Maria Alexandrovna "Masha" Gessen ( Russian : Мари́я Алекса́ндровна Ге́ссен , IPA: [maˈrʲijə ɐlʲɪkˈsandrəvnəˈɡʲesʲɪn] ; born 13 January 1967) is a Russian and American journalist, author, translator [4] [6] and activist who has been an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump . [7]

Gessen has written extensively on LGBT rights . Described as "Russia's leading LGBT rights activist," [8] she has said that for many years she was "probably the only publicly out gay person in the whole country." [9]

Gessen writes primarily in English but also in her native Russian. In addition to being the author of several non-fiction books, she has been a prolific contributor to such publications as The New York Times , The New York Review of Books , The Washington Post , the Los Angeles Times , The New Republic , New Statesman , Granta , Slate , Vanity Fair , Harper's Magazine , and U.S. News & World Report .

Gessen works as a translator on the FX period drama The Americans . [6]

Early life and education

Gessen was born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Moscow to Alexander and Yelena Gessen. [4] In 1981, when Gessen was a teenager, she and her family moved to the United States. [10] As an adult in 1991, she moved to Moscow, where she worked as a journalist. [10] Gessen holds both Russian and US citizenship. Her brothers are Keith Gessen , Daniel Gessen and Philip Gessen.

Gessen briefly attended Rhode Island School of Design and Cooper Union to study architecture.


Activism and journalism

Gessen was on the board of directors of the Moscow-based LGBT rights organization Triangle between 1993 and 1998. [11]

In an extensive October 2008 profile of Vladimir Putin for Vanity Fair , Gessen reported that the young Putin had been "an aspiring thug" and that "the backward evolution of Russia began" within days of his inauguration in 2000. [13]

She contributed several dozen commentaries on Russia to The New York Times blog "Latitude" between November 2011 and December 2013. Among her subjects were the banning of so-called " homosexual propaganda " and other related laws; the harassment and beating of journalists, and the depreciation in value of the ruble . [14]

In March 2013, politician Vitaly Milonov promoted the Russian law against foreign adoption of Russian children by saying: "The Americans want to adopt Russian children and bring them up in perverted families like Masha Gessen's." [15]

Dismissal from Vokrug Sveta

Gessen was dismissed from her position as the chief editor of Russia's oldest magazine, Vokrug sveta , a popular-science journal, in September 2012 after she refused to send a reporter to cover a Russian Geographical Society event about nature conservation featuring President Putin because she considered it political exploitation of environmental concerns. [3] [3] After she tweeted about her firing, Putin phoned her and claimed he was serious about his "nature conservation efforts." At his invitation, she met him and her former publisher at the Kremlin , and was offered her job back. She rejected the offer. [18] [19]

Radio Liberty

In September 2012, Gessen was appointed as director of the Russian Service for Radio Liberty , a U.S. government-funded broadcaster based in Prague . [20] [21] Shortly after her appointment was announced and a few days after Gessen met with Putin, more than 40 members of Radio Liberty's staff were fired. The station also lost its Russian broadcasting licence several weeks after Gessen took over. The degree of Gessen's involvement in both of these events is unclear, but has caused controversy. [21]

John O'Sullivan described Gessen in The Wall Street Journal as someone who "disdains" opposition media and had replaced Putin-critical content with "softer news features in which liberty is likely to mean sexual liberation (with illustrations) rather than 'political' aspects of human rights." [22] Judy Bachrach in the journal World Affairs depicted Gessen as seeking to replace controversial news stories that reported on criticism of Putin with innocuous reports on "polar bears" and "kindergartens" and " Russian marriage and funeral traditions." [23]

Replying to these critics in Forbes , Mark Adomanis found it "thoroughly bizarre" that Gessen, "one of Russia‘s most outspoken and consistently anti-Putin journalists, has been dragged through the mud and been darkly portrayed as some sort of surrogate Kremlin operative." While stating that he agreed with Gessen "on almost nothing," Adomanis said "it is glaringly, blindingly obvious to anyone even passingly familiar with her work that she is not some sort of sycophantic Kremlin suck-up, but is instead an active and vocal member of the opposition that, according to O'Sullivan, she supposedly 'disdains.'"

Suggesting that O'Sullivan "doesn’t actually have the faintest idea who Masha Gessen is, because the entirety of her oeuvre bears almost no resemblance whatsoever to his description of it," Adomanis concluded that "it is absurd, and remarkably tasteless, to portray one of Russia’s bravest and most outspoken voices of political opposition as a soulless apparatchik […] Although I often disagree with her conclusions, Gessen has always struck me as someone of remarkable moral consistency and impeccable honesty." O'Sullivan replied to Adomanis by maintaining that he had nowhere asserted Gessen was a Kremlin stooge and that he was, rather, "inclined to think […] that Ms. Gessen is herself a victim of the current Radio Liberty crisis, not as much a victim as the 41 RL people now out of work, but a victim nonetheless." [24]

Return to U.S.

In December 2013, she moved to New York because Russian authorities had begun to talk about taking children away from gay parents . [25] In March, "the St Petersburg legislator [Milonov] who had become a spokesman for the law [against ‘homosexual propaganda' towards children] started mentioning me and my ‘perverted family’ in his interviews," and Gessen contacted an adoption lawyer asking "whether I had reason to worry that social services would go after my family and attempt to remove my oldest son, whom I adopted in 2000." The lawyer told Gessen "to instruct my son to run if he is approached by strangers and concluding: 'The answer to your question is at the airport.'" In June 2013, Gessen was beaten up outside of the Parliament; she said of the incident that "I realised that in all my interactions, including professional ones, I no longer felt I was perceived as a journalist first: I am now a person with a pink triangle ." She stated that "a court would easily decide to annul Vova's adoption, and I wouldn't even know it." Given this potential threat to her family, Gessen "felt like no risk was small enough to be acceptable," she later told the CBC Radio . "So we just had to get out." [26]

In a January 2014 interview with ABC News , Gessen said that the Russian gay propaganda law had "led to a huge increase in antigay violence, including murders. It's led to attacks on gay and lesbian clubs and film festivals...and because these laws are passed supposedly to protect children, the people who are most targeted or have the most to fear are LGBT parents." [27]

She wrote in February 2014 that Citibank had closed her bank account because of concern about Russian money-laundering operations. "Like other kinds of ethnic profiling," she complained, "these policies of weeding out Russian-Americans who have money are hardly efficient. Russians who launder money don’t do it by transferring large amounts between personal accounts opened in the same name and in plain view of all the relevant authorities. They channel the money through businesses registered in offshore zones, usually under names culled from pop songs or romantic comedies." [28]

Gessen argued in a February 2014 article for Slate that the international, and especially American, LGBT movement had failed gay Russians at the Sochi Olympics . "The Sochi Games were the U.S. gay rights movement's first real attempt to venture into international work," she wrote. "It was an embarrassment. If U.S. groups continue to do nothing but stage fundraisers and strategy sessions, it will be a disgrace." [29]

In a March 2014 article for the Los Angeles Times , Gessen described Putin as "a playground bully." While other world leaders "have generally tried to convince themselves and others that they were good people fighting the good fight," argued Gessen, Putin "has no positive spin for his aggression — or his actions in general," having created a political culture in Russia "based on the assumption that the world is rotten to the core," and "that all governments would like to jail their opponents and invade their neighbors, but most political leaders, most of the time, lack the courage to act on these desires." Gessen suggested that "For American culture, which relies heavily on a belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity," Putin's world view is " absorb. It is another world indeed." [30]

In March 2014, Gessen wrote in The Washington Post that Putin's popularity had been restored thanks to the Sochi Olympics and invasion of Ukraine , which had played on the longstanding notion "that Russia is a country under siege, surrounded by enemies and constantly on the brink of catastrophe." She added that "the only way to continue shoring up his popularity is to escalate war rhetoric and the war effort," to paint "the Western/fascist/Ukrainian enemy as ever more dangerous and the Russian invasion of Ukraine as ever more important. This means he is not interested in a peaceful solution or, as some Western analysts have hopefully suggested, in an exit strategy that would allow him to ‘save face.’" [31]

In March 2014, Gessen wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post on Putin's speech to the Duma [32] in which she expressed concern that "Russia is remaking itself as the leader of the anti-Western world". Gessen stated that when Putin "says he is protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine, he means he is protecting them from the many terrible things that come from the West," notably gay rights. In the view of Russians, argued Gessen, the West "is literally taking over, and only Russian troops" can protect Ukraine from "the homosexuals marching in from Brussels." [33]

The New York Times published a piece by Gessen on 28 April 2014, about two gay Russian journalists who had been allegedly framed on drug charges and fled to the U.S. [34]

Preceding and following the U.S. 2016 election, Gessen wrote a series of articles about Donald Trump . [7] [35] [36] [37] On 10 November 2016, her widely read article "Autocracy: Rules for Survival" was published in The New York Review of Books . In the article, she wrote, "Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat—and won." [7] She has also criticized claims that Trump is an agent of Vladimir Putin. [37] [35]

As of 2017, Gessen serves as a visiting professor at Amherst College . She was named the John J. McCloy '16 Professor of American Institutions and International Diplomacy for the 2017–18 academic year. In October 2017, she published her 10th book The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia . [38]

Media appearances

Gessen has given talks around the Western world and has appeared on Skavlan , PBS News Hour , MSNBC , and the Australian comedy news program Mad as Hell . She spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2012. [39] In the same year, she spoke at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York. [40] She was interviewed in the 2014 documentary film Campaign of Hate: Russia and Gay Propaganda . [41] In 2016 and 2017, she was interviewed for the news satire show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee . [42] In July 2017, she was interviewed on The Daily Show . [43]

Gessen spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum in May 2014. [45]

Personal life

Gessen married Svetlana Generalova, a Russian citizen who was also involved in the LGBT movement in Moscow, in 2004. The wedding took place in the U.S. [11] [46] By the time Gessen returned to the U.S. from Russia in December 2013, she was married to Darya Oreshkina. [47] [48]

Gessen has three children—two sons and a daughter. Her eldest son, Vova, was born in 1997 in Russia and was adopted by Gessen from an orphanage in Kaliningrad for the children of HIV-positive women. Her daughter, Yolka, was born to Gessen in the U.S. in 2001. Her third child, a son, was born in February 2012. [49]

Gessen tested positive for the BRCA mutation and underwent a mastectomy in 2005. [50]


Summaries of select works

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin

In The Man Without a Face , Gessen offers an account of Putin's rise to power and summary of recent Russian politics. The book was published on 1 March 2012 and translated into 20 languages. [55]

The New York Review of Books described the book as written in "beautifully clear and eloquent English," and stated that it was "at heart a description of th[e] secret police milieu" from which Putin originated and was "also very good at evoking…the culture and atmosphere within which [Putin] was raised, and the values he came to espouse." [56] The Guardian called the book "luminous"; [57] the Telegraph called it "courageous". [58]

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

A.D. Miller wrote in the Telegraph that "even readers who do not share Gessen's esteem for Pussy Riot as artists will be convinced of their courage." Miller described Gessen as "the right person to tell this story" and said her journalistic approach was "scrupulous and sensitive". [59] Booklist described the book as "prickly, frank, precise, and sharply witty." [60] The New York Times called it "urgent" and "damning." [61] The Washington Post called the book an "excellent" portrait of Pussy Riot and said that "Gessen gives a particularly brilliant account of their trials". [62] The Los Angeles Times said that Gessen was "Not just a keen observer of these events" but "also an impassioned partisan." [63]

The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy

Published in April 2015 by Riverhead , The Brothers investigates the background of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev , the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings . [64]

Works and publications


  • Gessen, Masha; Bogoraz, Larisa I. (foreword by); Dorf, Julie (introduction by) (1994). The rights of lesbians and gay men in the Russian Federation: an International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission report = Prava gomoseksualov i lesbi︠ao︡k v Rossiǐskoǐ Federat︠si︡i : otchet Mezhudunarodnoǐ Komissiǐ po pravam cheloveka dlià gomoseksualov i lesbi︠an︡ok podgotovlen (in English and Russian). San Francisco: International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). ISBN 978-1-884955-13-6. OCLC .
  • Gessen, Masha (translated by); Lipovskaya, Olga (preface by); Gorlanova, Nina; Volodina, Galina; Paley, Marina; Polianskaya, Irina; Tarasova, Yelena; Nabatnikova, Tatiana; Shulga, Natalia; Narbikova, Valeria; Sadur, Nina (1995). Gessen, Masha, ed. Half a Revolution: Contemporary Fiction by Russian Women . Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis Press. ISBN 978-1-57344-006-6. OCLC .
  • Gessen, Masha (1997). . London: Verso. ISBN 978-1-85984-147-1. OCLC .
  • Gessen, Masha (2004). . New York: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks. ISBN 978-0-385-33605-5. OCLC . – also known in the UK as Two Babushkas: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace [65]
  • Gessen, Masha (2008). . Orlando: Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-101362-3. OCLC . – a New York Times Notable Book of the year
  • Gessen, Masha (2009). . Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-101406-4. OCLC . – about Grigori Perelman
  • Gessen, Masha (2012). . New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN 978-1-59448-842-9. OCLC . – Short-listed for Pushkin House Russian Book Prize 2013, Long-listed for Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2012
  • Gessen, Masha (2014). . New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN 978-1-59463-219-8. OCLC .
  • Kasparov, Garry (foreword by) (2014). Gessen, Masha; Huff-Hannon, Joseph, eds. (in Russian and English). New York: OR Books. ISBN 978-1-939293-35-0. OCLC . [66]
  • Gessen, Masha (2015). . New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN 978-1-59463-264-8. OCLC .
  • Gessen, Masha (2016). . New York: Nextbook/Schocken. ISBN 978-0-80524-246-1. OCLC . [67]
  • Gessen, Masha (3 October 2017). The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia . New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN 978-1594634536. – 2017 National Book Award for nonfiction [68]
  • Gessen, Masha (27 February 2018). Never Remember: Searching for Stalin's Gulags in Putin's Russia . New York: Columbia Global Reports. ISBN 978-0997722963. [69]

Selected writing

See also