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Thousands of Russians have fled, afraid a new Iron Curtain will fall

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Masha Gessen, is a Russian-American journalist who reported in late January and February from Ukraine, then went to Moscow after the invasion. On the night Putin shut down the last remaining independent source of TV news, Gessen was at that studio. Gessen's dispatches are being published in The New Yorker, where Gessen is a staff writer. Gessen left Moscow on Thursday and is speaking to us from Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia.

For 20 years, Gessen was a journalist in Moscow and had been the chief correspondent for Russia's leading news magazine until it became impossible to report the real news. After that, Gessen moved to a popular science magazine. In 2013, when it became too dangerous to remain in Russia because of Putin's anti-gay laws, Gessen moved to New York with their partner and their adopted son and their two other children. Gessen uses the pronouns they/them. They have written extensively about Putin, including in their book "The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise Of Vladimir Putin." Gessen warned about Trump's authoritarian style of leadership and its parallels to Putin in the book "Surviving Autocracy." We recorded our interview yesterday.

Masha Gessen, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm glad that you're safe. You're in Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia now. Why is that where you are now?

MASHA GESSEN: So I was in Moscow until last Thursday. And all of that week following the full-scale invasion that began at 5 in the morning the previous Thursday, people that I know in Moscow started to feel panicked and, like, really panicked, not just about the state of the country and obviously the war, but also about needing to leave the country because there was a distinct sense that the borders were likely to close, that the country was just spiraling into some kind of North Korean scenario.

And so there's been a huge exodus from Russia in the last week and a half. It's that - recent estimates range at this point from 100,000 to 200,000 people who have left. And according to the Georgian authorities, between 20,000 and 25,000 of those people have arrived here in Tbilisi. So I actually followed some people who were leaving out of Moscow to Istanbul, which is one of the few places that you can still fly to from Moscow. And then I came here to Tbilisi to continue reporting on this exodus now.

GROSS: What are you hearing from people who have fled to Tbilisi?

GESSEN: People are - you know, I mean, it's an awful story to report. And it's very close to my heart because the people that I'm reporting on - actually, right now, like, all the interviews that I was doing today were with people I know quite well. And so I can see how their lives and their sense of themselves in the world have changed just in the last 10 days. And, in fact, when I say that their sense of themselves in the world has changed, the biggest thing I think that has happened for them is that their sense of themselves in the world has just disappeared. It's a kind of sudden and drastic descent into a sense of having no country, no place and no sense of a future.

And on top of that, there's a distinct sense that you don't even have the right to feel horrible about all the things that you have lost almost overnight because you've lost them because you're a citizen of a country that is waging horrible, murderous, aggressive war against another country where people are losing their lives and also losing their sense of themselves, their homes overnight in a much more brutal way. So I've been talking to people who are, you know, who are disoriented, who have gone from being wealthy Muscovites to being poor emigres who are not particularly welcome here right now, but who also feel like they don't even have the right to feel bad about it.

GROSS: Are most of the people who fled Moscow journalists that you know?

GESSEN: No. I do know a lot of journalists who've fled Moscow and the journalists who've left under, you know, a particular set of circumstances, which is that on Friday, the Russian Parliament passed and President Vladimir Putin signed a new law which makes it a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison to spread what they call false information about the special operation in Ukraine. Now, what they have classified as false information is any statement that calls it a war or an act of aggression or an invasion. So I know of at least 80 journalists who have fled Russia in the last week precisely because there was a real risk that they would be prosecuted under this new law.

GROSS: So in order words, if you tell the truth, you're going to be put in prison for 15 years.

GESSEN: If you tell the truth, you can face up to 15 years in prison for the crime of spreading false information. Yeah. But, you know, the people, I mean, like, the people I was talking to today are a sociologist, a popular science educator, an Orthodox priest, a podcaster and editor. So these are not journalists. These are people who, on the one hand, feel that they personally may be in danger because they have been arrested at protests in the past. And at this point, that raises a very real risk of actually going to prison.

But more than that, they're running from the fear of ending up behind the Iron Curtain as the Iron Curtain gets restored very rapidly. But also, they don't want to be a part of an invading country. They don't see themselves living in that country anymore. They don't see themselves as belonging to it in any way. So some of their reasons are not as clearly spelled out as I may be going to prison for 15 years. It's just I can't be here anymore.

GROSS: My impression from your writing is that there's a big division now in Russia between people who have managed to find sources of the truth about the war Russia really is waging against Ukraine and those people who believe the propaganda that Russia - that the Russian government is putting out and think, like, nothing's wrong here.

GESSEN: Yes. It should probably be noted that the people I'm describing, even if the estimates of 200,000 people leaving Russia are correct, that's still a tiny, tiny minority of Russians. And even if we add all the people inside Russia who are getting their information from Western media or more likely from the remaining independent media, all of which have been blocked in Russia, but if people are using VPNs, if they're using anonymizing browsers, if they're using telegram channels that are still at this point accessible - probably not for much longer - then they're getting factual information about the war in Ukraine. But there's still a tiny, tiny minority in a country that even as its economy has gone into a tailspin and you would think they would notice that, if nothing else, even so, they seem to continue to believe that that things are basically kind of normal, except they have to tighten their belts because Russia is under attack by the West, which is imposing unwarranted, unfair economic sanctions against it.

GROSS: One of the things I always wonder about in situations like this is when do you know it's time to leave? And you watch people make that decision first in Ukraine and then in Moscow. So let's go to Ukraine for a second. For a while, people thought, oh, Russia is just scaring Ukraine. They're not really - you know, they're trying to teach Ukraine a lesson. They're not really going to invade. And then not only did Russia invade, I mean, it's just been absolutely brutal. It's been a war on the whole country and on its citizens. What kind of anguish would the people going through who you knew and who you were talking to about whether they should leave or not before the invasion actually started?

GESSEN: So I was in Kyiv and in Kharkiv during the last week of January talking to people about precisely that, about the talk of war, about what their ideas were about what they would do if the invasion actually happened. And even though we know enough about Putin and we knew enough about Putin before his February 21 speech and before the invasion began on the 24, we knew enough to be able to predict precisely the worst-case scenario, according to which this war has been unfolding so far. It is impossible to believe. Some things are just too awful to contemplate. When you're sitting in a - you know, in a nice cafe in this incredibly vibrant city of Kyiv, which had a rich cultural life, that had a kind of - you know, so many places that had a kind of spirit of celebration, including a sort of ongoing celebration of Ukrainian independence - right? - of the - in the eight years that have followed the Revolution of Dignity, there's been a heightened awareness of Ukraine having figured out a way to create a kind of democracy and a really cohesive society in the rubble of the Soviet Union, unlike so many of us former fellow members of the Soviet Union.

And so to sit there and imagine that you may be subjected to an invasion, to sit there and imagine that bombs may fall on your beautiful city is too much, right? And a lot of the people that I talked to were quite aware of that - of the double think that they were engaging in. On the one hand, they had stocked up on unnecessary supplies. And on the other hand, they were saying, this is impossible. I don't believe it.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Russian American journalist Masha Gessen, a staff writer for The New Yorker. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Russian American journalist Masha Gessen, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Gessen reported from Ukraine just before the invasion, then went to Moscow, where Gessen remained until last Thursday. Gessen is speaking to us from Tbilisi in the country of Georgia.

You were at TV Rain, Russia's last independent TV channel, on the night it was shut down. A couple of nights before that, you were interviewed on that channel. And then you heard that it was being shut down, so you went right over there. What was said on the air that appeared to be, like, the last straw for the Russian government?

GESSEN: TV Rain started running a round-the-clock live broadcast covering the war in Ukraine and calling it a war. From the moment the invasion began. And the thing is that you would think that that's what a normal television station would do, right? Part of what the the Russian state television does to disguise the fact that the country is waging war is not only not calling it a war but also not changing its broadcast schedule or tone in any way. So formally, I think it was TV Rain using the word war, using the word aggression, using the word invasion when they were describing what was going on there. But considering that the Russian government has blocked every single source of independent information in the last week, those things were just pretexts. It's that the state is in the process of establishing final total monopoly over information.

GROSS: When you got there, when you got to the station, what was going on at the station?

GESSEN: When I got to TV Rain, they were still broadcasting. Their website had already been blocked, but they were still streaming to YouTube, which is still accessible in Russia. The two anchors who were in the studio had gotten the news that the website was blocked while they were on air, had read it on air and continued to broadcast. And then after the broadcast, people - some people had come especially because they had heard that the site had been blocked. People sort of milled around, waiting to figure out what they were going to do next. And as the editor in chief, who is a 34-year-old journalist named Tikhon Dzyadko - as he was speaking to the staff, someone ran in and said, we're about to be raided. And so the night actually ended with all of us who were in that space running out through a back staircase, trying to protect ourselves from the raid. The raid didn't happen. It was a credible threat. It was not some kind of anonymous phone call. But it was clearly intended to basically tell people to get out and not come back to the office and, as the editor in chief interpreted it, to tell them to get out of the country if they didn't want to be subjected to prosecution and at least police violence.

And so by the following morning - right? This happened - I think we left the studio - maybe it was 11:30 at night. By the following morning, a majority of the staff were on planes to leave the country, some of them not even having gone home to pack, some of them, you know, with a backpack with two pairs of underwear in it.

GROSS: Is that when you decided you were going to leave Moscow?

GESSEN: I was going to stay a bit longer. I actually wanted to stay as long as I could while it was still safe for me to leave. But there were a couple of things going on. One was that I - I mean, I left a day later than most of the TV Rain staff. One thing that was going on was that there were fewer and fewer flights because Europe closed its airspace and because Russian - as sanctions kicked in, Russian companies realized that they couldn't fly their leased airplanes out of the country because they might get seized. So you would just kind of see the list of flights available from Moscow dwindle to a few destinations and just very few flights, right? So there was a possible shortage of flights and tickets with more and more people wanting to leave.

And the other was that there was a kind of panic, and there was rumor that on Friday, March 5, the Parliament was going to declare martial law and close the borders. That hasn't happened yet. I suspected at the time that that might be a Kremlin-generated rumor precisely aimed at getting people in the opposition to leave the country. I think it was quite effective at that. I think it may have been a Kremlin-generated rumor. But it's the sort of thing you don't really take chances with. So I ended up leaving a little bit earlier than I would have wanted to.

GROSS: And you were able to get a flight, obviously.

GESSEN: And I was able to get a flight to Istanbul.

GROSS: And then from Istanbul, you went to Tbilisi.

GESSEN: Right. And I went to Tbilisi because so many Russians have landed here, and it's such sort of a weird and sad and volatile cultural and political situation with this tiny country that also is partially occupied by Russian troops being afraid that it's going to be next again, right? And this influx of Russians makes Georgians even more nervous about that possibility.

GROSS: And I guess Putin wants his opposition to leave the country so he has more control in the country. Is it easier to get people to leave than to put them in prison?

GESSEN: It's always cheaper to get people to leave than to put them in prison. And I think he is irrationally afraid of any kind of street protest. Putin's regime has never been under any credible threat from street protests or even from the kind of organizing that has been - that people have been able to carry out, considering how repressive this regime has been for how long. But they're terrified. They're terrified of their own people. They're terrified of protests. And I think they're terrified that they may not be able to imprison everybody who's opposed to the regime. So it is much more economical for them to get as many people as possible to leave and then to imprison those who remain.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Russian American journalist Masha Gessen, a staff writer for The New Yorker. We'll talk more about their reporting from Russia after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET PERFORMANCE OF PHILIP GLASS' "STRING QUARTET NO. 5: IV")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Russian American journalist Masha Gessen, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Masha Gessen goes by the pronouns they/their/them. They reported from Ukraine just before the invasion, then went to Moscow, where they remained until last week. For 20 years, Gessen was a journalist in Moscow and had been the chief correspondent for Russia's leading news magazine until it became impossible to report the real news. After that, Gessen moved to a popular science magazine. In 2013, when it became too dangerous to remain in Russia because of Putin's anti-gay laws, Gessen moved to New York with Gessen's partner and their adopted son and their two other children. Gessen has written extensively about Putin, including in their book "The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise Of Vladimir Putin." Gessen warned about Trump's authoritarian style of leadership and its parallels to Putin in the book "Surviving Autocracy."

Russia has passed several new laws. You mentioned the law pertaining to journalists and what you're not allowed to say. One of the new laws - and I think this passed the full parliament - one of the new laws is that mass graves are legal during wars and state of - states of emergency now. What are the implications of that? When I think of mass graves, I don't think of good things.

GESSEN: So that - the law on mass graves, or sort of regulating mass graves during states of emergency in military operations, actually went into effect on February 1. And it's one of the signs that we have that this particular military operation was in the works for a very long time. Things were put in place to make this possible over the course of at least a year.

Something else that happened late last year was that they banned the use of smartphones and personal cellphones by active duty military personnel. So they're - both of those things, the mass grave legislation and the ban on cellphone use, are clearly intended to avoid information getting out about where troops are, what they're doing and how many people are dying. In a country where the media are totally controlled by the state, that's - those are really effective moves. Because until you have so many soldiers dying that their families can actually talk to one another across, you know, this vast country - this vast and very atomized country - until that happens, and that requires a kind of critical mass and probably a critical amount of time, they can very effectively suppress information about what's happening there and how many people are dying there. And they've been doing that.

They've - for the first several days of the war, they were not admitting to any casualties. Then they finally said that 498 military personnel have died. But estimates from the Ukrainian side, and also from Western analysts, range from a couple of thousand to several thousand. That's a huge difference, and that's the kind of difference, the kind of misinformation, that you can maintain if you shut people up and control the media.

GROSS: Who do you think the mass graves are for? Are they for soldiers?

GESSEN: Yes. I think the legislation is to enable the military to bury soldiers in the field. I don't think they're at all concerned about casualties on the other side.

GROSS: Another new law - it's a crime to provide financial material, consultative or other assistance to foreign or international organizations, punishable by 12 to 20 years in prison. What are the implications of that in Russia?

GESSEN: So that's actually a really interesting one. It's not a new law. This is a law that was passed in 2012. And I remember - you know, I wrote about it then. I was still living in Moscow. And I saw that, and I thought, oh, my God, this is a Stalin-era law. And I actually went back and checked. And sure enough, it was almost the precise wording of the law on espionage that was used in the 1930s to imprison hundreds of thousands of people and execute tens of thousands of people summarily on manufactured charges of espionage. I think it's an intentional and transparent reference. I think it was putting in place the framework for real political terror, like Stalinist scale - Stalinist-style political terror.

The law was put on the books and wasn't used for 10 years. But the reason that you think that it's a new law is that right after the war started, or this part of the war started, the prosecutor general announced that they were going to start enforcing this particular part of the law, basically sending out the message that anyone could be picked up and accused of espionage in favor of any country.

GROSS: Wow. So many opportunities to be put in prison right now in Russia.

GESSEN: I mean, it - it'll - it makes you wonder why they need laws at all, which is something - I mean, it's a personal obsession of mine. Why do they formalize this stuff when it's just terror? Like, why even pretend that there's a legal system that makes it all work? But they still do. And I think part of it is a nagging sense of the illegitimacy of the regime and the need to prove that they're right, the need to constantly ramp up the story that drives the propaganda, which creates this crazy feedback loop where they're watching their own TV and trying to speak the same things even louder than the TV does. And then eventually, they come to believe more and more of it.

GROSS: That's such an interesting question you raised. Why bother with the pretense of the law when you're basically just rounding up people who you see as opposition? Do you think it makes Putin feel better about himself, that he can still convince himself that he's - you know, he's following the law, the laws that he created?

GESSEN: Yes, I think it does have a lot to do with the way he perceives himself, that he enforces laws, their rules, and it's always the victim's fault for violating the laws that are so clearly stated. If only they hadn't done it. I mean, you know, the phrase that they use so often is, we had no choice - right? - when they talk about the invasion of Ukraine. And Putin himself used this phrase several times in his big speech sort of setting out the framework for the war. And then, his announcement of starting the military operation, he keeps saying, we had no other options. We had no choice, right? And I think that that's - it's a kind of - it's a weird rhetorical crutch that he seems to require, right? He seems to need to tell himself that he had no other option.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Russian American journalist Masha Gessen, a staff writer for The New Yorker. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "SPY MEETING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Russian American journalist Masha Gessen, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Gessen reported from Ukraine just before the invasion, then went to Moscow, where Gessen remained until last Thursday.

We've been talking about how Putin has been making it virtually impossible for a lot of people to find out the truth about the war in Ukraine. It's just a special operation in Putin's propaganda. And there's very little information about this, quote, "special operation." There's also disinformation that is now required in Russian schools. Can you tell us about that? This is directives from the ministry of education about how the war should be taught in school.

GESSEN: So on March 1, all Russian schools had to conduct special social sciences lessons to explain to children how they should think and talk about the so-called special operation in Ukraine. And they were taught to talk about it in terms of genocide and in terms of de-Nazification. This is how Putin and the entire Russian propaganda machine frames this war. They accuse Ukrainians of perpetrating genocide of ethnic Russians, an allegation for which there's zero factual basis. And then they also - they refer to Ukrainians on TV constantly as Ukronazis (ph). They claim that this country, which is led by an elected Jewish president, is run by Nazis and that Russia has to come in and engineer a change of regime and conduct de-Nazification of Ukraine.

GROSS: So children are being taught lies at a very young age now?

GESSEN: (Laughter) Well, children are being taught lies, and this very particular kind of lie that calls to - I mean it references World War II in this really twisted way. But it also just dehumanizes the enemy, and the enemy being the Ukrainian people, people who have linguistic, cultural, religious, ethnic affinities with Russians. And people where - you know, it's very difficult to find a Russian family that has no connection to Ukraine either through relatives or friends that they went to school with. Or, you know, in more recent years, for middle-class people, a lot of domestic help have been Ukrainians, who come to Russia - or who used to come to Russia, which is a much wealthier country to work as domestic help. But these are tight family connections that - and now people are being told, and children are being taught in particular, that these are - this is the enemy. And they're Nazis.

GROSS: In your March 4 dispatch for The New Yorker, you wrote about a poll that asked who's responsible for mounting tensions in Ukraine. Three percent blamed Russia. And this was a poll in Russia. So 3% blamed Russia, 14% blamed Ukraine. And here's the shocker. Sixty percent - 6-0 percent - blamed the U.S. What is behind that?

GESSEN: So the larger historical narrative that the Kremlin has been pushing very, very effectively - and I think it's so effective because this is actually the part that I think Putin firmly believes himself - that the United States is an expansionist power that is interested in taking over the world and, certainly, the entire post-Soviet space - and that Ukraine has a government that is a U.S. puppet and that the U.S. is using Ukraine to surround Russia, to place NATO military bases and weapons close to the Russian border. Although, there are no military NATO bases or weapons in Ukraine - or there weren't any weapons until the invasion because Ukraine is not a member of NATO. But I think the sense that Russia is a fortress under siege and that the United States is surrounding it with military - and now they're also talking about by biomedical or bioweapon threat. I think there's a genuine element of fear and a sort of sense of having been diminished by the United States to that legend. And that's part of what makes it so effective.

GROSS: One of the most terrifying things that I read in your dispatches for The New Yorker is that one Russian analyst, who you think is a really good analyst, said that Putin might feel so kind of pushed into a corner that he lashes out by using a nuclear weapon at what he thinks of as the capital of the world, which would be New York. Tell us more about what this analyst said to you and what you make of that really terrifying comment.

GESSEN: So this analyst is Grigory Yudin, who I think is very insightful. And I think that he is attentive, right? Good analysts are - they largely earned their stripes by just really paying close attention to what is being said and done. And Putin has been threatening to use nuclear weapons for a long, long time. This is another strain of thought and action that we have observed over the years. Russia has changed its military doctrine to make it easier to use nuclear weapons. And this happened many years ago. Putin has repeatedly reminded the world, and in particular the United States, that Russia is a nuclear power.

And, you know, I don't know that I agree with Yudin that the first target would be the United States and, in particular, New York City. I think that Putin is much more likely and has given indications on this and also seeing indications of this in the way that the Russian state television narrative is working - I think it's much more likely that they would use a tactical nuclear weapon to target, say, a military airport in Poland.

GROSS: In Poland?

GESSEN: In Poland - well, yeah. So the reason - Poland is a country that borders both Russia and Ukraine. It's just to the west of Ukraine. And military aid to Ukraine that is coming from Western countries is coming through military airports in Poland. Poland also used to be a part of the Soviet military bloc. In fact, the Soviet equivalent of NATO - the Soviet-dominated equivalent of NATO used to be called the Warsaw bloc. So the use of Polish military airports to supply arms to Ukraine is almost a personal affront to Putin, who views himself as an agent of restoration, who wants to bring back the former glory that Russia had in a bipolar world. And so the fact that they're using not just a former Warsaw Pact country's airports, but Poland's - right? - the country where the capital is Warsaw, is like adding insult to injury. And so there has been a lot of nuclear saber-rattling in that general direction - or actually in that specific direction.

GROSS: The sanctions against Russia - the economic sanctions against Russia are, you know, killing the Russian economy. The ruble is in freefall. The stock market has been closed. So Russians are really suffering. They can't even get access to their money. A lot of the credit card companies have shut off access to Russia. So Russian citizens are suffering. What are the chances they blame the U.S. and not Putin for that - you know, that they just think the U.S. is the enemy, as opposed to thinking Putin has created this war, which is causing us to suffer?

GESSEN: What they're hearing on television constantly is anti-Russian sanctions, and it's all talk about these unwarranted, unmotivated, unprovoked sanctions imposed by the West that has conspired against Russia. But they're also hearing something else. They're hearing that these sanctions, especially today - I actually spent a little bit of time watching Russian television today just to see if the tenor had changed. The tenor hasn't changed, but the message has shifted a little bit. And it's shifted to looking at how detrimental the sanctions are for Western economies, how now that President Biden has said that he's imposed sanctions on Russian oil, gas and coal, Russian television is talking about how oil and gas prices are skyrocketing in Western Europe and the United States, how ordinary Americans and Europeans are being affected by it, which I think serves a dual purpose that it sort of communicates to Russians that the whole world is experiencing some sort of economic hardship, but it also just paints Western powers as completely crazy, right? They're, like, doing these awful things to their own people and to the Russian people for no particular reason. And, yeah, Putin and his war are nowhere in that narrative.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Russian American journalist Masha Gessen, a staff writer for The New Yorker. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "SMALL PLANET")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Russian American journalist Masha Gessen, a staff writer for The New Yorker. They reported from Ukraine just before the invasion, then went to Moscow, where they remained until last week. Masha Gessen is speaking to us now from Tbilisi in the country of Georgia. And Masha Gessen goes by the pronoun they/them.

What do your Russian journalist friends and your Russian analyst friends think Putin will do after Ukraine if he militarily wins in Ukraine?

GESSEN: I think Putin has made it very clear that he doesn't see Ukraine as the end goal. His speech on February 21, three days before the invasion began, was absolutely terrifying because he laid out his vision of history, and, you know, totalitarian rulers appoint themselves enforcers of the laws of history. And so he was talking about history as he sees it, and he sees the Russian empire as kind of the last legitimate incarnation of this country. He cancels out the entire Soviet framework, which on paper gave constituent republics the rights of statehood. And so he has signaled that he sees any country that once belonged to the Russian empire as fair game. That includes the entire Soviet territory, plus Finland and Poland, and, you know, that includes the Baltic states, which are NATO members and EU members. And if he carries out anything in Ukraine that he can frame as a victory, more such operations will follow and more such victories will follow. He is intent on violently redrawing the map of Europe, and that process will continue as long as he is alive and in charge in Russia.

GROSS: But it also sounds like Putin is the kind of leader who won't allow himself to be perceived as a loser. In a scenario where your analyst friend talked about the possibility of Putin using a nuclear weapon in New York, the context of that was, you know, Putin won't let himself be seen as a loser, so if he's really up against a wall, that's what he could conceivably do. So it just seems like an impossible situation. If you have somebody who's irrational, who's totally lacking in humanity and empathy and is willing to do anything to be perceived as the winner and not the loser, like, what sane options are there?

GESSEN: So I wouldn't actually call him irrational. I think that he is consistent and rational inside his own mental system, and he does give us access to his mental system. He does tell us how he views the world. It's absolutely terrifying. I mean, I think you're - the question I hear you asking is, wait, is there any way to think about this that is just not a total nightmare and the end of the world as we know it? And I can't find it. I mean, the absolute best-case scenario would be some kind of partial victory in Ukraine that would make him declare victory and at least pause for a little bit, and then maybe he will die eventually before blowing up the world, right? That's the best-case scenario.

GROSS: Well, Masha Gessen, thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you for your reporting and for all the risks you've been taking to do that reporting. Really, really appreciate it.

GESSEN: Thank you, Terry. It's great to talk to you.

GROSS: My interview with Masha Gessen was recorded yesterday. They spoke to us from Tbilisi in the country Georgia. Gessen is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interviews with The New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress or journalist Elizabeth Williamson, whose new book is about the parents whose children were murdered in the Sandy Hook school shooting and their efforts to refute the claims of conspiracy theorists that the massacre was a phony event staged by the government - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET PERFORMANCE OF VLADIMIR MARTYNOV'S "THE BEATITUDES")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET PERFORMANCE OF VLADIMIR MARTYNOV'S "THE BEATITUDES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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