Masha Gessen began contributing to The New Yorker in 2014, and became a staff writer in 2017. Gessen is the author of nine books, including “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017; and “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.” Gessen has written about Russia, autocracy, L.G.B.T. rights, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump, among others, for The New York Review of Books and the New York Times. On a parallel track, Gessen has been a science journalist, writing about aids, medical genetics, and mathematics; 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 the Siberian cranes. Gessen is a visiting professor at Amherst College and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, a Nieman Fellowship, and the Overseas Press Club Award for Best Commentary. After more than twenty years as a journalist and editor in Moscow, Gessen has been living in New York since 2013.
I can think of only two times it’s happened to me: I read a news story, or even a series of stories, and thought that it contained such extreme exaggerations that it had to be, essentially, false. I could enumerate my reasons, which were similar both times: the stories came from the Russian media, which is unreliable (even in the independent media outlets, reporting standards are often lax); the stories described awful, nearly unthinkable violence that came so neatly, so horrifyingly packaged, that it defied belief. I have known violence to be insidious, messy, trivialized by all participants, even as it happens, and these stories seemed to paint the exact opposite picture. These stories were preposterous—the word Hannah Arendt used in explaining why the world was so slow to understand the murderous threats posed by Hitler and Stalin.
The first story emerged in Russia about four years ago. Reports claimed that organized groups of young men were entrapping gay men, torturing them on camera, and posting the videos. I had a hard time believing that the effort was as well organized and widespread as the reports claimed. I have since learned that it was much more widespread than initially reported. Vigilante groups continue to entrap gay men in several Russian cities.
This spring, I didn’t believe a story that claimed that authorities—no longer vigilantes but actual police—in Chechnya were rounding up and torturing gay men, and that some of these men had apparently been killed, while others were released to their relatives, who were instructed to kill the men themselves. I tried to latch onto the things that weren’t true. There were rumors of special concentration camps for gay men—human-rights researchers said that this didn’t check out. The original article in the muckraking Novaya Gazeta blamed the wave of arrests on a Moscow activist’s effort to organize a Pride march somewhere in the North Caucasus. This was a classic case of blaming the victims, and also false. Yet the rest of the story was true.
I flew to Moscow in late May to report the story of the men who had been able to flee Chechnya, and at that time I still couldn’t quite imagine the scale of the purges. I dropped my bag at a hotel and immediately headed to one of the safe houses. It had been difficult to get people to agree to talk with me, and I feared giving them time to change their minds. I spent the rest of the evening and half of the night talking to victims of the Chechen attacks, and went back again the next day, and the day after that. In my head, though, the stories began to run together after a couple of hours. This happens when you listen to accounts of extreme violence: bare suffering is a monotonous experience. I developed short-hand notations for the executioners’ repertoire: electrocution, solitary-confinement cells, beatings, dunking in a vat of cold water, starvation.
Back in New York, I sorted through my notes on the men’s personal tragedies. Read more via the New Yorker