Ever since the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign devolved into Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton accusing one another of being Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “puppet,” discussion of the Kremlin’s interference in U.S. politics has been full of hyperbole. But of all the claims dominating that debate, the notion that Moscow actually determined the outcome of the election irks Masha Gessen the most.
“The idea that it was the Russians who elected Trump is insane,” says the writer and activist.
If anyone should know, it’s her. A longtime analyst of her native country and its leaders, Gessen, now 50, also emerged in 2017 as one of America’s most incisive Trump critics.
Part of what sets her work apart is the way that she’s careful not to overestimate the power and cunning of her targets, be they Russia’s president or America’s. She rejects all talk of the Russian government as a “well-oiled machine” with an arch strategist at its top. And she steadfastly disputes the rising hysteria about Moscow’s influence over Trump’s Washington. Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, has a long history of meddling in foreign elections, she notes, but much of it has been clumsy and ill-informed.
Of course, Putin’s “absolute ruthlessness” and “sincere desire to be at war with the West” pose real dangers, Gessen says. But despite its own efforts, Moscow was also genuinely surprised by Trump’s election.
Gessen has cautioned that trying to connect all the dots in the fast-moving Russia scandal is an “exercise in conspiracy thinking” and that Moscow’s pro-Trump Facebook and Twitter campaign amounted to “cacophony, not a conspiracy.”
Gessen was born in Moscow in 1967 to educated parents; her father was a computer scientist, and her mother was a literary critic who had been part of the dissident movement. They refused to hide their samizdat, the clandestine copies of literature banned by the state, and even helped distribute copies of the forbidden works. In 1981, as a teenager, Gessen immigrated to the United States. But unlike most other Russian-Jewish émigrés, more than a decade later she chose to return to Moscow. Gessen soon found work as a journalist for various Russian and U.S. media outlets, including the popular science journal Vokrug Sveta and Radio Liberty. She became a vociferous critic of Putin, publishing a biography of the Russian leader in 2012. Gessen became deeply embedded in Moscow life, adopting a Russian son and spearheading the country’s LGBT movement. But in 2013, Russia’s new anti-gay laws forced her to flee, reluctantly, back to the United States.
All these experiences have turned Gessen into one of the most trusted and balanced Russia observers working today. As one review of her latest book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, notes, as “a participant, and not just an observer, [Gessen is] able to translate that world adeptly for Western readers.” And, according to a Washington Post review, her “scathing essays … have made her a public intellectual with a viral following.”
As 2017 comes to a close, Gessen harbors no illusions that the U.S.-Russia relationship will improve anytime soon. And for all his fawning over Putin, she blames Trump for the tensions. “What we have now is somebody who is entirely unpredictable, who has already, without even trying, led to a deterioration of the relationship with Russia,” she says. Therein lies the great irony of the Trump-Putin relationship; the probe into the 2016 election meddling has, in fact, made cooperation on any issue — from ending the war in Syria to rolling back North Korea’s nuclear program — almost impossible. Practically any contact with Russia now runs the risk of being viewed with suspicion.
In 10 months’ time, Gessen says, “we’ve regressed to the darkest days of the Cold War.”
Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy‘s Moscow correspondent.
In May, Gessen addressed the first-ever gay pride rally for Russian speakers in New York City, telling the crowd, “Pride is political.”