One of our most trenchant observers of democracy, Masha Gessen is the author of eleven books, including the National Book Award-winning The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. A staff writer at The New Yorker, they have covered political subjects including Russia, L.G.B.T. rights, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and the rise of autocracy among others.
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 their 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. The book garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist, with The New York Review of Books raving “Gessen’s credentials as an observer of autocracy are impeccable… Surviving Autocracy sharpens an edge of disgust lately blunted by relentless use.”
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. Gessen charts their paths against the machinations of the regime that would crush them all, and against the war it waged on understanding itself, which ensured the unobstructed reemergence of the old Soviet order in the form of today’s terrifying and seemingly unstoppable mafia state. 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, they have 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.” 2014’s Words Will Break Cement 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.
Gessen has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, and Slate, among other publications. Gessen served as a trustee and vice president of PEN America, and was the advisor to and inspiration for PEN America’s Russian Independent Media Archive, a digital archive focused on preserving the last two decades of independent Russian journalism. Gessen is a staff writer at The New Yorker. They have taught at Amherst, Oberlin and Bard Colleges and in Fall 2023 will join the faculty at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY as their first Distinguished Professor. 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.here.