I can’t adequately review this book, as I feel I didn’t quite read it. Rather, I let it wash over me, and I learned something about Russia, and about totalitarianism, but the finer points escaped me.
I listened to it on audio, and while I usually love nonfiction on audio, this book was dense enough that I drifted it and out, and didn’t always follow Gessen’s twisting thought process. Her narration took a little while to get used to. In the end, I liked it. It’s very casual–conversational, almost. It didn’t sound like someone reading a serious work of nonfiction. In the end, this worked for me, as it kept me mostly engaged. I doubt I would have finished it, had I read it in print, and I’m glad I did. But there was a lot packed into this book, and in order to really understand it, I think I would have had to see it written, to be able to flip back and forth and reread sections, and to take it a lot slower than I did.
Gessen’s book is part history, part political analysis, part sociological study. She follows the lives of four people born in the 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tracing their lives, she also traces the history of Russia. She switches back and forth between the individual lives of these four people and the broader history, not only of Russia and the Soviet Union, but of totalitarianism and authoritarianism in general, and especially of philosophy, psychology, and sociology in Russia. In many ways, this was more a book about the way people think, and the history of thought and academic study, than about any particular political regime. Then again, the main thread running through the book is how important the way people think (and the ability to control how people think) is to the survival of oppressive regimes. She makes a lot of interesting points about access to language and the ability of a culture to analyze itself, and how these things were nearly impossible under the Soviet regime.
It was all fascinating and terrifying, especially given Trump and what’s currently happening in America. Even though I listened to the whole thing, I honestly felt like I only skimmed it, and so came away not with a nuanced understanding of what’s happened in Russia over the past half century, but with more questions, and the knowledge of how complicated it all is. I wouldn’t say this book wasn’t readable, but it was dense, especially the parts where she swerves away from the lives of the four people she’s following into more philosophical territory. There were moments I was riveted–reading about recent protests in Russia in response to anti-gay laws, for instance, but there were also sections where I struggled to pay attention.
Overall, this book made me want to learn a whole lot more. I’m also still thinking about it, despite my feeling that I only skimmed the surface of what was there. I knew so little about Soviet and Russian history before reading this book, and even though I don’t feel like I know a ton more now, I have a sense of it. The book felt both highly specific, but also universal. It was one of those books that was eerie to read, because it made me think about how much goes on in the world each day, and how different all our lives are, due to where we’re living and under what regime. And underneath all that, it also reminded me of all the things that make people so similar.
I’d recommend it in print, if you really want to get the most out of out of it. Gessen’s journalistic style, and the way she weaves so many threads together, is impressive. There’s enough of a balance between human-scaled stories and broader analysis that, even on audio, the book felt accessible. But I think all the layers and connections and moving pieces will come through much more clearly in print.