Masha Gessen is a Russian-born writer whose family emigrated to the United States in 1981. She returned to Russia as an adult in 1991, becoming Russia’s leading LGBT rights activist, in particular opposing a law that made it illegal to proselytize homosexuality to minors.
As the editor of a popular-science journal, in September 2012 she refused to send a reporter to cover an event about nature conservation featuring President Putin, who she accused of exploiting environmental concerns. After she tweeted about her firing, Putin phoned her saying he was serious about his nature conservation efforts and offering her her job back, which she rejected.
A few days later, she was appointed director of Radio Free Europe’s Russian Service based in Prague. Shortly after her appointment was announced, more than 40 journalists were fired, and several weeks after Gessen took over, the station lost its Russian broadcasting licence. By 2013 Gessen feared the government would take away her children because she was gay, returning to the US, where she had already published anti-Putin articles.
In a March 2014 article for the Los Angeles Times, Gessen described Putin as “a playground bully.” While other world leaders “have generally tried to convince themselves and others that they were good people fighting the good fight,” according to Gessen, Putin “has no positive spin for his aggression — or his actions in general,” having created a political culture in Russia “based on the assumption that the world is rotten to the core,” and “that all governments would like to jail their opponents and invade their neighbors, but most political leaders, most of the time, lack the courage to act on these desires.” Gessen suggested that “For American culture, which relies heavily on a belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity,” Putin’s world view is “impossible to absorb.”
Also in March 2014, Gessen claimed in The Washington Post that Putin’s popularity had only been restored thanks to the Sochi Olympics and the alleged invasion of Ukraine, which played on the longstanding notion “that Russia is a country under siege, surrounded by enemies and constantly on the brink of catastrophe and that “the only way for Putin to continue shoring up his popularity was to escalate the war effort,” painting “the Western/fascist/Ukrainian enemy as ever more dangerous, which means that he is not interested in a peaceful solution or an exit strategy that would allow him to ‘save face.’(!)
In fact, to this day, no evidence has ever been presented to buttress the claim that Russia ‘invaded Ukraine”, or to explain why its troops are only to be found in the Russian-speaking people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk that the US-backed coup government has threatened.
Although the Russian President clearly stated his opposition to US hegemony in a 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference, proposing instead a ‘multipolar world’ in which the regional leaders such as Russia, China, India, South Africa, Brazil and the US would cooperate to ensure global peace, Gessen describes this as “Russia remaking itself as the leader of the anti-Western world”.
This characterization is the template on which is built the US-led demonization of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. On November 22, Gessen was interviewed on the popular news show Morning Joe by Mika Brzezinski, the daughter of the recently deceased former national security advisor Zbignieuw Brzezinski, former politician Joe Scarborough and other journalists, about her latest book “The Future is History”. All of them down-played America’s aggressive policy toward Russia.
When Scarborough asked “What do Russians want?” echoing a familiar American complaint, John Heilemann wondered what Western failures had allowed President Putin to gain such power. To which Scarborough replied off-handedly: “it wasn’t because we expanded NATO and got Russia nervous about militarism,” exactly reflecting how the US downplays what is in reality a highy dangerous situation: the US failed to respect its promise to Gorbatchev, who agreed to dissolve the defensive alliance known as the Warsaw Pact, that we would “not move one inch beyond Germany’s eastern border”. One by one we integrated the countries of Eastern Europe into NATO, which, with tanks and a full offensive panoply faces Russia’s Western border, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, complaining when Russia responds to this aggressive stance by holding maneuvers inside its borders!
True to a well-polished script, the assembled talking heads on Morning Joe agreed that the collapse of the Soviet Union had been, (as Vladimir Putin has lamented), “a huge shock”. However, for the Russian President the reason for that shock was economical —the Soviet Socialist Republics, whose economies had been integrated, ceased to exist, causing both political and economic hardship, while in the American version, according to Heilemann:
“They didn’t want to become just another European state. That’s what they mean when they say we didn’t treat them with respect. They suffered a loss of empire like the Brits and the French, who were able to soften the blow.”
According to another guest: “When Obama called Russia a regional power, it was insulting but expected: “the West doesn’t take us seriously.”
But Gessen claims that: “We shouldn’t exaggerate the role of West: the tragedy of Russia’s past is so enormous that things could never have been different,” leading to the presentation of her book. “I was trying to figure out how people turn away from democracy: we thought Russia was just going to be democratic because what else would it be? We didn’t realize that people can choose not to have democracy, they can have reasons to turn away from freedom. The corrupt Yeltsin regime brought social and political anarchy, leading many to want someone stronger. Russians didn’t reckon with the past state terror, instead people wanted to go back to an imaginary past that was simpler,” implying that Vladimir Putin took advantage of these sentiments, going so far as to make it acceptable, as a strong man, to admire Stalin.
Although Joe and Mika’s guests reflected the official American narrative, it’s clear that Gessen’s role in helping to form that narrative is very much linked to her personal situation, as illustrated by this quote: “When Putin says he’s protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine, he means he is protecting them from the many terrible things that come from the West,” notably gay rights. Russians believe the the West “is literally taking over, and only Russian troops” can protect Ukraine from “homosexuals marching in from Brussels.”’
Asked about President Putin’s consistent level of support in the high eighties, Gessen claims: “86% is not a public registering its opinion.” Continuing in her role as chief anti-Putin activist, Gessen announces for February 2018 the publication of “Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia.”
Deena Stryker is an international expert, author and journalist that has been at the forefront of international politics for over thirty years, exlusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.