Russian-born journalist delivers Convocation on social change

On Thursday, Jan. 16, Masha Gessen, a Russian-born journalist and author of over a dozen books on Putin, Trump and totalitarianism, spoke at Convocation. Gessen’s talk was entitled “The Parallel Polis” and is the theme of a book they are currently working on. A parallel polis is a separate group inside of a current state that attempts to try and answer some of the problems in the current system on a small scale, usually started by an extra-governmental organization. Gessen’s talk had an interesting premise, speaking as someone born under the totalitarian oppression of the Soviet Union to a group of open-minded Lawrentians.

According to Gessen, as long as they could remember, they held the idea that if you were to imagine a utopian society and put it into practice, it would immediately fall apart into totalitarianism. And being born into the Soviet Union, this idea seemed logical, and it was one Gessen never questioned. However, the idea behind their next book is that of, what if we were to question that notion, that our ideal may actually be able to stand up to the vices and dangers of humanity?

To answer this question, Gessen told of the interesting places they have travelled to, beginning with Detroit, a city that to the American zeitgeist has many negative connotations. However, in that city on the brink, there are attempts to bring it back. For example, urban farming has allowed many people to participate in co-ops, bringing fresh food onto the table and extra money for families who are able to sell their produce at farmer’s markets. While urban farms will not bring back the hundreds of thousands of people who have left the city, it can provide an idealistic model for moving forward, especially to a city that so many have written off as dead.

Their next example was Finland. Finland has a highly developed welfare state and recently conducted an experiment on a Universal Basic Income, or UBI. While that experiment was regarded as a failure, Gessen believes that the wrong questions were asked. The study looked at if people were more likely to find a job or get out of poverty via the UBI, and this was not the case. However, Gessen actually went to Finland and interviewed people who got the UBI and they said it was great, not because they could now be lazy — and keep in mind, in a welfare state like Finland, most of those people were already getting the money. Rather, now they could live with far less anxiety about whether they were going to be able to eat, or if their disability paperwork was going to go through.

These examples, and several others, from Israel to Colombia, all drew Gessen to the conclusion that it is, in fact, possible, for a state or a small group of ordinary citizens to change the way things are done for the better, without letting it fall to corruption.