My Conversation with Masha Gessen

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Masha joined Tyler in New York City to answer his many questions about Russia: why was Soviet mathematics so good? What was it like meeting with Putin? Why are Russian friendships so intense? Are Russian women as strong as the stereotype suggests — and why do they all have the same few names? Is Russia more hostile to LGBT rights than other autocracies? Why did Garry Kasparov fail to make a dent in Russian politics? What did The Americans get right that Chernobyl missed? And what’s a good place to eat Russian food in Manhattan?

Here is excerpt:

COWEN: Why has Russia basically never been a free country?

GESSEN: Most countries have a history of never having been free countries until they become free countries.


COWEN: But Russia has been next to some semifree countries. It’s a European nation, right? It’s been a part of European intellectual life for many centuries, and yet, with the possible exception of parts of the ’90s, it seems it’s never come very close to being an ongoing democracy with some version of free speech. Why isn’t it like, say, Sweden?

GESSEN: [laughs] Why isn’t Russia like . . . I tend to read Russian history a little bit differently in the sense that I don’t think it’s a continuous history of unfreedom. I think that Russia was like a lot of other countries, a lot of empires, in being a tyranny up until the early 20th century. Then Russia had something that no other country has had, which is the longest totalitarian experiment in history. That’s a 20th-century phenomenon that has a very specific set of conditions.

I don’t read Russian history as this history of Russians always want a strong hand, which is a very traditional way of looking at it. I think that Russia, at breaking points when it could have developed a democracy or a semidemocracy, actually started this totalitarian experiment. And what we’re looking at now is the aftermath of the totalitarian experiment.


GESSEN: …I thought Americans were absurd. They will say hello to you in the street for no reason. Yeah, I found them very unreasonably friendly.

I think that there’s a kind of grumpy and dark culture in Russia. Russians certainly have a lot of discernment in the fine shades of misery. If you ask a Russian how they are, they will not cheerfully respond by saying they’re great. If they’re miserable, they might actually share that with you in some detail.

There’s no shame in being miserable in Russia. There’s, in fact, a lot of validation. Read a Russian novel. You’ll find it all in there. We really are connoisseurs of depression.

Finally there was the segment starting with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Russia proper. Let me start with one. Why is it that Russians seem to purge their own friends so often? The standing joke being the Russian word for “friend” is “future enemy.” There’s a sense of loyalty cycles, where you have to reach a certain bar of being loyal or otherwise you’re purged.

Highly recommended.


Did she tell you anything about the current whereabouts of Carlos Molotov Pavlov? ☺

Purged friends! That's what conservatives in America have been doing the past 2-3 years.

As a good liberal, rayward projects. Which side demonizes you if you do not share their matrix of beliefs about immigration, gender, race, sex, the number of letters in LBTGXYZ?

If rayward is not presiding every weekday morning over a table's worth of retiree regulars of heterogeneous politics (or what passes for heterogeneous in America) in the cutest coffee shop in his coastal town, he's not doing it right. The key is to keep control of the newspaper so you can read out the news and explain it. The political views of the assembled are not really very important as long as they enjoy the fellowship more than holding forth (or more than they mind you loudly and predictably holding forth). One or two may not be entirely compos mentis, but so life takes us all.

And you need to care about the others, their aches and pains and doctors' visits, and their grown kids.

There's a guy in Gulf Shores can show you how to do it, and another in Carlsbad, NM.

COWEN: How do we fix the college admissions scandal?
COWEN: A simple question.
GESSEN: We nationalize higher education.
COWEN: What does that mean?
GESSEN: It means we have to talk about it, to learn to think about higher education as a public good. There has to be a way to create publicly funded higher education that doesn’t cost an impossible amount of money for most people who want to get a higher education. I think it would also have the result of leveling the field among colleges.

The phrase "learned nothing, forgotten nothing" springs to mind.

She obviously doesn't know what a public good is.

"leveling the field among colleges."

That notion of cutting down the tall poppies seems very Russian.

Is this really necessary? I don't know.

But I think people who were wrong on massive benefits of privatization of secondary education (vouchers and academies and all that) will find it hard to argue that it would do anything too bad on tertiary education.

And folks who tie themselves in knots to extol public, standardized secondary education will have a hard time arguing against it for tertiary education.

And if college is mandatory for a decent place in the economy, much as secondary education is, then it probably should be as compulsory as secondary education is, and preferably completed as cheaply and close to home as possible.

Key point: “Poverty and scarcity are actually very good for totalitarian societies. They maintain that sense of mobilization that’s essential for totalitarian societies.
This is actually not my idea, but I think it has a lot of merit, this idea that the mass protests in Russia that we saw in 2011, 2012 were partly a function of prosperity.“

Our government’s strategy of trying to impoverish people who happen to live in authoritarian countries is both evil and counterproductive to the goal of freeing those countries. We should promote prosperity in all countries regardless of whether we agree with their political system.

Edwart Luttwak said something similar about poverty in his book on coups. Bryan Caplan used such logic to explain an "idea trap":

"Poverty and scarcity are actually very good for totalitarian societies."

True; Orwell made that point in "1984." On the other hand, there's little apparent protest in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and we've certainly promoted prosperity there. Not sure what the right answer is.

The goal of freeing countries through rising wealth driving political participation may be reasonably worthy, but it seems a reasonable precaution to drive up wealth in countries that are already relatively un-authoritarian democracies for their level of wealth first, and which have generally fewer risks of rising wealth being highjacked by authoritarian actors in government.

Just as it was wise for the Marshall Plan for Europe to at least come before any attempt to enrich the Soviet Union and so encourage freedom there, whether or not the latter would have even been a wise idea or not. A world where reproach with authoritarian regimes helps bourgeois forces there may be good, but it seems smarter to work with bourgeois forces under non-authoritarian regimes, if there's a good bit of mileage to go in their development.

Giving the squeaky wheel the most grease in this scenario, is probably a bad choice.

Is TC scared of interviewing people he and americans in generally don't agree with? Why always the same LGBT diversity rubbish? It's not representative and it's full of lies as demostrated consistently, albeit it makes for excellent public relations.

Why should TC suffer the sh it storm that black Harvard law professor got for laying out a controversial view? Who wills that on their head? For TC, this blog is a form of both education and entertainment, he's arguably not trying to change the world here. Me on the other hand... patents!

+1 Ray. Yet about patents? There's a lot of money to be made there, and you're in there. As to where this goes, this & that? More of a pendulum, but at base, 'patents' are good.

I think it's very strange that a person who seemed anti-collectivist and anti-totalitarian would suggest "nationalizing" US universities. Particularly given that government-run universities already have 75% market share among US students. I guess her opposition to Russia and Putin isn't based upon individual rights or property rights, if she is willing to extinguish private control over any and all university systems. That seems fairly totalitarian to me.

I think the issue is that state universities are gradually behaving as for-profit universities after state funding was reduced.

No, that's not the issue that I identified. The issue is hypocrisy, of self-styled anti-totalitarians offering totalitarian "solutions" that show contempt for freedom of thought and action. "I don't like how state run colleges work - let's nationalize them as well as all private institutions." Fashionable in some circles, intellectually lazy, and not pro-freedom for sure.

Wavin' that red cape in front of Steve Sailer.

This woman is gruesome. Insist they take her back.


Most countries have a history of never having been free countries until they become free countries.


If 13 colonies were already free, why fight a bloody independence war?

In the transcript, "Archive" should be "arXiv" (it's a website, ).

Also, there's a paragraph or so missing between "Garry is a good friend of yours, right?" and "It's actually painful...", where the audio was not transcribed.

Old Soviet joke:

How are you doing today Alexi?


Just average?

Yes, better than tomorrow, worse than yesterday. So average.

That tickeled my funny boner.

If someone could read both russian and english - in respect to Garry Kasparov there seems quite a problem. In Russian Garry is all left. Naturally you would consider him extreme left if you read his articles. Now you go to English and you see ... quite right liberal man.
Somehow there is a problem. A core support group of Kasparov ( which might spread further in case of right circumstances ) are educated people who are somewhat proficient in english. Now after reading his articles the only conclusion is that Garry keeps you for idiot - he asks in russian to follow left ideas, but right ideas in English.

Another problem - is though Garry is world chess champion, available data on his IQ tells a story (German magazine took his IQ test when he was not champion and it was less than impressive ) of a person of moderate intellectual powers.
And seems explains the previous strangeness - he just not only does not realizes the problem but also unable to understand it by thinking on how it might look from outside.
Here is another example:
for quite a while he tried to intimidate russians with stories like 'gas pipeline will lead to disturbance of baltic buried munitions and in case something happens - there will be a unimaginable catastrophe'. Again - it is easy to check scientific reviews. So what we know? Currently most potent chemical left in baltic is mustard gas. Due to marine condition the most fast possible rate it can dissolve is few years. Now - even if all mustard gas dissolved immediately - then waters of baltic will have slightly higher concentration of mustard gas than officially recognized harmful concentration. in few hours/days mustard gas converts to less toxic substances, which are consumed by bacteria. So given actually possible maximum dissolution rate of mustard gas - no global baltic catastrophe is possible. It is not good, that there are chemical munitions, fish might be harmed, but unimaginable catastrophe???? still Garry spent almost an year telling a story of extremely dangerous gas pipeline. no one, understandably, noticed, except few who though that Garry had some funds infusion from opponents of pipeline (and selling yourself for such causes is not popular for quite conservative russians).

Hahahaha. You wanna a safe space?

In reality women end up as harmed by their own designs in the West. It turns out, all this promiscuity and freedom ends in them being alone, grumpy and empty of vital references when they grow up.

Incel detected.

There's a line of hungry clients waiting, get back to work

Very interesting conversation.

I am not completely convinced by his answer to "why was Soviet mathematics so good?". She says " Soviet mathematics was particularly good in the second half of the 20th century, basically because of the arms race, because the Soviet Union realized . . . World War II created the conditions for the Soviet Union to become a superpower."

But Soviet Mathematics was great before WWII, probably even greater relative to other countries than it was after WWII (after WWII, Soviet mathematics lost relative influence to the US, France, Japan...)

Indeed, to name a few examples, before World War II the soviet mathematics produced the work of Kolmogorov, who invented modern probabilities (and went on doing many other things), Chebotarev and Vinogradov, who revolutionized algebraic and analytic number theory (respectively. Chebotarev proved his fundamental "density theorem" in 1922, Vinogradov introduced, adding great ideas and technical power to the already great work of Hardy and Ramanujan, his method in 1937), Gelfand with his major work in representation theory and functional analysis (cf. Theorem of Gelfand-Masur, 1938), Sobolev who invented "generalized functions" aka "distributions" (1935), Gelfond and his results on transcendental numbers (still essentially unsurpassed). In mathematical Physics, Landau's most active years were 1932-1937. In mathematical Economics, Kantorovich invented linear programming in 1939. Etc.

One can say, I believe, than between the two world war, the Soviet Union was the best country for math, even ahead of Germany. After World War II, Soviet math was still great but had to share the prominence with America and France (if the number of Fields Medals, admittedly a dubious metrics, is any guide, the US and France got more of them than Soviet Union after WWII, both in absolute term and (even more) by capita.)

So why was Soviet math so great? I do not know, but to propose an unpopular hypothesis, I would suggest this has something to do with the enthusiasm created by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. In the few years following the revolution, there were indeed an ebullition of creative talents in all parts of culture, for instance cinema, painting,
literature, literary criticism, classical music, and as we saw mathematics.
Very quickly, the political repression, and the totalitarian aspect of the regime put some brake on this creativity, and many of the creators went silent, or into exile, or became duller. But Mathematics (and perhaps also Music) was for a large part protected from that because of their less ideological nature, and they kept thriving for two decades, after what comes WWII and the explanation given by Masha Gessen becomes correct.

I don't think you need exceptional theories for that. Eastern Europe had 1 third of European population and a sizable chunk of global and they have good genetics. Russia has always had good literature, scientists, chess players, software developers, and business people. And a worrying amount of brain drain.

"But Soviet Mathematics was great before WWII, "


Tyler opened with: "A true polymath, Gessen’s wide-ranging books and articles cover mathematics, history, human rights, counterterrorism, and much more."

That isn't a polymath; that is a journalist. She has written on mathematics in the Soviet Union but wasn't a math major.

+1 for going out on a limb saying the Bolshevik revolution had something to do with it. I'm a libertarian but I can't deny that science, math, and technology flourished for a whole generation under the early USSR. The Reds did emphasize literacy and the sciences and it paid off as they entered the atomic and space ages.

The Bolshevik Revolution had nothing tomdo with it. It just seems that way to people ignorant about how dynamic and creative Russian society was in the decades right before WWI. The 1920s were the last gasp of that society before Stalin murdered it for good.

Stephen Kotkin's Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, which I'm about half way through, holds the same view. Russia was modernizing along a bunch of different dimensions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a big part of that push for modernization was increasing education levels, at least among ethnic Russians and other 'trustworthy' populations. I'm sure that bore fruit in the inter-war years in terms of mathematics, but the infrastructure was built during the last decades of Tsarist rule.

True enough, but reforms were bearing fruit even before 1914. The cultural achievements of the last decades of Romanov Russia were amazing - Stravinsky, Blok, Akhmatova, Andrei Bely, Chekhov, Maksim Gorky, Chagall, Kandinsky and on and on. Even post 1919 cultural figures like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and especially Nabokov were essentially products of the „Silver Age.“

One reason is that a regime that uses operations research ("management science") as a substitute for market price discovery is going to have to train and employ a massive number of mathematicians. So that is what they did. At least that is what my OR professor told me.

Just the opposite. We should not take advice from degenerate regimes. Even when they tell us that we shouldn't trust them, we can't trust them.

Iceland is the only good model for democracy in the world today. They were tested by the gods in 2007, but the stared into the salty wind and were made strong. Skál!

I think Brazil has much to teach us.

Andrew Smith...or should I say Thiago Ribeiro!! ;^)

Taking a bow for discerning the obvious. I deduct 5 internet points.

Wow, just wow. Amazing thinker, can't believe I've never heard of her before.

Yes. Everything is great, but I like particularly her last reply, on NATO.

Caroline stood up, warmly. She had glistening wan skin and stern features. Nothing on her face was rounded off; her black hair was molded on her head.
“I’m jumping when I should bend,” Jane continued, “tossing when I should turn.” She held up a sparkling, violet ball from behind her back. “I offer to you.”

I really hope Tyler's question, about blaming the west, was set-up rather than belief.

Sarcastic right? I'm all too familiar with her and found this to be one of the least interesting Convos with Tyler.

I've read The Man without a Face, which was good, but I felt she portrayed Putin as being duller than he probably is, a bit of wishful thinking, perhaps. He strikes me as a man with many faces, none of them his.

That was pretty interesting (as read), more so than I thought I would be.

Re her mastectomy played out for the readers of Slate: I go back and forth trying to decide, whether the people inclined to use the term "nonbinary," and reference the taking of hormones, as though they were Tour De France cyclists going up and over the Hill of Gender, overstate in their minds the differences between the sexes, or understate them. Currently I've settled on the former.

And again: it's curious (no it's not!) that an ideology as fixed on one sole end as feminism should have an odd byway like a woman appearing to believe she could theoretically take enough testosterone to "become" a man, and thus have more "fun." Like having a hair of the dog that you probably think bit you all through history.

But then in Lena Dunham's sister's memoir of the same in the magazine the other day, she gasps when her mother tries to please her, post-surgery, by referring to her as "son."

This gender stuff seems simultaneously ubiquitous and underdeveloped - I guess mercifully, there's a seeming paucity of theorizing undergirding it, replaced by talk of feelings, unhappiness. The word "hysteria" for once seems appropriate. Did old-school feminists turn everyone off, including themselves, with their mind-numbing prose, and this fifth wave, or whatever we're on, just couldn't do the assigned readings? And somehow got a Cliff's Notes version that convinced them to go cut off their breasts?

It's a striking gesture - but society can be destroyed without people going to such lengths. I wish I could reassure them of that.

I should add that the gender question was just a stray one, and the interest of the interview is elsewhere.

This was SO much better than her talk with Sam Harris. Sam seemed to have pissed her off for some reason because she treated TC so nice in this conversation. Very enjoyable. I would have liked to hear some commentary in her brothers novel that came out last year. It was one of my favorite novels of the last few years.

Sam Harris was extremely gracious to Gessen, and she came off as "a tool" as the millennials say. She also said that the Russians don't have an opinion but *all* just mindlessly believe Putin, which struck me as extreme. Maybe she had a bad day.

Should have asked him about his thoughts on all the dumb and uncritical 'blame Russia' for everything bad in the US the MSM engages in and tries to promote.

Russia invented and amplified the US race war, Russia made Hillary a sh*tty candidate and not campaign in battle ground states she lost in, Russian trolls created racist Boomers on Facebook, Russia destroyed the credibility of the MSM by encouraging a biased MSM, etc.

Or maybe Russia does have a better pulse on deep cultural problems in the US psyche and schisms than any apple pie BS, "USA! USA!" chanting neanderthal US politician...

Cowen: " GDP per capita in Russia has fallen for the last five years in a row. That can’t be good for him."

Except the Russian GDP hasn't fallen for the past 5 years - it has stagnated:

2014... $25,300
2017... $24,800
2018... $25,300

My impression of Russia is that Moscow is out in the middle of a vast plain with few obvious natural defenses, so the lesson Muscovites drew was the need to get big and have one guy in charge.

I understand that thinking, but I prefer the more liberal mindset that England and America were able to enjoy due to their saltwater natural defenses.

The truth is, no one threatens Russia but the Russians themselves. America's capital was burned down but the British regime and threatened by the Confederate Army, but it is a democracy. Brazil has fought countless wars for survival and faced countless uprisings, but it is a model democracy. We should srop making excuses for Asian barbary.

It must have been scary to have been invaded by Canadians. But in the same year Moscow burned. It's kind of famous. Napoleon hung out in the ruins for a month waiting for someone to show up and surrender to him.

If you go to most local libraries you will find copies of Will and Ariel Durant's multi-volume history of civilization, look in the indices for their take on Swedish history, contrast and compare with (a) the Sweden of today, as you have been told it is in the various media that have tried to tell you the truth or to tell you lies and (b) the version of RUSSIA you have been allowed to hear since the early 1900s (assuming you were born in the early 1900s) or since whatever decade you first heard that there was a place called RUSSIA (assuming you were not born in the early 1900s)

(there is such a place as Russia and it is not hard to understand)

Proverbs 8 is where you want to start.
Then read a few of the Osprey Press books.

I am assuming you already know that Russians are in most important ways almost indistinguishable from non-Russians of similar educational levels,similar religious beliefs, and similar access (or, among the faithless, lack of access) to the good things in life ....
and if you did not already know that,
let me say again,
begin with Proverbs 8.

By the way, Brazil is fascinating too.
I am not convinced that Machado de Assis was not closer to Shakespeare in genius than any of the more celebrated novelists of his day.
The Brazilian saints of yesteryear are awe-inspiring, and
most importantly

I have a couple of friends from Brazil


Yes. Machado de Assis was a great writer, it is a shame that anti-Brazilian prejudice has prevented him from receiving the attention his work clearly merits.

and if you read these comments and said to yourself
"I would much prefer to read about the "Eternal Triumph of Good" than Russian military history and the view of the Durants on the era of Swedish militarism"
well God bless you I have no argument with you.

by the way if you are not an English speaker do not feel bad, I did not use good English writing skills when I said if you read these comments -

Native English speakers avoid that phrase when writing (if you read) at the beginning of sentences because you have to go to the end of the sentence to understand if the writer meant (a) if you read (pronounced red, like the color that we all love, past tense) or (b) if you read (pronounced reed, like the beautiful plant that grows on marshy ground, present tense).
What I should have written is this:

If you have just read these comments and said to yourself, et cetera .....

Language is difficult. English is difficult.

It’s a European nation, right?

No, it isn't, not really. It's on the eastern side of the West/East schism in Christianity. The countries on the east side of the line were not, in fact, "part of European intellectual life for many centuries", except superficially; they've been part of a separate cultural sphere for a thousand years.

Why isn’t it like, say, Sweden?

There are no nations "like Sweden" on the east side of the line of schism. Indeed, the line's reflected remarkably well in current economic figures. In 2019, every country on the west side of the line, excepting Croatia, has a higher per capita PPP GDP than all of the European countries on the east side, excepting Cyprus. Even the Baltic States, actually incorporated into the Soviet Union, are more prosperous than Greece (NATO member 1952, EC/EU member since 1981).

So Weber was on the right track but the correct dichotomy is Protestants+Catholics vs. Orthodox rather than Protestants vs. Catholics??

There's a rough correlation on current economic status on the Protestant/Catholic axis, but not nearly the degree of coherence in clumping that West/East gets. And the level of coherence has steadily declined since Weber wrote; compare Catholic Austria to Protestant England today, and you get different results than in 1905.

"Russians living in this country — again, non-Jewish, non-Armenian, whatever — seem to support him. What accounts for that ideological strand in Russians?"
But somehow the US media only interviews the Jewish & Armenian Russians to talk about Russia... but never the Russians.
Its like I would (as a German) only learn about the United States by talking to an African American. And then to learn about South Africa I would only talk to a white South African... and naively think that none of those hold prejudices...

But a key take-away is that Russia is not that special compared to other non-western countries ("This is a theme that we’re seeing, really, in common among many autocrats in the world right now"). This singling out of Russia as a "super evil state" reminds me a bit of the anti-Semitic double standards used towards judging Israel (

The Russians I've met in Switzerland are spoiled rich kids that totally support Putin and criticize the West while paying $20 drinks. If they ever appear on an TV would very bad for them for Mr. Putin.

Sometimes it's better if your arrogant supporters are overlooked. I think this is common for all developing/poor countries where the elites send kids to foreign countries.

So about 80% of russians support putin. And they are all just arrogant or stupid? Wow talk about racism..

I met a lot of smart, not spoiled russians who support putin. Maybe you attract the wrong people.

Tyler once said the internet was good for curious people self-motivated to learn, and not so good for the rest of the people. I think Masha made a world-class aphorism:

"The internet is a place where you don’t get answers to questions you don’t ask."

A second great idea is this one:

"Think about the type of person who would prefer the discomfort of being completely ostracized to the discomfort of living inside the tension. "

I think I understand myself better. I do prefer being ostracized to accept a contradiction. I do not understand the people who is not courageous to be ostracized but anyway faces the group. Like that Google engineer who is now crying for being fired after speaking up. Man up or go back to groupthink, no drama.

Especially interesing interview, Tyler, certainly for me. I note that indeed Kolmogorov did some of his most important math work before WW II. Clearly he was the greatest Russian mathematician, maybe until Perelman, but probably more so than Perelman. He did so much more. Oh, and he was gay. Marina has told me he had polished fingernails when she met him, which struck her at the time, although she did not then figure out what it indicated.

amazing how little she understands about the US unspoken culture despite living here since 1981. Race is at the core of American identity. Very disappointing, but also revealing. Foreigners, even the smartest ones, from countries without strong racial divisions are completely clueless or too cowardly to engage in this debate.

Also, she has never visited a Football game? How is this person taken seriously, and why does she call herself an "American journalist."

You're a Communist? You'll believe a big lie, and maybe orchestrate your country for a little while; and then comes the 'calculation problem', supply & demand difficulties, setting price by fiat, the true orders from the Post Office.

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