EXCLUSIVE PREVIEW: SongWriter Season 5 Continues with Masha Gessen, Maria Sonevytsky

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EXCLUSIVE PREVIEW: SongWriter Season 5 Continues with Masha Gessen, Maria Sonevytsky

SongWriter is a podcast that turns stories into songs, featuring Questlove, David Gilmour, Joyce Carol Oates, Steve Earle, Roxane Gay, Amanda Shires, Susan Orlean, and Neil Gaiman. You can hear an exclusive preview of next week’s episode featuring Masha Gessen and Maria Sonevytsky only at Paste.

Journalist and author Masha Gessen’s biography of Vladimir Putin, The Man Without a Face, sold hundreds of thousands of copies around the world. In it, Masha accuses the dictator of multiple murders, detailing horrific brutality and cruelty. So it was surprising when Masha got a call from Putin, asking them to come to the Kremlin for a meeting.

Ostensibly Putin had not called about the book, but instead about a political issue that had resulted in Masha being fired as the editor of a prominent Russian scientific journal. Masha’s friends urged them not to go to the meeting, afraid that Putin was luring them to the Kremlin to be arrested, or worse. But there was never any question for Masha.

“When you write a book about somebody you spend several years constructing a character. Once you have the shape of the hole at the center of the story you really want to see if it’s right,” Masha says. “I wanted to see if the Putin that I had put on paper corresponded to the person that I was going to see in the flesh.”

Masha was confident that the meeting posed no threat because their in-depth, years-long study of Putin revealed him to be an incurious, isolated thug and narcissist, someone who was unlikely to know anything about the world outside Russia that wasn’t flagged by his staff. Masha also knew that Putin’s administration is not optimized for information-flow or political functionality, but instead for criminal conspiracy, in-fighting, and most of all, loyalty to Putin. The most likely scenario, Masha concluded, was that Putin had no idea who they were, and that no one would tell him.

“My hypothesis was that he was completely uninformed, and all he wanted to do was pose in front of me,” Masha says. “I knew the man didn’t use the internet, still doesn’t. I knew from my research that the information that he got were print-outs in large point type – fourteen-point type – that people put in front of him.”

Happily, Masha was right. Putin’s staff didn’t even seem to know that years earlier Masha had been the first journalist to be blacklisted by the Kremlin.

Ukrainian American scholar and songwriter Maria Sonevytsky had complicated feelings about writing a song in response to Masha’s story.

“I really didn’t want to write about Putin,” says Maria. “I have a lot of resentment around the ways that this war tends to obscure the experiences of Ukrainians, and focuses on Putin, or focuses on the plight of Russians, when the people suffering genocide right now are Ukrainians.”

Yet as is so often the case in art, repellant things can also be fascinating – Maria ended up singing part of the song from Putin’s perspective. “Culture War” switches between a few different voices, including Putin’s and the voice of the war profiteers who egg him on. Then, from a third POV, she responds to them with the word “zaraza,” a common Ukrainian insult that translates roughly to “disease.”

“I was trying to think about how someone infects other people with ideology, with this hate, and how it can start really small and get pretty big,” Maria says. “The possibility that we are engaged in World War III already is a very bleak – but to me very real – possibility.”

Ben Arthur (@MyHeart on Twitter) is the creator and host of SongWriter. His latest song, “Baby Hitler,” is written in response to this episode.

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