The investigative journalist on Putin, anti-queer campaigns, and the “personal catastrophe” of exile.
Photo by Svenya Generalova
Masha Gessen is no stranger to risk. The Russian reporter and political activist is perhaps best known for her probes of the Kremlin machine and unsparing descriptions of Vladimir Putin as a dictatorial thug. In her 2012 book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Gessen offers a psychological portrait of the Russian president and writes that the city of his birth (Leningrad, now St. Petersburg) was “a mean, hungry, impoverished place that bred mean, hungry, ferocious children.” A seasoned chronicler of Russia’s crackdown on free expression, Gessen has most recently examined the story of the band Pussy Riot, three of whose members were imprisoned for two years in 2012 after their minute-long “punk prayer,” beseeching the “Mother of God” to “get rid of Putin.” Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot was published this January.
But in December 2013, after more than two decades of reporting from inside Russia’s shrinking democratic space, Gessen, a lesbian and mother of three, moved her family from Moscow to New York in response to the government’s recent wave of anti-gay legislation. Over the course of this past year the Duma, the Russian Parliament, has made deep incursions into the rights and safety of the country’s LGBT citizens. In June 2013, the Putin government passed a law banning “homosexual propaganda”—a blanket term covering anything from positive depictions of queer life in the media to negative portrayals of heterosexual partnerships. In July, Putin signed a law banning the adoption of Russian-born children to gay couples, as well as to parents living in any country where marriage equality exists. “I’m perfectly accustomed to living with risk,” Gessen says. “But there’s no such thing as acceptable risk when it comes to the kids.”
According to Gessen, the ban on “homosexual propaganda” has tightened the noose around a society that has seen its freedoms in retreat since Putin entered office in 2000. But the legislation has also sparked an international outcry—due in part to Russia’s place in the spotlight as the host of the 2014 winter Olympics, which will open in Sochi next week.
At the same time that Gessen was packing up her home, she was also at work on a new book taking aim at the ban. Co-edited with LGBT advocate and writer Joseph Huff-Hannon, the newly released volume, Gay Propaganda, offers a collection of first-person tales of gay relationships. Written in the tradition of samizdat—or underground self-publishing—the stories undermine the assertions that love adheres to any norm. “I want people to read it who will feel better, and safer, or at least understood,” says Gessen. “These stories are not told, because what LGBT people are hearing is that nontraditional sexual relations don’t have a right to exist. Gay Propaganda is a testament to the fact that yes, they do exist, and they should exist.” The publishers are releasing the book in both Russian and English and have said they intend to smuggle as a many copies into Sochi as possible. The act invokes the potent history of banned books—reading as an act of solidarity and subversion—and an explicit refusal to accept the Kremlin’s assault on free expression.
I met Gessen in mid-January at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in New York City’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, a venue known for local civil discourse. In measured tones, Gessen spoke of Putin’s slide into dictatorship, Russia’s surge in anti-gay violence, and the alarming trend in opposition figures, like herself, taking flight from the country.
—Meara Sharma for Guernica
Guernica: What was your initial reaction to Joseph Huff-Hannon’s proposal that you document the love stories of LGBT Russians?
Masha Gessen: There was this very strange moment when the world discovered what was going on for LGBT people in Russia. It was very gratifying: I thought, there is a world out there, a saner world. It had felt sort of desperate and bizarre until that point.
At the time, I was getting all these phone calls and letters from people who wanted to do projects. Everyday, there’d be somebody interviewing me as a “lesbian living in Russia.” It got to the point where I would joke that I now have two jobs. I work as a writer and a journalist, and I also work as a lesbian. There’s a big difference between being out and having that be your sole identity, the only reason that someone is talking to you. My twelve-year-old daughter said, “I have a new job as well. I work as the daughter of a lesbian,” because she was also giving all these interviews.
So I was skeptical because I thought this book was going to be a “let’s show the Russian public that gay people aren’t so bad” project. And that would really miss the point. What’s going on in Russia is not that the public is homophobic, but that the Kremlin has unleashed a war. You don’t fight a war by distributing well-meaning books about how the other side really isn’t so bad. But when I talked to Huff-Hannon it became very clear that what he had in mind was much more localized: communicating to the people who felt most alone that they’re not alone.
Guernica: So the book is a kind of solidarity project, rather than an explicit political critique.
Masha Gessen: The book is for us—as in, for the people in it, and the people who can relate to it. It has a samizdat ethos. Samizdat—meaning “self-publishing”—was a movement that began in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s and included typed and retyped copies of literature that was banned in the Soviet Union, as well as poems and novels that had never been published at all. There’s a beautiful song by Alexander Galich, the dissident musician and poet, called “We’re No Worse than Horace.” In every verse he compares what goes on in the world of the official arts with what goes on in the underground arts. The official artist has shows in all the museums and is applauded by his colleagues, the underground artist keeps his painting on his easel and four of his friends see it, and that’s enough. The official books have beautiful hard covers and press runs in the millions, but there are only four copies of samizdat books. One of the most famous lines in contemporary Russian poetry is “Erica makes four copies and that’s enough.” That’s the ethos we’re aiming for. This is not to say I don’t want lots of people to read this, I do. I especially want people to read it who will feel better, and safer, or at least understood. These stories are not told, and what LGBT people are hearing is that nontraditional sexual relations are bad, wrong, harmful to children, and don’t have a right to exist. Gay Propaganda is just a little two hundred-page testament to the fact that yes, they do exist, and they should exist.
Putin needed an enemy, an Other, against which to mobilize. LGBT people are really convenient: we’re sort of the ultimate foreign agent.
Guernica: The book is a direct response to the law Putin instituted last June banning “propaganda” of so-called nontraditional relationships. What does this mean in effect?
Masha Gessen: The law bans “propaganda of homosexuality,” which is defined as dissemination of information that can cause harm to the spiritual or physical development of children, including forming in them the erroneous impression of the social equality of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations. It’s a law that actually enshrines second-class citizenship—it makes it a crime to claim social equality. It impacts anything that’s public—like books or television shows that have gay characters—because public by definition can be accessible to children. The consumer authority, which is responsible for enforcing this law, has published a manual on how to interpret it. It basically says you cannot have any portrayal, neutral or positive, of homosexual relationships or nontraditional families, period. And you also cannot—this is interesting—have negative portrayals of heterosexual relationships. So along the way, the law completely quashes any kind of public discussion on domestic violence. No discussion of relationships at all, unless you want to showcase a heterosexual love story, that preferably involves reproduction.
Guernica: What are the motivating factors behind the legislation?
Masha Gessen: They are very basic. When Putin came back into the office of president two years ago, he was faced with mass protest and he needed a mobilization project for the country. He needed an enemy, an Other, against which to mobilize. LGBT people are really just the first Other, there will be other Others. But LGBT people are really convenient: we’re sort of the ultimate foreign agent. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the values that affirm nontraditional relationships, that affirm feminism, come from abroad. If you’ve established—and this isn’t up for discussion—that foreign agents are bad, and foreign influence is bad, and the West is our enemy, then there’s no better expression of the West’s influence than gays and lesbians.
Were there open gays and lesbians before the West started influencing Russia? No, there weren’t. In fact, the most out person in the country, until recently, was me. I turned gay in America. I was a nice Soviet fourteen-year-old when I left, and I came back a lesbian. And then I started having children. My oldest son is adopted, and as one of the proponents of the law said, “That’s what Americans want to do: they want to adopt Russian children and bring them up in perverted families like Masha Gessen’s.” So we—the Other, foreign agents—come in, we pervert people’s sexuality, we snatch their children.
If the conceit of the law is to protect children, then the people who have the most to fear are LGBT parents. And sure enough, in conjunction with the homosexual propaganda law, they instituted a ban on adoptions by same-sex couples, or single people from countries where same sex-marriage is legal. That has very scary potential for any LGBT person with adopted kids, because Russian courts practice this particular legal concept called “annulment of adoption.” So an adopted child is never exactly the same as a biological child, even if he or she was adopted ten years ago. There’s another piece of legislation that was introduced in September that would make “allowing for nontraditional sexual relations” a cause for removing parental rights, and remove children from same-sex families altogether. It was withdrawn, most likely temporarily, under international pressure. What “allowing for nontraditional sexual relations” means, nobody knows. And this is part of the point of all of these laws. They have to be vague to not just enable but require selective enforcement. If you know exactly what to do to stay on the right side of the law, they can’t control you. A law is always that much more scary and that much more effective for a totalitarian state if it’s selectively enforced.
Guernica: Has this legislation, this kind of state-sanctioned homophobia, affected public attitudes toward the LGBT community?
Masha Gessen: Absolutely, yes. There has been a huge rise in anti-gay violence of different kinds. Every time there’s an LGBT rights protests, there are more so-called orthodox activists who come with heavy objects, mace, and often condoms filled with feces and urine. They throw these at people. The police usually stand around watching for a while, and then the police detain the LGBT activists.
A group of hipster kids, most of whom were straight, were beaten up at a trendy nightclub in Moscow on a summer night. The security guards removed them from the club and wouldn’t call the police. One of the members of the group was actually a municipal council member so she ended up writing about the incident and going on television, and she was immediately harassed by people who felt secure enough to identify themselves as the perpetrators and say, It was us, and if you ever show up at that club again, we’re going to kill you. There was a murder in Volgograd in May and the perpetrators were actually arrested. These were several guys who killed a friend of theirs who came out to them. They said, He told us he was gay, and this offended their patriotic feelings. And so they raped him with a beer bottle and crushed his skull.
And then there’s vigilante violence. There are groups and social networks that are designed to lure either boys or grown men into situations where they think they’re meeting someone, and then they’re humiliated, beaten, and forced to repent, all on camera, and then that’s posted to the social networks.
Guernica: What effect has all of this had on the LGBT community in Russia? Has the backlash rallied the queer movement?
Masha Gessen: The thing is, there wasn’t much of a movement to begin with. It’s still very young, at the community-building stage. You can’t expect people who didn’t exist as a community at all until about twenty years ago to have formed a political movement. This attack on the LGBT community was very shocking to the people who consider themselves to be activists. They’re basically playing in the sandbox, and there’s a tank coming! And what are they supposed to do—use the plastic shovel to push the tank back? But since the homosexual propaganda legislation, people have really stepped up, educated themselves politically, and grown by leaps and bounds.
Guernica: You’ve closely observed Putin for some time. How does this treatment of the LGBT community figure in the larger context of freedom of expression under his presidency?
Masha Gessen: For the first stage of his dictatorship, Putin was involved in destroying public space. On the first day he was in office, he introduced legislation that reformed and over five years effectively dismantled the electoral system. So anything that passes for elections in Russia today has nothing to do with actual elections. On the same day, his first in office, he unleashed his attack on the media. Within a year the state had taken over all the federal broadcasters.
Offending the feelings of orthodox religious believers is a felony now.
The crackdown that we’ve been seeing over the last two years is an attack on individuals who violate the boundaries of public spaces. It’s become much more personal, individualistic. It especially affects people who are identified as LGBT, and it affects people who are identified as NGO representatives or activists. There’s the foreign agents legislation and now anybody can be convicted of espionage and high treason for anything—for example, offending the feelings of orthodox religious believers is a felony now.
The non-legislative aspects of the crackdown have also recently been directed against individuals. At this point there are several dozen political prisoners in Russia. When I cite that number people are often very surprised. They often think there are more. Well—there are hundreds of thousands of people who haven’t had a fair trial, who are victims of the political system. But in the Amnesty International sense of the word, most of them are not political prisoners because they are not going to prison for protesting. For example, if you are a blogger who wrote something about a local official and you’re going to prison for that, you’re a political prisoner. If you’re a businessman who has refused to cede his business to the local official and you’re going to prison for that, you’re not a political prisoner. In that second category there are hundreds of thousands of people.
Take the people facing charges in connection with the protests that occurred on the eve of Putin’s third-term inauguration, May 6, 2012. Hundreds were arrested, and twenty-eight people were charged, most of whom have been in pre-trial detention for over a year now. But what’s important is that most of those charged are not leaders in the movement. In fact, only one is an identifiable leader. The rest are rank-and-file activists, or people who just came to the protest. This indicates a very particular kind of crackdown—it communicates the message that there’s no safe zone. You risk everything if you so much as join a legal protest demonstration. It raises the stakes. This individual happened to be picked out of the crowd and he’s going to suffer for the rest of his group. He’s going to be made into a martyr so that the rest of them are scared. It’s about random and selective enforcement, which is effective for scaring people.
For the first ten years, Putin was constructing his power structure, and now he’s defending it. He’s retrenching, mobilizing a shrinking constituency, constructing an enemy that’s really scary. It’s war. And when you look at the anti-gay campaign, it’s a classic case of war rhetoric: demonstrating an immediate and extreme danger. We have the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church talking about how gay marriage is a sign of the apocalypse, or Russian TV talking about how meteorites are coming to punish Russians for homosexuality.
Guernica: Talking about how the fight has become personal, how did these factors influence your decision to leave Russia?
Masha Gessen: It was kind of a non-decision. In June, they passed the propaganda law and a ban on same-sex adoptions, and the head of the Committee on the Family in the Duma said they’re also going to create a mechanism for removing children from same-sex couples. I have three kids, and this completely changes your sense of things. I’m perfectly accustomed to living with risk—I’m used to it—but that’s personal risk. I may be completely misguided in the way I’ve judged acceptable risk in the past, but there’s no such thing as acceptable risk when it comes to the kids. When I decided to leave, some people were saying, Oh come on, they’re not really going to go after your kids. But I’m not even willing to entertain the possibility of fighting for my kids with the Russian state! The idea that one of my kids would even spend a day with the Russian social services is completely unacceptable. So that’s that.
Guernica: You worked on Gay Propaganda at the same time as you were preparing to move your family from Russia to the U.S. because of the new laws. What was that process like?
Masha Gessen: I felt really ripped apart. I was shuttling back and forth between New York and Moscow, arranging for the move. I was dissembling my home of twenty years. My son was in the States, my other children were in Moscow. It was probably some of the worst times that I’ve ever lived through, emotionally.
It’s not natural for people in the opposition to leave. It’s always a personal catastrophe. And yet [Putin has] gotten people out of the country.
When you’re part of the opposition you want to stay. It’s part of your identity. You’re useless if you leave. You feel like you have failed. For me, part of leaving was admitting defeat. Ok, Putin wins. When I was touring with my Putin biography, which was published all over the world, people would ask me, How come you’re still there, why haven’t you left? I would say, I’m staying, it’s my home. He can leave! It felt very good to say that. But now—he wins. It’s not natural for people in the opposition to leave. It’s always a personal catastrophe. And yet he’s gotten people out of the country. That’s the most terrifying thing about the current situation, and for the future of the country.
But in the evenings, after everybody went to bed, I would edit these interviews. It was so nice—just a lovely task to have to perform. I was in constant conversation with all these people, all of whom I could identify with, and all of whom spoke a human language about things that I cared about. If that’s the way the book was working for me, I’m hoping it’s the way the book will work for the people in it, and those in similar situations, and those whose friends and loved ones are in similar situations.
Guernica: Given the atmosphere of hostility, did you find that people were afraid to talk to you for Gay Propaganda?
Masha Gessen: For the people who were afraid to talk, it mostly had to do with kids. There was a gay male couple with an adopted three-year-old child who weren’t willing to talk. They said any amount of attention we draw to our precarious situation is too much. We don’t care if you change names, ages, location. In a way their position is very much like mine: no amount of risk is acceptable.
And there was one person who had actually gone back into the closet. He had given an interview to a magazine six months earlier, but after the passage of the homosexual propaganda law, said he was afraid of losing his kid.
Of course we were able to get some stories of people with kids—that was very important to show. Some felt protected by our changing names, some may have been a little reckless, some realized they’d have to get out of the country anyway.
Guernica: Is the need or desire to get out of the country a widespread feeling among LGBT parents right now?
Masha Gessen: It is pervasive. But a lot of people don’t see a clear way of getting out, especially if they have kids. I have friends who are childless gay men who just picked up and left, who have a bit of savings, and who can probably stay without visa status in the U.S. until they get asylum. You can’t do that if you have kids.
Guernica: In spite of the charged atmosphere surrounding LGBT issues in Russia right now, the stories in the book are told with striking simplicity, and without sentimentality. Was that particular style important to you?
Masha Gessen: It was my editorial preference. One of the first interviews we did for the book was with Marina and Elena, two women who were married to other men and then fell in love with each other. What I really liked about their story is that when they fell in love, they didn’t just shift into creating a new nuclear family that was just like their old nuclear families but with different characters. They actually started taking this thing apart and reassembling it in a way that would work for them. That’s why it’s the lead piece—not just because they were faced with possibly losing their child, but also because I felt it set the tone for the book.
I wanted people who are wacky, and who are open about the wackiness of their relationships, because I’m convinced that most relationships have their weirdness and that’s exactly what makes them special, believable, individual. I wanted atypical, complicated families reflected in the book. I didn’t want these people to be poster children for gay marriage, if only they could get it. One of the things that I really value about Russian culture is that on the private level it allows for a huge amount of variety and individuality with regards to family structure.
Guernica: And now your plan is to smuggle the book into Sochi, as well as distribute it through underground networks?
Masha Gessen: Absolutely. I’m hoping we make adhesive covers for the book so we can ask people to bring in copies with fake covers. An e-book is downloadable for free from any Russian IP address, but a physical book means something, so I want to have a lot in the country.
Guernica: There’s a deep history of smuggling books, demonstrating the transgressive power of these physical objects.
Masha Gessen: Exactly. And with the words Gay Propaganda on the cover, we’re throwing transgression right in their face.
Guernica: You’re not going to the Games in Sochi, but what is your take on whether one should go and take a stand, or stay away and not engage at all?
Masha Gessen: I think politicians should not engage at all. Personally, I would have advocated for an all-out boycott, but people in Russia felt that would cause a huge backlash within. So what we could all agree on was calling for a political boycott, and I think that’s a very effective strategy. Athletes should go and compete, but politicians should not sit next to Putin in the VIP box and should make it clear that they’re not going to shake his hand. This is Putin’s personal project: he personally went to Guatemala City to lobby the IOC to get the Olympics. It’s extremely important for him to take pictures with the guys in the VIP box. The reason he released Pussy Riot, the Greenpeace activists who were kidnapped in international waters and kept in prison for two months, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s best-known and longest-serving political prisoner, was because in mid-December he finally started panicking and realized that he may not have anyone to take pictures with.
It is wrong to sit next to a dictator. It is wrong to countenance his crackdown by attending his personal little party in Sochi.
In November I received the Media for Liberty Award from Swedish PEN, and the prize was awarded by the Swedish minister of culture, who also happens to be the minister of sport. When she handed me the award, I said, Thank you, it’s wonderful to be recognized, but we journalists always want more. So madam minister, I have a personal favor to ask you: Do not go to Sochi. And just yesterday she announced that she was going to Sochi, but she’s not attending the ceremonies, for political reasons. It’s a very pointed stance. If we can get to a point where Putin just has Ukraine and Belarus in his VIP box, with no one else to take pictures with, that’ll be a very effective wake-up for him.
Guernica: A wake-up or a backlash?
Masha Gessen: The thing is, when you’re dealing with a crook and a thug, you’re not going to be able to predict what will cause a disproportionate reaction. Nothing is going to elicit a positive reaction, so I am convinced it is better to just use moral criteria to make decisions. It is wrong to sit next to a dictator. It is wrong to countenance his crackdown by attending his personal little party in Sochi. So politicians, don’t go!
Guernica: As you just mentioned, Putin recently released Pussy Riot, a subject you have written about extensively. What does their story convey about the present situation in Russia?
Masha Gessen: The members of Pussy Riot are the perfect poster girls for the crackdown. The crackdown began with them—it’s hugely symbolic that they were arrested on the day that Putin was reelected. They were the first arrests in this current political climate. It’s gone downhill from there.
This was the first really individual attack on people who had no idea what they were risking. It’s very different from the political prisoner Khodorkovsky. He made a series of conscious decisions—he had the opportunity to leave the country and he chose not to. Which is not to say that I feel he should have been arrested. What I’m saying is that there was a bizarre and warped sense of fair play.
With Pussy Riot—this was a prank! It was a brilliant, artistically gifted prank. But they didn’t expect to go to prison! They were college girls who became political prisoners for two years. That makes them very similar to the people who were “just going to a protest one day” and got arrested. They had no idea they were risking the rest of their lives. Because you’re never the same after you’ve spent two years in a gulag.
Guernica: That “prank” has obviously garnered a lot of attention worldwide. It seems to be another instance of Putin’s attempt at quashing the enemy backfiring.
Masha Gessen: That’s an overstatement. They have certainly changed some people’s assumptions about the role of political art and the relationship between the intelligentsia and the church. That’s a hell of a lot to do in a forty-second performance. But the rest of Russia is watching the same television that Putin is watching. As far as they’re concerned, Pussy Riot was rightly convicted of blasphemy, and Putin has now finally showed some mercy and let them out early so they could spend New Year’s with their kids. He was nice to them even though they are really nasty. That’s the dominant view. This really is a war and the front line is really firm.
Guernica: What’s it like, now that you have moved to New York, being on the outside of this war?
Masha Gessen: I already feel a lot more relaxed, because I don’t worry about my kids. The thing about the weight falling off your shoulders is that you never knew it was there until it has fallen off.
I’ve been covering this story for over twenty years—I am absolutely intent on watching this movie until it’s over. I think it’s in its last stages. I’m not going to walk out now. It’s a disgusting thing to watch, but at this point I’m a professional watcher of it. It gets a little complicated being away, but in other ways it makes you more clear-eyed. I see stories that I didn’t see from the inside.