La Trobe Visiting Research Fellow Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist, LGBT rights advocate and the author of several books, including the unflinching The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.
A fifth generation journalist, Gessen has also penned books on Pussy Riot, Boston bombers the Tsarnaev Brothers and is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times and Vanity Fair.
On this visit, Gessen is taking part in public talks on global queer rights and the rise of the US president-elect Donald Trump. Gessen will also be running a masterclass and workshop exclusively for La Trobe researchers and HDR students.
As a Visiting Research Fellow, you’ll be sharing advice on how to prepare and conduct interviews as part of research methodology. What’s one secret to being a great interviewer?
People, especially beginner interviewers, often think they have to be forceful and demonstrate how knowledgeable they are in order to be a good interviewer.
There are a number of things I’ll be going through in the masterclass, but the single biggest one is just to hang back. Just listen. Create the space for the person to talk to you.
You’ve written books on a range of topics, from Russian feminist punk rock protest group Pussy Riot to Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, Birobidzhan. How do you decide what you’re going to write on? What do you look for in a research topic?
The big question is: is this a topic you can live with for a couple of years? You do develop an intuition for it after a while, but it takes making a couple of mistakes.
My book about the mathematician (Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century) was a successful book and a lot of people liked it, but I was pretty miserable writing it because I was not happy living with it for a couple of years. I got tired of it. It was like sharing your house with a stranger.
With a good topic, it’s like sharing your house with someone you love. You just want to go back to it every day and wake up to it every morning.
You wrote the chilling The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin while living and working as a journalist in Russia – a country that consistently ranks in the top 10 most dangerous countries to be a journalist. Why was it important for you to write this book and take this risk?
The way that book came about was Vanity Fair asked me to write a big profile on Putin, as I’d already been writing about him for many years at that point. I really enjoyed it; it was like being able to crystallise something I had been thinking about at that point for eight years.
This was before the world saw Putin as the dictator that he is. I felt like the mainstream narrative was so different to how I saw him. After writing that article, I thought, well actually, I have a lot to say and it’s not something I can say in shorter pieces because I need to go back and explain so much.
In a big piece, I could lay out my argument, and that was gratifying. So, I broadened it out to a book and that worked very well.
You decided to leave Russia and return to the US as a result of the increasing anti-LGBT laws in Russia. Now that Trump’s the president-elect, what are your thoughts on the future of LGBT people in the US?
I’m not optimistic at all. I think people were a little slow to realise just how homophobic a Trump administration is likely to be.
In 2004, Massachusetts was the first state to legalise same-sex marriage. In the 12 years since, attitudes towards LGBT people have changed drastically. It is probably the speediest change in attitude America has ever seen. That cannot happen without backlash.
Then you get someone like Donald Trump. As is true with any populist demagogue, populist demagogues always appeal to an imaginary past, and that lends itself to taking something that is exemplary of rapid change and reversing it.
Now what we’re seeing is a perfect anti-gay storm because Mike Pence, who is Trump’s Vice President, is the most explicitly homophobic official in the United States. I don’t know what’s inside anybody’s heart, but this is in terms of his policies.
It seems like the dynamic that’s at work is Pence picks the people and Trump only cares about whether they’re loyal or not, and as a result we, so far, have not heard of any cabinet pick who is not explicitly homophobic.
The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is an outspoken racist and homophobe. The pick for the new US Ambassador to the UN, which is a cabinet level position and which is hugely important to LGBT issues internationally, is Nikki Haley, who’s a homophobe and an opponent of marriage equality.
Then they’ve got the Education Secretary Betsy Devos, who has actually funded conversion therapy as socio-cultural activism.
I mean, we’re just staring into the abyss in those terms.
Combining those picks with a Republican Congress, a Republican Senate, a Republican majority in all the statehouses, a vacancy in the Supreme Court and 85 vacancies in federal courts at the moment and that’s really looking awful.
Combine that with the natural impetus to reverse cultural change to appeal to Trump’s voters and this is also terrible news.
Trump voters are terrible news because on one hand they elected him and on the other hand, they’re a minority. He’s really aware and really pained by the fact he didn’t win the popular vote. So, his natural tendency is to whip up popularity.
That sounds terrifying.
Right? But, let’s keep proportions in mind. What I’m saying is, at this point, there’s a clear threat to LGBT people, but the attack on Muslims has been ongoing in the United States for 15 years and will just intensify under Trump.
My lack of safety at this point is a hypothetical construction, and my Muslim friends’ lack of safety is a lived reality every day.
You’re running a La Trobe research workshop titled, Queer and Dissident Ideas: How LGBTIQ rights have come to matter on the International Stage. Can you give us an insight into what you’ll be discussing?
The idea is to come together and talk about international queer issues because so little of that has happened – especially in an academic context. Most people think about LGBT issues in a national context, so I thought this topic was very unusual.
From my part, I’m going to talk about these different narratives that have taken hold in the last few years about the international anti-queer movement. One idea is that it all comes from Moscow, and Moscow has done a lot to peddle that idea to show that Moscow is the centre of the traditional values universe.
In complete opposition, the other narrative is that the American right-wing has been exporting its ideas because it’s lost its foothold in the US. It has taken its hatred to places like Russia, which then repackaged and re-exports them. There’s truth to both of those narratives.
My argument is that if there’s truth to both of those narratives then actually what we’re seeing is this circulation. What I’m bringing to the table is an understanding of the landscape of the anti-queer movement.
Lastly, what drew you to take up this Visiting Research Fellowship at La Trobe?
One of my unusual traits as a journalist is that I like to hang out with academics. I’ve loved the times I’ve spent in academic institutions as a Visiting Fellow or Writer in Residence.
I don’t think academics speak to journalists enough and I don’t think journalists talk to academics enough. The fact that this explicitly brings a group of academics and at least one journalist together is what really appealed to me.
My colleague, who’s an academic in Vienna, says journalists collect and process information at a much faster rate than academics. As a journalist, I would say academics think much deeper. Both of these are true. When you bring them together, you get something new.
Masha Gessen is visiting La Trobe as an RFA Transforming Human Societies Research Fellow.
Our Transforming Human Societies research confronts some of the most pressing challenges facing human societies, and works to get to the heart of the causes, impacts and outcomes to help communities.