back to top

8 Things We Learned About Russian American Journalist Masha Gessen

"I am extremely aware of all the things that make me scared."

Posted on

Masha Gessen is a Russian American journalist, an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights, and the author of several books – most notably, The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise Of Vladimir Putin.

Gessen lived in Russia until her mid-teens, and then moved to the US with her family in 1981. Ten years later, she returned to Moscow on assignment.

Gessen currently lives in New York City. Her latest book is about the Tsarnaev brothers, the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Here's what she told BuzzFeed News.

1. Only one of her books, about a mathematician, has been translated into Russian.

PR image

While Gessen has written about a wide variety of topics, her two best known books are The Man Without A Face and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. Neither has made it into Russian.

"This guy at a publishing house has just bought my backlist. He's going to translate an old book about my grandmothers, and a book about medical genetics. Not Pussy Riot, and not Putin."

The publisher told Gessen he wanted to start slow, publish the safer books first and see how they went.

"The risks are always vague, that's the problem," she says. "What would be the risks of publishing Putin? The risk might be that no bookstore would order the book, they won't be able to sell it. That's an economic risk. Or else they put out just the ebook and then they get charged with extremism. Or they don't."

"He thinks he's making a smart calculation, he may well be. But in another sense, it's self-censorship. No one is actually banning the Putin book. But everybody is too scared to publish it."

Advertisement

2. She writes about topics like Putin, Pussy Riot (pictured), and Russia's anti-gay laws because she finds those stories the most interesting – not because she's chasing danger.

Ryan Pierse / Getty Images

"I don't think of them as dangerous topics. They are the best stories!" Gessen says.

"I don't feel like I have to be confrontational in the topics I choose. I am interested in the ways we think about the world, and the ways in which those ways are fucked up."

3. In fact, Gessen doesn't think of herself as brave at all. Which is kind of remarkable for a Russian LGBT activist and former war correspondent.

Yaya Stempler

"I actually think – I have a theory about this – I think the people who look like they're brave, from the outside, I think they're cowards."

How so? Gessen explains:

"I've known many war correspondents, and they basically fall into two categories. The reckless ones, and the scared ones – and I'm always on the scared side. The reckless ones are the people who don't feel much fear, or get a thrill from being in physical danger. I am definitely not one of those people. When I was a war correspondent, I was always looking for ways to avoid gunfire."

It's rational, says Gessen – but it's not brave.

"If you're naturally a pretty scared person, in order to function in the world, you have to be quite aware of all the things that scare you, and how you're going to deal with them. And that's why I don't think of myself as brave. I am extremely aware of all the things that make me scared."

4. She left Russia for the second time in 2013 after politicians started talking about taking children from same-sex parents.

A huge consequence of the violence directed towards LGBT Russians has been a flood of refugees, says Gessen – many of them in New York City, where there's an "entire community" who fled Putin.

Gessen, who had a US passport, said she had a very "soft landing" compared to other Russians.

"I have a US passport and the Supreme Court gave us the very great gift of the Windsor decision, meaning my partner and I could get married and she could have her green card. We had the material means to buy a house before moving. I don't want to call myself a refugee, I moved."

Gessen says the laws that caused this exodus are more designed to send a message than they are to be enforced.

"You can't enforce the homosexual propaganda laws, unless you do it selectively," she says. "Once you write a law that can only be enforced selectively, then the point of it is not to have legislation, the point of it is to have a message in the public."

5. Gessen says the dismantling of LGBT rights in Russia came as a "real shock to the system".

Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Getty Images

Gessen didn't pay attention at first, mostly because the homosexual propaganda laws just seemed ridiculous.

"I thought they were funny," she says. "And I certainly did not think they were going to affect my life."

The fact Russia was slowly progressing in terms of LGBT rights before it started to backpedal in the early 2000s left LGBT people particularly vulnerable, says Gessen.

"You had people who were living openly. Not necessarily publicly openly, but openly to their neighbours, their kids' kindergarten teachers. All of a sudden they became outlaws. They didn't have a closet to go back into, it wasn't there," she said.

"Which makes Russia in some ways a more dangerous place than some other countries, for individuals. Because if you've never stuck your nose out, you're less likely to be subject to attack than living this experience of being completely exposed, and all of a sudden made into a second class citizen."

6. She tried to get a bureau job after working in the US queer press throughout the '80s – but couldn't get a gig as an out queer woman. So she started writing for magazines.

"I tried to get a bureau job, because that seemed like a nice professional thing to do. But who was going to give a bureau job in 1991 to someone who looks like me and came from the queer press?" she asks.

"Now I think I was so lucky, because I had to become a magazine journalist. That gave me so much more freedom than having a bureau job. And gave me more financial stability – who would have thought that at the time?"

7. She is a massive night owl.

Yaya Stempler

Her schedule, summed up: "I get up at noon. I work until four in the morning."

After Gessen gets up, she goes for a 30km bike ride before coming home and cooking for her household.

"My household is pretty expansive," she explains. "I live with my partner, our three kids, my ex partner, and often there's someone else with us. And I'm the cook, so I cook. We have dinner, and then I go up to my study and work until four in the morning."

8. She wants to expose the ways in which the world is fucked up.

"I have very little patience for the idea of objectivity," Gessen says. "I have more patience for the idea that there's an objective style, to serve the original concept of objectivity in journalism."

That original concept, says Gessen, is the idea that journalism has to be evidence based, with transparent sourcing.

"I'm down with that, but I'm not down with the idea that the journalist is some sort of hovering presence with no subjectivity, and no location."

Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.

Contact Lane Sainty at lane.sainty@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.