Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen is intent on exposing injustice, whether in her three talks in Tucson on Feb. 2, her books or articles in the New York Times, Slate and other publications. Her personal family history has run head-on into conflict with both the former Soviet Union and the current Russian state — as a Jew and as a lesbian parent.
“We were sure the Soviet Union was going to be forever,” Gessen told a luncheon audience of 120, at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, part of “A Day with Masha Gessen” sponsored by the LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and other community partners. “That was not entirely erroneous. The Soviet Union is coming back again.”
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin “views the entire world as his enemy,” said Gessen. In “Putin’s War against the West,” her Shaol & Louis Pozez Memorial lecture at the JCC to around 200 people that evening, she explained, “Gays are a perfect symbol of the West. There were no gays in Russia before the Soviet Union collapsed” in 1989, or at least none who spoke out. “There weren’t groups who fought for their rights prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. During the 2011 and 2012 anti-government mass protests, Putin blamed [U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton personally,” as well as citing other foreign agents.
“You might get the impression that Russia is too busy waging war in Ukraine. On Russian TV it’s busy fighting the homo-fascism of the West,” she said, acknowledging that what happens within Russia isn’t played to the outside world.
“I was the first journalist to be blacklisted by the Putin administration 15 years ago. Yes, it was a great honor,” she said to extended clapping at the luncheon, which focused on her book “Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace.” Ruzya was intimately involved with “Stalin’s peace.” For 11 years she was Moscow’s major censor of foreign newspaper articles, with a direct line to Stalin’s secretary.
When Harrison Salisbury, the first New York Times correspondent in Moscow after World War II, turned in his dispatches “he was endlessly inventive,” said Gessen. “He would make stuff up to see if the censors caught it. It became tragic when he started writing for my grandmother.” Salisbury reported on Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign in 1948-49, but her grandmother was unable to clear the dispatches for publication.
“The only person reading these were my little Jewish grandmother,” she said. “She realized her life was on the line. She knew it was a very tricky proposition” to be a censor but she was a single mother who needed a job.
“Ultimately that’s part of the pain of this book. It’s about the nature of compromise and collaboration with a totalitarian regime,” said Gessen, whose grandmother was trained to be a history teacher. It became clear to Ruzya that she didn’t “want to be the person who would lie to children” by promoting Stalin’s propaganda to high school students.
“How impossible it is to not become a cog in the wheel when you live in a totalitarian society,” noted Gessen, who was born in Russia, immigrated to Boston with her family when she was 14 and returned to Moscow as a journalist in 1991. She lived there with her partner and children until it became impossible for gay families to feel safe because of Putin’s campaign of intimidation and violence. Gessen’s family came to the United States in 2013. “People who most need to leave are [gay] families with young children. The good news,” she said, “is that people are getting asylum at least for a year to get a work permit” in the United States.
“What Is It About Gays?” was the subject of Gessen’s second talk on Feb. 2, at the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, with her book “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot” as suggested reading. “Putin needed a minority to be targeted. If you go after Jews the world takes notice. Some questions were asked about Jews in the 1970s,” she noted, adding that it took her a while to realize that similar discrimination would take place toward gays and anyone who spoke out about equality for them.
As for Gessen’s Jewish identity growing up in Moscow, “it was entirely about the discrimination against us as Jews. My mother asked my grandparents to teach her Yiddish but they refused. There was a youth cultural movement in Moscow when I was 12 or 13. We got together every Saturday night,” she told the AJP. “I had a little bit of positive [Jewish] identity with Hebrew lessons.”
After coming to America as a teen “the options were totally alien to me. I didn’t know what I was looking for but I wanted to learn more about culture,” said Gessen, adding that in America being Jewish is about religion but for her it’s about history, heritage and memory. “What I love about Judaism is learning.”
Gessen, 48, currently lives in New York with her partner and three children. “I still find services and rituals alienating,” she said, but her 13-year-old daughter is studying for her bat mitzvah. “She was very involved in the protest movement with me when she was 11” in Moscow, which cut across socioeconomic lines and “terrified Putin.”
When Gessen told her family they would be moving to the United States, her daughter asked, “‘What will we do in America?’ She thought we were going from a place where we were very engaged to a place where everything was perfect. I told her about the death penalty” and other social issues they could focus on, including discrimination toward gays and lesbians.
In contrast to living in the United States, “a totalitarian society robs people of the ability to have political opinions,” said Gessen. “People don’t live in terror. They live with low-level dread. It’s like a victim of domestic abuse. They can’t plan for the future. [Laws] change from day to day. It’s a matter of survival for them to not have core beliefs that would make them think or say the wrong thing at the wrong time.”
Since 1989, outsiders may have surmised a post-ideological presidency in Russia, but what’s happened in the last three years, said Gessen, is that Putin created a new ideology. “That’s key to understanding Russia vis-à-vis the rest of the world.” After a rigged parliamentary election brought protests in 2011, “it became clear that the Kremlin hit on something really important. Russia had the right to protect itself from ‘the other.’ Russia’s really quite serious about fighting the Western world for the safety of traditional values.”
(For the AJP’s Jan. 9 article on “A Day With Masha Gessen,” go to http://azjewishpost.com/2015/putin-critic-gay-activist-to-speak-in-tucson/.)