PEN Dialogue: Russia Under Putin with Masha Gessen and Andrey Kurkov

16 Sep 2015
Masha Gessen and Andrey Kurkov

PEN South Africa held two PEN Dialogues at the 2015 Open Book Festival. Read board member Adré Marshall’s write-up of the first Dialogue: Lives of Writers here. Centre Co-ordinator Lindsay Callaghan attended the second event, Russia Under Putin, on Saturday 12 September:

The second PEN Dialogue at Open Book 2015 was held in a packed studio at the Fugard Theatre on Saturday night, with Pippa Green hosting a fascinating discussion on Russia Under Putin with Masha Gessen and Andrey Kurkov.

Pippa, a South African journalist, writer and member of PEN SA, started the session off by mentioning the significance of the PEN empty chair, placed on stage to symbolise the plight of imprisoned writers, before introducing the two authors.

Masha Gessen is a Russian/American journalist, writer and activist who wrote The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Andrey Kurkov is a Ukrainian writer, journalist and commentator whose latest book, Ukraine Diaries: Dispatched from Kiev, is about the Euromaidan protests and the months that followed. Masha is on the PEN America Board of Trustees and Andrey is the Vice-President of Ukrainian PEN.

Masha said that the important thing about Putin’s presidency is that it just happened and that calling him “an accidental president” is the statement she is most taken to task for. It was former president Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle that plucked Putin out of his obscurity as a faceless bureaucrat and, she said, it could have been any other faceless bureaucrat that was chosen – it just happened to be him.

Since Masha wrote The Man Without a Face in 2012, a Hungarian professor’s research into mafia states has struck a chord with her. She described Russia as a family-owned country run by a godfather, where everyone’s wealth is interdependent and you can’t leave: “You can die, you can be kicked out, but you cannot leave voluntarily”.

Andrey offered an interesting look at the Ukraine’s relationship to Russia, describing the latter’s reporting on the Euromaidan protests. It was presented as utter chaos in Kiev and cut with footage from other events, but in reality there was a shopping mall below the Maidan square that was operating as usual.

When asked about his country’s literary culture, Andrey described an influx of writing on sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in post-Soviet Ukraine, particularly by young women, and explained that there is a big literary culture but no book buying market. The Euromaidan protests prompted a resurgence of writing on politics, although Andrey joked that there is perhaps a little too much patriotic poetry and prose being written now.

“In the Ukraine everyone has their own opinion, so we have 45 million different opinions!” Andrey said, discussing the country’s propensity for anarchy. He described how many people came together to fight during the Euromaidan protests, but each for their own cause. This individualistic attitude is reflected in the country’s 200 registered political parties. Andrey contrasted this with Russia’s collective mentality, saying that “Putin will die in power or he will be killed, because Russians love their tsars and sometimes they kill them.”

Masha shared her bizarre experience of meeting Putin after she had been fired from her job as the editor of popular science magazine Vokrug Sveta. Putin was going to be hang-gliding with endangered Siberian cranes and her publisher had asked that she send a journalist to go with him. When Masha refused, she was fired. Putin then called her and offered her the job back, which she declined. This idea of a hang-gliding Putin fits with the image we see of him in the international media, which Pippa described as “bare chested and riding horses”.

The discussion also touched on Crimea (“The fact that the West didn’t believe what was happening in Crimea made Putin think he can carry on and take more,” Andrey said); the #RhodesMustFall movement in relation to the destruction of some of the many statues of Lenin; and education (Masha said that she got a good maths education in Russia, but was not taught statistics: “If you can understand statistics you can understand a lot about a country that they don’t want you to”).

Pippa wrapped the session up by paying tribute to Steve Biko on the 38th anniversary of his death at the hands of apartheid-era police.