For many Americans crushed by the presidential election, the voice that emerged to offer a sense of reason in a world suddenly bereft of sanity was that of Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who is no stranger to life under the thumb of an autocratic regime. The day after Trump delivered his victory speech, Gessen published a piece titled “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” in the New York Review of Books. It was a clarion call that ripped across social-media platforms like a shot of adrenaline to the chest, warning soberly of the journey on which we were about to embark and offering detailed field notes on what comes next. Her words weren’t comforting — not by any stretch — but the piece did serve as a rough guidebook for what to expect in the days and months ahead from someone who’d seen this movie before.
Born in Moscow, Gessen moved with her family to the States when she was a teenager, though she later returned to become a vocal critic of Putin’s policies, an especially audacious move since she was, as she now says, “probably the only openly gay person in the whole country.”
Gessen is quick to point out that America is not quite a burgeoning autocracy — at least not yet. But she did say that the rights of sexual minorities do serve as a litmus test for democracy.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a democracy — but there are countries that are evolving in the direction of democracy, and there are countries that are devolving,” she says. “It’s no accident that the Putin crackdown in the last five years has disproportionately targeted LGBTQ people.”
Gessen warned well before the election of the dire effects a Trump win could have on America’s LBGTQ population, regardless of how many rainbow flags he dandled onstage at rallies. “It’s the most recent and most rapid social change that this country has experienced, it’s the most recent case of people being enfranchised, and so it’s a prime candidate for the first reversal,” she says. “And of course, it’s turned out to be true.”
Gessen says she always attends the Pride march with Russian speakers, many of whom are marching for the first time in their lives. Marching openly is in many cases “something they had never even dreamed of,” she says, and it makes them “slightly uncomfortable and incredibly excited.”
This year promises to be different, of course. Many of those marching will likely be asylees or asylum seekers, and understandably “absolutely terrified” of what their futures might hold. “They’ve run from one part of the world where they’re at risk of being murdered to what they thought was safety,” she says. “Now they’re terrified that they’re not going to be able to get asylum, and if they do get asylum, that’s not a guarantee of not being deported.”
Gessen doesn’t necessarily derive meaning from the Pride march on its own — she’s more likely to attend a protest than what she sees as a commercialized parade — but one of her favorite recent experiences was riding her bicycle from Harlem, where she lives, to the first ever Pride gathering in the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach. The journey took two hours each way but was well worth it, she says.
“It was this great show of how pride is political, and how you can actually go into a community where it matters for people to see you,” she says. “It was a great show of solidarity.”
Gessen has written in discerning detail about other perils facing us. In March, less than a month after Michael Flynn’s resignation and two months before FBI director James Comey’s dismissal, she wrote in the NYRB that regardless of the investigation into whether Donald Trump conspired with Vladimir Putin to steal the election, “a possible conspiracy is a poor excuse for conspiracy thinking.”
Much of the American left, she says, remains caught up in a “pretty insane conspiracy fantasy” that holds Russia responsible for swinging the election results to Trump. “Russia did not give America Trump, regardless of whether or not there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. And the collusion is far, far, far from proven.”
She continues: “I am not at all speaking out against an investigation — there should absolutely be an investigation. I’m really glad that the special counsel has been appointed. And I’m heartened to have heard the hearings and especially Comey’s testimony, which is the most normal thing to have happened in Washington in five months, in terms of political speech.”
But while she credits media pundits for backing away from conspiracy theories, she says those theories still hold sway among a lot of “ordinary people on the left.” She recalls a recent lunch with a group of “New York publishing types,” one of whom attacked another for being skeptical of the Russia conspiracy.
“People who are really at the forefront of getting to the bottom of it, if there’s anything to be gotten to the bottom of, are saying, so far, there’s very little there,” she says. “And people who are observing from a long distance are insisting that there’s a ‘there’ there. And that is a clear symptom of conspiracy thinking. The farther you get from expertise, the more convinced people are.”
In her March essay, Gessen wrote that “the dream fueling the Russia frenzy is that it will eventually create a dark enough cloud of suspicion around Trump that Congress will find the will and the grounds to impeach him.” If so, she noted, it would be thanks to “a media campaign orchestrated by members of the intelligence community — setting a dangerous political precedent.” And if Trump is not impeached, the Russia conspiracy theory will have dominated news coverage while “Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, [and carrying out] what Steve Bannon calls the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’ ”
Those are the realities Gessen thinks we should truly be afraid of. “I’m very much in favor of being alarmist in regards to Trump,” she says. “That’s quite different from conspiracy thinking.”