COWEN: Why is that good for you?
GESSEN: Because I think that the process of writing longhand is more linear. If you ever look at how you write, or if I ever look at how I write, if I just write on a computer, unless it’s . . . A column is also pretty linear. I outline it, and then I just fill in every paragraph, and I do that on a computer.
But if I write a very long piece, I don’t notice how much I jump around when I’m writing on a computer. You can’t do that on paper. You have to keep going. Then it poses a narrative structure that is unbreakable. One sentence has to follow the previous sentence. You can’t go back and reinsert it. It keeps me very focused, I find.
The other thing it does is that when I’m typing it up, I’m reading it on paper, and I think that there’s a difference. When the book is ready, I will then print it out and edit it again on paper. But every time you read, when you’re reading on paper and you’re reading on screen, you’re seeing completely different things.
COWEN: You listen to music when you write?
GESSEN: I used to, but I don’t now.
COWEN: What book would we be most surprised to see on your bookshelf, at least the active section of your bookshelf?
GESSEN: I don’t know. Actually, I’m not convinced that there’s anything surprising on my bookshelf. I think it’s probably pretty predictable.
COWEN: You buy books on Amazon, and they arrive?
GESSEN: I buy books on Amazon. A lot of the time, books just come. That’s the advantage of being a writer and a journalist, is that people send me books.
COWEN: If you were to describe your philosophy of child-rearing, other than pacifism, what else would you say?
GESSEN: I think that the best thing I do as a parent — and I do many things not very well — but the best thing I do as a parent is, all my kids have always been included in adult conversations. We always talk about everything.
Part of it is laziness. I can’t separate things out. But my kids have grown up hanging out with adults, being very comfortable being part of adult conversation, but also knowing that they can have a say, and they can have an opinion on whatever political issue is being discussed, regardless of what age they are.
COWEN: Do you think there’s too much age segregation in the United States?
GESSEN: I think there is. I see that among my older kids’ friends. As teenagers, they started bringing friends home, and I realized that these young people had no experience socializing with people their parents’ ages.
COWEN: Last two questions before we turn to Q&A. First, if a very smart young person, say 18, 19 years old, came up to you and said they wanted to be like the Masha Gessen of the next generation, and they ask you for advice, nontrivial advice, what would you tell them?
GESSEN: I would probably tell them to take as many risks as possible.
COWEN: As many risks as possible. Finally, what’s your next project?
GESSEN: I’m working on a book. I’m actually about to set it aside for a couple of months. But I’ve been working on a book for a couple of years on imaginative political projects. It’s based on a concept from Czechoslovakia from the 1970s, from Charter 77 — the concept of the parallel polis, which is . . . And I think you might actually find this might relate to your work in a way.
They do have the parallel polis, is that in a totalitarian society, you can create an experimental society that functions according to a different set of rules in at least one area. It might be economically different or socially different or politically different or religiously different — more different than other areas. Then when the totalitarian society collapses under its own weight all around you, you have a working model of the future.
I started there, and I looked at some societies that are very close to being totalitarian in the sense that the people have no influence on the larger politics of it, and looked at those kinds of projects there.
Then I argued that, actually, that has implications not just for totalitarian societies, but for societies wherever a democracy is broken or part of a democracy is broken. You can see an imaginative project like that can be very important. Then I argued that it doesn’t even have to be a nonstate actor. It can be a state actor that creates a project that imagines something into being.
COWEN: Masha Gessen, thank you very much.
GESSEN: Thank you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You mentioned that there is no shame in being miserable in Russia, or there’s no shame in misery. I was wondering how jubilation or excessive cheer was viewed.
GESSEN: With suspicion. That’s a fair question. Yes, unless it’s a collective, drunken moment of exhilaration, yes, excessive cheer is viewed with suspicion. One might be suspected of being an optimistic idiot.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you so much for being here. I apologize for knowing what I was going to ask you beforehand, but you recently wrote an article for the New Yorker in which you critique Pete Buttigieg’s speech where he talks about his experience growing up as a homosexual, where he’s like, “If I could find the part of me that was gay and cut it out, I would have done that.”
You were saying that it’s problematic because it posits that heterosexuality is the better default, and you have to be forced to be gay in order to be accepted. But I was wondering if you think that that essentialist reduction stuff is useful in certain cases as a political tool, like, for example, modern Russia with the situation that’s going on there. Thanks.
GESSEN: Yeah, it has proven to be an extremely effective political tool. This is the narrative.
I want to make it clear, I’m not criticizing Pete Buttigieg’s personal story. Obviously, his story is his story. I’m criticizing his choice to use this narrative that is a very traditional gay rights narrative that is rooted in the argument of choicelessness. Implicit in that argument is this idea that gay people should have rights because they didn’t have any other option and that if sexuality were choosable, then that choice shouldn’t be validated.
I find that deeply problematic because I think it doesn’t correspond to everybody’s human experience of sexuality. I also think that it is ultimately not progressive. It ultimately is not liberatory. But it is, of course, as a reductionist narrative, very useful, and it has proven to be politically, at least in the short term, very effective in this country. A lot of the gains in gay rights have been rooted in that argument.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. Thank you so much for being here. If America were to collapse as the Soviet Union did, how would you posit that resulting states might emerge from that? If America just broke apart as a union and different states were forced to form into new countries, as happened after the fall of the Soviet Union.
GESSEN: Right. I don’t know that that’s a great analogy. The Soviet Union was genuinely an empire. It was just a contiguous empire, so not everybody recognizes it as such. But there was an imperial power. There were many, many, many colonized people. The borders between those colonies were known. And in every colony, there was a national identity that could be resurrected and a national narrative that could be created.
It’s not true in this country, right? We have borders between states, but we don’t have national identities in states, and we don’t have clear ethnic majorities in different states that would create that kind of national narrative. So I’m having trouble with the parallel, sorry.
COWEN: Next question. Let me ask you one while the microphone is coming. If Ukraine became a free, successful democratic state, would autocracy in Russia go away?
COWEN: Why not? Wouldn’t it be such an example that —
GESSEN: No relation.
COWEN: No relation?
GESSEN: That’s a great question, actually, because it is a very common fallacy, a fallacy that comes from Russia, which fails to understand . . . both the Kremlin and the Russian opposition, actually, fail to understand that Ukraine is a separate country with, at this point, a very different political culture.
It’s been a generation since the Soviet Union collapsed. Ukraine has spent that generation — no, more than generation — 28 years. Ukraine has spent that period in a transitional state. It hasn’t been a functional democracy, but it has also not been an autocracy in that long.
That has created a completely different set of expectations and a really very different culture. I feel it when I go to Ukraine, when I talk to people and I interview people. You realize that there are different kinds of relationships of trust. There are very different expectations of the possibility of political action. There are very different expectations of accountability despite the very high level of corruption in Ukraine.
Whereas Russia has basically spent the last 20 years as an autocracy. Russians have this magical thinking — both the Kremlin and the opposition have this magical idea that Ukraine is like a smaller mirror of Russia, and whatever happens in Ukraine is then going to happen in Russia.
COWEN: Now to the question up front.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You mentioned how internet access in Russia can offer a little bit of an escape from this very tightly controlled public control over the communications. Are there ways in which you think the somewhat greater freedom among these online communities has led to different cultures or different norms from those that have been established under the strict totalitarian regime?
GESSEN: Yeah, it’s a great question. I don’t want to exaggerate because, as you know, we’ve gone from this dominant idea of the internet is inherently democratic to this dominant idea that the internet is inherently undemocratic. It’s not inherently anything, but Alexei Navalny has been able to use his online presence to circumvent the Kremlin’s control over the public sphere.
That has required a set of conditions, the most important of which is just he’s very good at what he does, and he found the one thing that millions and millions of Russians find compelling, which is proving corruption and validating their sense of constantly being lied to and stolen from.
But there are also limitations to that kind of organizing, and I find those limitations fascinating because, when we talk about organizing, we usually assume that there’s a collective action at work. Politics is acting with others.
I think that there’s a very different kind of organizing that Navalny does because Navalny will publish an appeal on YouTube, and people will go out and protest in more than a hundred towns around Russia at the same time, and it looks like collective action.
But I would argue that it’s not because it’s one individual at a time watching the video on YouTube, going out into the public square, and going home without actually having done anything together with any other people in their town, except for being present in the square at that particular moment. That is completely different from actual political organizing and collective action as we know it.
Does that distinction matter? I think it does. I think that the experience of physically, and on an ongoing basis, interacting with other people in the political space is essential for politics.
COWEN: Next question. Yes?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Suppose tensions rise substantially between Russia and the West, perhaps to the level of open military conflict. Is it more likely that Russia cuts off Western access to networks or vice versa? And would you predict it’s because of cybersecurity and hacking or more because of access to these political organizations and journalistic information?
GESSEN: Right. I think that Russia is very likely to cordon off its internet. I think that the pretext would be cybersecurity, which may not be quite so much of a pretext. I think that the effect, and the desired effect, would be total informational isolation of the Russian public.
COWEN: Next question. Yes, way in the back. While the mic is going, my quick question: if you were advising a hedge fund as to what they could learn from training of talent in the world of Soviet mathematics, what would you tell them?
GESSEN: I would tell them that —
COWEN: In the abstract.
GESSEN: I would actually tell them that maybe it’s better to have not quite such amazingly trained talent, but to live in a freer society.
COWEN: In the back, yes?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Why is there currently not very much control over the internet in Soviet Russia? In Russia, sorry.
GESSEN: That’s right. It actually goes to what I said earlier about Putin’s economy of means. There’s as much control as is necessary, for the internet oversight agency has shut down access to a number of opposition websites. That means the vast majority of Russians don’t have access even if they maybe want to. They don’t have access to anything that contradicts the dominant narrative.
But the internet is . . . It’s not a push media. The internet is a place where you don’t get answers to questions you don’t ask. I think that the Kremlin is sensitive to that even if they can’t necessarily articulate it. There’s not a whole lot of danger coming out of the internet for the Kremlin.
COWEN: Next question. Two over here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: In the context of your current project on alternative polis, was it?
GESSEN: Parallel polis.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Parallel polis. What do you see as example or examples of that currently in Russia or in America? And do you see the internet as a vehicle for that? Or in what you were saying about this new mobilization not actually being a collective action, but being this individual action, do you think that that actually detracts from parallel polis?
GESSEN: Yeah. It has to be not just parallel, but polis. Polis can’t be homogenous. There has to be some sort of cooperation across difference for a parallel polis, or any kind of polis, to exist. That’s something that doesn’t happen a whole lot on the internet.
I also think that, again, politics is something that has a physical dimension. I’m only looking at actually existing physical projects. In the States, I’m looking at a particular complicated project in Detroit that’s an urban farm/public space/history/community-based economy project. I’m not actually looking at any in Russia.
COWEN: The other question on this side.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Is there good Russian food in New York? And where can I find it?
GESSEN: Is there good Russian food? Yeah, I like Mari Vanna, which is a restaurant on East 21st, I think. It’s pricey but really good.
COWEN: Last question comes from me. Obviously, there are many famous works of Russian literature, but if you had to recommend to us something in particular we ought to read that’s special to you and maybe not something which everyone reads, what would that be and why?
GESSEN: I don’t know that the books I would recommend have been translated to English.
COWEN: Tell us one nonetheless, and I’ll give you one more question then.
GESSEN: Okay, two books I would recommend: One is Procherk, which is “omission” or “elision,” by Lydia Chukovskaya, which is an amazing book about the absence of her husband. He was arrested when they were quite young. I think she was 25. She never saw him again.
She was a great writer who wrote many great books, but this is a book that she kept going back to over the course of, I think, 45 years, up until her death, trying to write it. It’s a book about absence.
But it’s also a book about the absolute senselessness of terror. I think that’s one of the hardest things for a writer to convey because how do you write about something that is senseless? The moment you start writing about it, you’re imbuing it with meaning. It’s actually very, very hard, and that book succeeds.
Another book that I love I think has been translated into English. It’s by Dina Kaminskaya. It’s called Final Judgment. She was a defense attorney who defended dissidents in the Soviet Union and ended up having to immigrate to this country quite late. I think she was in her 60s or 70s when she finally got forced out of the country.
But it’s an incredible anatomy of the corruption of not just the Soviet court system, but of the possibility of legal thinking in the Soviet Union. I think it’s the best book about the Soviet system that I know. Also, fun fact: Dina Kaminskaya was Dimitri Simes’s mother.
COWEN: Final question: the new cold war with Russia — how much did America provoke Russia with NATO expansion, electoral influence in Ukraine, and even earlier, the Serbia-Kosovo intervention? Who started it, in a sense?
GESSEN: I don’t have a lot of patience for the NATO expansion argument for the simple reason that it fails to take into account the countries that joined NATO. All the countries that joined NATO — without exception — asked to join NATO, begged to join NATO, because they wanted to have protection against Russia, which had colonized them and of which they had good reason to suspect might want to colonize them again, and so they wanted to be a part of NATO.
This idea that the United States provoked Russia by taking those countries under its wing completely ignores the agency and desire of the people of those countries.
Kosovo, I think, was huge. I think that we still have to reckon with the corrosive effect of the illegal bombing campaign in Kosovo, both on Russia but also on American politics and on international politics and politics of military intervention.
COWEN: Masha Gessen, thank you very much.
GESSEN: Thank you, Tyler.