Gessen spends a lot of time in this book discussing definitions and how they do and don’t apply to various political realities. Like in their brother Keith Geesen’s novel, A Terrible Country, what I felt was Gessen’s innate understanding of Russia as a guilding force. In addition to this, their research into studies of totalitarianism helps a lot. Using Arendt as a sort of central figure, this book helps us to understand that totalitarianism is a totalizing control over a country, but that doesn’t automatically mean oppressive violent tactics. And by the way, there’s no end to violence and threat of violence throughout, so I don’t there’s no violence, but in especially authoritarian control, there’s the attempt to make the irrational and awful become everyday, and therefore regular. To me it’s similar to the process of control that Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish, where a soldier’s body is reformed along small movements first by the positioning of a finger, then a hand, then an arm etc, as well as the ways in which control is shifted from the exterior to the interior, they ways in which people begin to control themselves.
Using the LGBTQ laws as the mode through which the book shows a lot of this, Gessen shows us numerous examples of where state apparatus doesn’t have to almost anything to engineer the controlling affects they desire. And because of the constant disruption of normal life, this becomes the new normal. One of the throughlines of the book addresses the question of why Russian life expectancy lagged behind many of his neighbors, when specific health problems were actually worse in those other countries, and the implication is that the low-line background radiation of dread and chaos kills people off faster. Just some fun escapism for an American looking down the barrel of 2022 and 2024.