Russian dissidents are usually proponents of American-style libertarianism. Lech Walesa loved Ronald Reagan, as did prisoners in Gulags, who would risk it all and cheer whenever the guards would counter-productively broadcast Reagan speeches. Having been subjected to big government run amok in Russia, dissidents who immigrate to the United States appreciate what is exceptional about American society.
The same can be said of Masha Gessen, a former Russian dissident and writer-in-residence at Oberlin College. In a period where other anti-Trump activists refuse to consider the arguments of the other side and seek to deny those “fascists” the right to express pro-Trump sentiments, Gessen has a libertarian tinge.
Her outlook comes from knowing firsthand how destructive and violent big government can be, courtesy of her lesbian activist past in Putin’s Russia. Protesting the regime’s homophobic violence against the LGBT community, she was literally bloodied on the steps of the Russian Parliament by government forces.
In a recent interview with the hard-left magazine, In These Times, Gessen comes across as more a proponent of American Exceptionalism and using the tools of democracy to fight Trump than firebombing cars:
“I wouldn’t say I place my hope in the Left. I place my hope in civil society. The one thing that is different about the United States from any country that has faced an aspiring autocrat is the strength and wealth of its civil society. No European country has a civil society like the American one…It’s really hard to resist Trump, but if there is any chance it lies with civil society.”
Gessen also praises American Exceptionalism because of its press:
“The other thing we have here that other countries don’t is an amazing media, and more amazing than it was 10 years ago. Under Trump, there’s been a period of reinvigoration for a lot of journalists.”
Gessen also distinguishes herself from American anti-Trump radicals in her belief that one must listen to the other side rather than deny them the right of free speech:
“Try to talk to people who are different from you, try to be out in the community—that’s also a part of resistance, maintaining our public space in the media and on the streets, making sure we don’t cocoon ourselves by only talking to people who agree with us.”
Although taking the requisite shots at a “pronounced right-wing and Breitbart bubble” in America, Gessen asserts that for the “rest of the country“ there exists a “pretty healthy public sphere.” And the Left needs “to keep it healthy by continually exposing ourselves to a spectrum of opinions, a spectrum of different people.”
But it also must be said that Gessen has not completely left the mindset of her homeland. Under ordinary circumstances, she says she considers European civil society, where “there’s a lot of state money that circulates in civil society” as “a better system” than the U.S. one.
Nor does she completely dismiss the remedy for Trump via a military coup: “If suddenly, tomorrow, there’s a military coup, that may not be a horrible thing. I sort of agree with some people who say, ‘Anything is better than him.'”
Such comments, however, are leavened by the common sense that Gessen displays; her willingness to transcend what is emotionally satisfying and soberly consider the dangers a coup would have for American democracy.
“The problem is how much of American democracy do we actually destroy in the process? If we have destroyed trust in the media, if we have destroyed the understanding of government being separate from the intelligence agencies, of media being separate from the intelligence agencies, if we’ve destroyed all that, then the chances of recovery are that much more difficult.”
Among the anti-Trump left today, Gessen is a reasonable voice. And it says a lot about the anti-democratic and just plain sinister views of American anti-Trump activists that it takes a person born in a totalitarian society to teach them American values.