Masha Gessen Speaks at Swarthmore

Parrish September 11, 2018 on the campus of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA. (Photo by Emma Ricci-De Lucca ’21)

In the second installment of the Activism Under Totalitarianism lecture series, award-winning author and journalist Masha Gessen came to Swarthmore’s campus on Oct. 23. They participated in a candid conversation about recent developments in Russian politics as well as the evolving field of journalism. 

The event consisted of a moderated discussion with Russian Professor José Vergara, a Q&A with the audience, and a book signing of free copies of Gessen’s most recently published book, “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.”

Funding for the event came from the William J. Cooper Foundation, the Russian program, the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility, and the Swarthmore Project for Eastern European Relations (SPEER). 

According to SPEER founder Roman Shemakov ’20, sponsoring lecturers is critical to the mission of SPEER, which was started in the Spring of 2018 to create a network for people connected to Eastern Europe.

“This lecture series is a way to bridge the gap between the western community and post-Soviet space by inviting super fascinating, extremely bright and very inspiring people to Swarthmore,” said Shemakov.

Last year SPEER started small and hosted seven lesser-known, but influential speakers from the post-Soviet space in a lecture series entitled Tomorrow’s Europe according to Shemakov. To accommodate the greater popularity of this year’s lecturers as part of the Activism Under Totalitarianism series, SPEER moved the events from the small McCabe Atrium to the much larger space of Sci 101.

“It’s incredible that we can fill up the entirety of Sci 101,” Shemakhov said. “[The lecture series has] definitely grown in size, but it has also evolved in content. Last year, we chose to focus on the theoretical and academic frameworks used to construct our contemporary notion of Eastern Europe. Now, we are emphasizing the activism of individuals who aren’t just involved in the region, but who have played a role in its contemporary organization.”

Kicking off the series in late September was Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, whose notoriety generated a lot of student attendance. Shemakhov said that unlike Tolokonnikova, who brings attention to, what Shemakhov called, an absurd political situation in Russia through her music, Gessen critiques totalitarianism through their reporting and academic analysis.

Interviewer for the lecture series and faculty advisor of SPEER, Vergara, said he has always respected Gessen’s work, whether it be reading an article of theirs in The New Yorker or engaging with a portion of their books in his Contemporary Russian class.

When asking Gessen questions, Vergara had three general topics he wanted to cover. Vergara started the discussion around the idea of facts and truth in modern journalism. He then transitioned to ask Gessen about the book they were giving away as to introduce the audience to Gessen’s writing. Lastly, Vergara ended the conversation with a comparison of student activism and protest in Russia and the U.S.

While protests in Russia may look similar to U.S. protests on YouTube or online, Gessen feels that impression is false.

“The most significant difference is a fundamental one. Student protests in Russia are unlike  student protests in this country because of collective action,” said Gessen. 

US protests are organized by a group where the members decide the purpose, means, and location of the protest. Gessen argues that this collaboration is missing from Russian protests, eliminating the potential of political action.

Gessen, who is a part of the journalism community, also offered their commentary on the role of journalists in covering President Donald Trump.

“For journalists who say ‘just the facts’ and ‘I’m not here to editorialize’ [and] ‘I’m not here to tell a larger story’ [and] ‘I’m only here to point out the facts,’ that’s abdicating responsibility,” said Gessen. “So our job is to tell the larger story. The larger story is that Trump is lying. A fact

is that this particular claim that he has made has no basis in reality, or fact is that he made a false claim, [or] the fact is that there is no evidence for something he said, those are facts. The truth is that he is lying. And the difference between the fact and the truth is that the truth is grounded, not only in the needed observation of this one particular statement, but in the larger context.”

Many students who have never taken Russian attended the event. Hannah Bartoshesky ’21 said she had little prior background on Russia going into Gessen’s talk and sought to broaden her world understanding.

“Because I’m a S.T.E.M. major, I spent a lot of time around people that also talk about S.T.E.M. things and so I do think it’s important to attend events that are about topics I would not normally be exposed to in my classes and just with my peer group,” said Bartoshesky. “So I think it was really valuable to just go and learn more about the world and other perspectives.”

Dissimilar from Bartoshesky, Gabriel Straus ’22 said he has a sustained curiosity in Russian politics and Russian history and knew of Gessen before the talk. Straus listened to the audiobook of “The Future is History” in high school and found Gessen’s unique storytelling method to be very smart. He said he was glad when he saw on Facebook that they were coming to campus and encouraged friends to attend.

“I really appreciate how certain Swarthmore professors, take advantage of the fact that this school has the resources that it does to bring really interesting, thought-provoking speakers to Swarthmore’s campus and to talk to us,” said Straus. “The fact that we’re able to hear from someone like that from someone like [Nadya] Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot as nineteen-year-old’s studying other stuff is an extraordinary opportunity.”

Straus was surprised that his take away from the talk was less about the Russian government and more about Gessen’s distinction between fact and truth and their view of what constitutes accurate reporting.

“[Before the talk], I already was really interested in Russian history, and I remain interested in Russian history,” said Straus. “But I think that, for me, some of the conversations … stimulating my interest was more about journalistic ethics because that isn’t really a subject that I tend to gravitate towards as much.”

In addition to the dialogue on journalism in the Trump era, Bartoshesky said she also  appreciated Gessen’s insights on the importance of having robust humanities to improve society.

“I thought it was very interesting how they put so much emphasis on the importance of philosophers or social scientists within a society,” said Bartoshesky. “Because I think those are things that maybe get more attention on like a college campus like Swarthmore than they do out in the real world, where humanities majors are sort of downplayed. But they were talking about how the power of knowledge and reflection for society is super critical for it to continue to move forward and not like slide into a dictatorship like Russia did.”

Continuing to look at the developing political and cultural landscape of Russia, SPEER is hosting the next Activism Under Totalitarianism lecture on Nov. 20 with Russian film professor and LGBTQ culture specialist, Vlad Strukov. Contingent on time and availability, Shemakohv and Vergara hope to foster more diversity in lectures by bringing in speakers who are affiliated with other regions in Eastern Europe besides Russia. Moreover, Shemakohv said SPEER is looking to strengthen their discussion of the Post-Soviet space by developing an undergraduate research journal with Haverford and Bryn Mawr which will be published next spring. The group is still accepting submissions and can be contacted via their website.

Reflecting on SPEER’s success to generate dialogue among the student body, Vergara said Gessen’s talk reaffirmed his appreciation of Russian Studies.

“Masha Gessen’s work is a good example of how we can use Russian studies and these problems or issues in Russia to talk about more universal issues and themes, negative ones like corruption or more positive ones like human connections.” Vergara said.

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