Masha Gessen on Surviving Autocracy


Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat—and won.

I have lived in autocracies most of my life, and have spent much of my career writing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I have learned a few rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect.

— Masha Gesssen

I welcomed Hillary Clinton's concession speech and Barack Obama's remarks following the election. With civility and grace they issued a call to our better selves. We could do with more of that.

Masha Gessen offers a different take on it with an essay published at NYR Daily two days after the election. She acknowledges the good intentions of the president and his would-be successor while arguing forcefully that their remarks fell short in important respects.

Clinton’s and Obama’s very civil passages...seemed to close off alternative responses to his minority victory.... [Their] phrases about the peaceful transfer of power concealed the omission of a call to action.

Moreover, they paved the way for "the pretense that America is starting from scratch and its president-elect is a tabula rasa. Or we are: 'we owe him an open mind.'" We have seen this among certain elements of the punditocracy and the political class who speak as if there were a snowball's chance in hell that Trump will govern in a way other than how he has run his businesses, campaigned, and lived. This may be put down to wishful thinking, hopeless naïvté, or purposeful disinformation, also known as horse manure, depending on the source.

I still believe that Clinton and Obama struck the right notes for the election's immediate aftermath. Now, however, just a few weeks down the road, Gessen's counterpoint also serves us well. Autocracy: Rules for Survival is worth reading in its entirety.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and activist, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. She is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

Minor, nonsubstantive edits were made to this piece after it was published.

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