A trenchant observer of democracy, Masha Gessen is the author of twelve books, including the National Book Award-winning The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia and Surviving Autocracy. Their coverage of current political unfoldings in Russia, LGBTQ+ rights, and the rise of autocratic leaders appears regularly in the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times.
Q&A with Margaret O’Mara, Professor of History at the University of Washington.
Gessen’s latest book, Surviving Autocracy, is a bracing overview of the calamitous trajectory of American democracy under the Trump administration. In the run-up to the 2016 election, they stood out from other journalists for the ability to convey the ominous significance of Donald Trump’s behavior, unprecedented in a national candidate.
Within forty-eight hours of his victory, the essay “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” had gone viral, and Gessen’s coverage of his norm-smashing presidency became essential reading for a citizenry struggling to wrap their heads around the unimaginable. Highlighting not only the corrosion of the media, the judiciary, and the cultural norms they hoped would save them, Gessen also illuminates how a short few years have changed Americans from a people who saw themselves as a nation of immigrants to a populace haggling over a border wall, heirs to a degraded sense of truth, meaning, and possibility.
Gessen’s understanding of the events and forces that have wracked Russia in recent times is unparalleled. In the National Book Award-winning The Future Is History, Gessen follows the lives of four people born at what promised to be the dawn of democracy. Each of them came of age with unprecedented expectations, some as the children and grandchildren of the very architects of the new Russia, each with newfound aspirations of their own—as entrepreneurs, activists, thinkers, and writers, sexual and social beings.
The Washington Post described The Future Is History as “ambitious, timely, insightful and unsparing.” The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was awarded the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism and the 2017 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
The Man Without a Face, a New York Times bestseller, is the chilling account of how a low-level, small-minded KGB operative ascended to the Russian presidency and, in an astonishingly short time, destroyed years of progress and made his country once more a threat to his own people and to the world. As a journalist living in Moscow, Gessen has experienced this history firsthand, prompting The Wall Street Journal to praise, “In a country where journalists critical of the government have a way of meeting untimely deaths, Gessen has shown remarkable courage in researching and writing this unflinching indictment of the most powerful man in Russia.”
In Words Will Break Cement (2014), Gessen investigates the activism of the artists known as Pussy Riot, who resurrected the power of truth in a society built on lies.
On a parallel track, Gessen has been a science journalist, covering AIDS, medical genetics, and mathematics. Their 2008 book Blood Matters: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene explores the way genetic information is shaping the decisions we make—not only about our physical and emotional health but about whom we marry, the children we bear, even the personality traits we long to have.
Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century is “an engrossing examination of an enigmatic genius” (Kirkus), that pulls back the curtain on an elusive Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman. Famously, Gessen was dismissed as editor of the Russian popular-science magazine Vokrug Sveta for refusing to send a reporter to observe Putin hang-gliding with Siberian cranes.
A regular contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, and Slate, among other publications, Gessen is a staff writer at The New Yorker. They have taught at Amherst and Oberlin Colleges and currently serve on the faculty at Bard College. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, a Nieman Fellowship, the Hitchens Prize, and the Overseas Press Club Award for Best Commentary, Gessen has lived in New York since 2013 after more than twenty years as a journalist and editor in Moscow.
Margaret O’Mara is the Howard & Frances Keller Endowed Professor of History at the University of Washington. She writes and teaches about the growth of the high-tech economy, the history of U.S. politics, and the connections between the two. O’Mara is a leading historian of Silicon Valley and the author of two acclaimed books about the modern American technology industry: The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America (Penguin Press, 2019) and Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search For The Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, 2005). She also is a historian of the American presidency and author of Pivotal Tuesdays: Four Elections that Shaped the Twentieth Century (Penn Press, 2015). She is a coauthor, with David Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, of the widely used United States history college textbook, The American Pageant (Cengage). O’Mara’s historical perspective on current events also has been seen and heard on a range of major broadcast television and radio outlets, including CNN, MSNBC, PBS, BBC, CBC, and NPR. Prior to her academic career, she served in the Clinton Administration, working on economic and social policy in the White House and in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She lives outside Seattle with her husband Jeff, two teenage daughters, and world’s best dog.