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Interesting person profile: Masha Gessen

Published onJun 19, 2018
Interesting person profile: Masha Gessen


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.

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Why should we invite her to Viral class (or an ML talk)

1. She is a woman.

2. I believe that she will have a lot of things to say when it comes to social organizing, from her experience living in Russia in the 90s. The way I understand it, she left Russia as a kid (before 1989) and then came back as an adult and worked there as a journalist for 20 years until recently (2012?). She mentioned that she was involved in organizing a big (peaceful) demonstration in Moscow back then, before Putin started really cracking down on protesters. Now, I would agree if you feel this is a bit out of the scope of the Viral class (we never really talked about riots and demonstrations), but I don’t see why we should refrain from doing so - especially if Zeynep Tufekci also joins us for a lecture. I don’t think having experience in demonstration organizing is necessarily a good thing (most European demonstrations/riots are completely pointless and just for show), but it does make a difference when you do it in countries where you might be risking everything by showing up (Russia and Turkey), just like these women did.

3. She has given the most compelling X-ray of the Trump administration I have ever listened to, very clearly pointing out where the Press has been failing, and what the dangers for the societal fabric are, going forward. Her experience under Putin makes her see Trump in a very different light, and I’m sure we have a lot of things to learn from that. I will give just one example (of the many): She describes that one of the biggest dangers with Trump is that he is destroying language in two ways: first, by using words to mean their opposite, and secondly by using words to mean nothing. This results in an impossible situation for the Press: either comment on a lie, or comment on simply nothing.  

4. Her description of fascism was eye-opening to me (paraphrasing): “Fascism is the most simplistic political ideology, since its very foundation is that politics should not be complicated - it is aggressive ignorance.” 

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