Russian Activist & Journalist Masha Gessen Takes on Vladimir Putin

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Gessen wearing white, the color of the opposition movement, during a spring 2012 demonstration in Moscow. Photograph by Svetlana Svistunova.

Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency of Russia for the third time last March. The next day, journalist Masha Gessen posted a powerfully revealing entry on her weekly New York Times blog about the difficulties Russia’s protest movement would face were it to succeed in ending Putin’s now 12-year reign. Gessen commented on the fear that nationalism may be the most potent force to emerge in the absence of a strong civil society, a vacuum created by Putin’s own systematic destruction of fledging democratic institutions. Already, certain liberal values and non-mainstream identities are shunned by those in the anti-Putin protests who fear that they will discredit the movement. Gessen wrote, “Our revolution has not yet won and fellow organizers have already on occasion asked me to keep my lesbian, Jewish, and American-passported self off the front pages.”

Masha Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Penguin), immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1981 when she was a teenager. She returned to Moscow in 1991 as a journalist and human rights activist, and moved permanently to Moscow a few years later. Her unorthodox biography makes Gessen seem, to some, an unlikely revolutionary in the Russian context.

To this end, Gessen views talking about her personal life in public, as difficult as it is, as a necessity in the face of growing intolerance in Russia. On the one hand, she told Lilith in an interview, even if she wanted to keep silent about her sexual orientation it would probably be discovered and then used to blackmail her. The Putin government has in the past manufactured scandals of a sexual nature to discredit members of the opposition, and a notably homophobic society could be susceptible to leaders who seek to discredit opponents. To be open about her personal life is to begin the process of normalizing sexual and ethnic identities that veer from the predominantly conservative mold and to incorporate such issues as gay rights into the larger civil rights discourse.