Masha Gessen

There was a very disturbing interview on Fresh Air yesterday with the Russian-American (dual citizenship) journalist Masha Gessen. The interview was disturbing on several different subjects that Gessen talked about. Putin’s Russia is…a bad place.

Gessen has just written a book about Pussy Riot. One disturbing item was the working conditions at the prison where Nadezhda Tolokonnikova served time. The sewing factory in the prison was taking on more and more orders, so the prisoners worked more and more hours.

By the end of the summer, the workday was about 17 hours, so they were allowed to sleep about four hours a night, if that. They wouldn’t get days off except maybe every six weeks or so. So they were incredibly sleep deprived. The working conditions were very unsafe and they were also … fed very, very poorly in the prison colony.

So Nadezhda decided to protest first inside the prison by going to complain to the warden and saying that they needed to return the workday to the legal limit of eight hours. In response, he threatened her with murder.

Gee. Makes the Irish industrial “schools” sound like a holiday camp in comparison.

And then there’s the new level of murderous hostility toward LGBT people.

What [the anti-gay propaganda law] means is that any portrayal of LGBT people, LGBT relationships and LGBT families is now illegal in Russia if it’s accessible to minors, which of course is a problem for LGBT families because we are ourselves examples of LGBT families and are by definition accessible to minors who live in our own homes.

So the natural consequence of these laws is a campaign against LGBT parents which began with the second law … which is a ban on adoptions by same-sex couples or single people from countries where same-sex marriage is legal. … It’s not just new adoptions; it can be used retroactively to annul adoptions that have already taken place. …

Gessen and her partner – a woman – have an adopted kid. Gessen’s parents emigrated from Russia to the US when she was herself a kid, then she went back about twenty years ago, but now she and her partner and kid have moved to New York because of the fear that he will be taken away from them.

t’s Putin’s effort to shore up his constituency around this very vague but very potent idea of traditional values — the Russian family, the Orthodox religion — and against the West. Nobody represents the alien West in Russia better than LGBT people do.

Part of the reason for that is because there was never any conversation about sex and sexual orientation in Russia. While the Western world was having the sexual revolution, we were having the Soviet Union.

That’s a good line. We had the sexual revolution, they had the Soviet Union. Yeah.

From a piece Gessen wrote for a New York Times blog last month:

The only thing more creepy than hearing someone suggest the likes of you should be burned alive is hearing someone suggest the likes of you should be burned alive and thinking, “I know that guy.” With various Russian public persons competing for the role of the country’s most virulent homophobe, I have had that experience a few times.

Dmitry Kiselev, the head of the new Russian ministry of truth, suggested last year — when he was a highly placed executive in Russian state broadcasting — that the hearts of gay people should be buried or burned “for they are unsuitable for the aiding of anyone’s life.”

Not used for transplants, you see, but disposed of.

Last week Ivan I. Okhlobystin, an actor and writer, who is also an ordained Russian Orthodox priest, called for burning gays alive in ovens. He explained this was necessary to protect Russian children.

I have known Okhlobystin for a long time, and for a couple of years I was his editor: He wrote a weekly column for a website I headed up. He had a reputation as something of a loose canon — a very popular one — and at one stage I felt he had gone too far in trying to shock readers. He had written a column titled “Alas, I am a racist,” in which he said that if one of his daughters brought home an African man, he would drive them both out into the woods and shoot them.

It took me several months to convince my boss to allow me to fire Okhlobystin: The publisher feared we’d get a reputation as stuck-up politically correct editors who policed their writers’ opinions. Plus, the man was a traffic-generating celebrity. And we suspected that many of our readers felt he spoke for them when he claimed no one wants their children to marry black people.

In the Fresh Air interview when she talked about that situation, she put it a little differently – that the publisher (and maybe she too) wasn’t comfortable as a publisher saying there are some things you can’t say.

I was interested by that, because I know it’s uncomfortable, but at the same time, I think there are things that no publisher would want in a magazine or newspaper. Serious proposals for genocide for example; calm reasoned arguments for euthanizing children with cognitive disabilities for example; unabashed undisguised racism for example. I think there are things you can’t say, in the sense that no reputable publisher will touch them. Gessen regrets not telling Okhlobystin that:

By agreement with my boss, when I did fire Okhlobystin over the phone, I mumbled something about needing to vary our columnist base and get some fresh blood onto the website. I avoided any hint that he was being terminated for expressing his opinion.

In other words, I am one of the many people who have over the years failed to communicate to Okhlobystin that certain opinions simply will not be accepted — paving a tiny piece of the way for this guy I know to call for people like me to be burned alive.

That’s a real issue.



  1. Katherine Woo says

    I hope this journalist can stay alive. I saw a shocking list of how many journalists, lawyers, etc. have died mysterious deaths under Putin.

    It is also scary how religion can rebound even after seventy years of not being aided by the state or media.

  2. kevinalexander says

    From the Tsars to the Soviets to Tsar Vladimir the Russians have had little practical experience with modern civilization. Of course the most primitive element was always waiting in the wings to re-assert power.

  3. says

    @3: My wife once went through a Russian-literature phase, and read a bunch of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. What struck here was how *little* difference the change in regime seemed to make to Russian society — ordinary people trying to scratch out a living while trying not to have to deal too much with the PTB. Because that never comes out well.

  4. says

    Funny thing – while reading that post of Masha Gessen’s I found myself wanting to title my post “Hello Mr Dostoevsky.” And I don’t even like Dostoevsky much, but he did seem the right fit for this nightmare.


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