TOBIN: Do you remember all of the fear around Y2K? [KATHY CHUCKLES] And how everyone was like, "The world is gonna end!"
KATHY: Yeah! Going into the year 2000, there was a fear that computers couldn’t handle the turn of the century, and they’d just all go haywire.
TOBIN: Yeah: nuclear power plants would meltdown, planes would fall from the sky, the banking system would fall apart. It was gonna be like an apocalypse … kind of!
KATHY: End of times.
[HORN COVER OF INTRO MUSIC]
TOBIN: How do you think you would handle the end of times?
KATHY: [BREATHES IN] mUm, I have a very strong position on this … [TOBIN HUMS IN AFFIRMATION] in that I would like to be amongst the first wave to just give in to the apocalypse. [TOBIN LAUGHS]
TOBIN: You're not going to try and repopulate humanity? You're just like, "I'm out!"
KATHY: No! That is so much work!
TOBIN: I also would want to go pretty early. But before that I think I'm just going to go to McDonald's and fry up everything they have and just have [LAUGHS] so many chicken nuggets [KATHY LAUGHS] before I die. Yeah, last meal.
KATHY: [WHISPERS] Your last meal is McDonald's?
[HORN INTRO MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: [LAUGHING] It’s sad.
KATHY: [WITH TOBIN, LAUGHING] That's very sad!
[THEME MUSIC STARTS]
VOX 1: From WNYC Studios, you’re listening to “Nancy!”
VOX 2: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
KATHY: Okay, so all those things that people were afraid would happen on Y2K — they didn't happen. No nuclear meltdowns. No stock market crash.
KATHY: But the new millennium did usher in some big changes. For a lot of people, there was a feeling in the air that it was a time for a fresh start. People like Dan Taberski.
TOBIN: He hosts the podcast Surviving Y2K.
KATHY: At the end of 1999, Dan was a producer on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” And he was married to a woman. But Dan was starting to realize he was gay. Right after New Year’s in 2000, he came out to his wife and his marriage ended.
TOBIN: Surviving Y2K follows Dan’s story, and the stories of other people whose lives were actually affected by Y2K. For Masha Gessen — big deal journalist and author — what happened on December 31, 1999 would change the course of her life.
KATHY: Here's Dan Taberski to tell her story.
[DRAMATIC STRING MUSIC IN]
DAN: In 1999, Masha Gessen is a journalist in Russia, asking the big questions, like: Would capitalism work in Russia after the Cold War? Could they even do democracy? Could they make it stick? All great questions that Masha doesn’t really care about right now. ‘Cause right now — a couple days before New Year’s — she wants the answer to a different question: Could she make someone fall in love with her?
MASHA: So I was, like, madly in love and this woman was in Berlin and I was in Vienna and, like, pining for her and she was this very cool woman she was just ... She was just very cool and it was very much in love.
DAN: And so she had a plan to try and seal the deal.
MASHA: She was in Berlin and I was going to, like, kidnap her! Or lure her to Moscow with me. And it was going to be, like, a turning point in our relationship. She was going to go back to Moscow with me for New Year’s and never leave.
DAN: This is your plan.
MASHA: This was my plan.
DAN: I’m already rooting for you.
MASHA: Thank you.
[MUSIC CHANGES, BECOMES A LILTING PIANO PIECE]
MASHA: I left Vienna, I picked her up in Bratislava. And we drove to Moscow through the snow.
DAN: As it turns out, epic snow. On the week-long road to Russia.
MASHA: Every place we tried to stop, every hotel, was closed because it was Christmas.
DAN: Am I the only one imagining them both in giant fur hats?
MASHA: And so we had to keep driving through the snow — and she didn't drive, so I was driving. Oh! My — my windshield wipers stopped working [DAN LAUGHS] so I had to ask her to hang out the window and keep [BOTH LAUGH] keep cleaning the snow off of my windshield. By the time we got to Moscow my car finally choked on all the gasoline that we'd been filling up with in Ukraine. Like, we had to push it the last couple hundred meters.
DAN: Oh my gosh!
MASHA: But I was also — I was just so happy to get to Moscow.
DAN: Now, Masha had picked New Year’s to pull off her lady heist for a reason.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
MASHA: So, first of all, New Year's is the biggest holiday of the year.
DAN: Their New Year’s is like our Christmas, but without God. The Bolsheviks had nixed God at the Revolution.
MASHA: So, Russians put up a New Year's tree.
DAN: What do they call the tree? Does it — does it have a name?
MASHA: It's called a New Year's tree. It's a New Year's fir tree.
DAN: In Russian.
MASHA: It’s a новогодняя ёлка (novogodniya yolka).
DAN: Thank you.
MASHA: You put presents under it. It’s a big family holiday, you generally gather, y’know, your clan around you ...
DAN: So it really is Christmas?
MASHA: It is! Well, it’s — except it's New Year's.
DAN: Presents and black caviar and good cheer. And the whole festive day always culminating in the same thing …
MASHA: So people usually gather on New Year’s Eve, sit down at the table, and then they watch the President’s address just before midnight.
[INTRIGUE-FILLED STRING MUSIC PLAYING]
[CLIP FROM BORIS YELTSIN’S SPEECH FROM THE YEAR BEFORE STARTS]
DAN: This is Boris Yelstin giving the speech the year before in front of Red Square. It happens every year, and everyone watches. And the speech had to be perfectly timed.
MASHA: So the President has to finish in time for the clock to strike midnight.
DAN: From the bells in the tower of the Kremlin.
[YELSTIN’S SPEECH ENDS: “… дорогие друзья.” (… dear friends.)]
[BELLS START TO CHIME]
DAN: And this year, this was the big one.
MASHA: I mean, it’s so symbolic, if you think about it, y’know? The millennium — and this country that has never had a peaceful transfer of power before.
[BELL CHIME FADES OUT]
DAN: There were supposed to be elections coming in June. Yeltsin’s term limit was up. But lately, he’d been making a lot of people really nervous. He was acting unpredictably. He was getting drunk in public. Like, severely soused.
MASHA: He had tried to conduct an orchestra in Berlin during an official an official visit because he was drunk and happy … having to be propped up by his bodyguards because he's so drunk he can barely walk.
DAN: Masha arrives in Moscow on the 30th, and whatever happens with the speech, she will be watching, listening to the clock strike midnight, at a party with her friends. And her new love, who will hopefully be so dazzled by the trip and the gesture and Masha that she’ll decide to stay in Moscow with her forever and never leave. But there are two schemes afoot in Moscow tonight. And this is where the second one comes in.
MASHA: So we went to sleep...
DAN: They oversleep, actually — and are awoken on the 31st by a gobsmacker of a surprise.
MASHA: … and my phone rang — would have been a landline — rang probably, I dunno, uh, 1:00 in the afternoon? And it was one of the people with whom we were supposed to celebrate New Year's that night. And she called and said, “So, is the party cancelled?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Because Yeltsin resigned.” And I said something to the effect of that being the stupidest prank ever.
DAN: [CHUCKLES SOFTLY] Right. It’s not even funny.
MASHA: [LAUGHS] Yeah! Like, why would you make up — a thing like that?
DAN: But it wasn’t a prank. It was real.
[NEWS CLIP MONTAGE OF YELTSIN’S RESIGNATION, IN RUSSIAN AND ENGLISH]
DAN: Out of nowhere, Yeltsin pops up on TV in the afternoon, almost 12 hours before he was supposed to, and says, “Yeltsin out!”
[CLIP OF YELTSIN EXPLAINING HIS RESIGNATION]
MASHA: He had decided to resign, that he was tired. He said, “I was naive. I thought that we could resolve the legacy of totalitarianism in a single stroke.”
DAN: And then, in the same breath, does something kind of totally totalitarian.
MASHA: And then he said that there was a new man, a young man that Russians were placing their hopes in, and he didn't want to stand in his way.
DAN: Yeltsin practically just points at someone and says, “This guy! He’s president now! And you’re really gonna like him.”
MASHA: So as a journalist my reaction was, “Shit. It’s New Years Eve, he has just resigned, and I don't understand what's going on.”
DAN: And Masha, who was so worried about whether or not her own plan had worked? She would have to switch gears, to figure out this one. And this one, too, would end up changing her life forever. Because the guy Yeltsin pointed to … is Vladimir Putin.
[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE, THEN AMERICAN NEWS CLIP EXPLAINING THE TRANSFER OF POWER TO PUTIN]
DAN: Eleven fifty-six, Moscow time. Four minutes ’til midnight. Masha Gessen is watching TV, where Yeltsin is supposed to give the traditional New Year’s Eve speech.
MASHA: And then this … little bureaucrat goes on television.
[CLIP FROM PUTIN’S SPEECH: “Дорогие друзья, сегодня, в новогодние ночи …” (Dear friends, today, on New Year’s Eve …)]
[ACOUSTIC MUSIC STARTS]
DAN: Putin appears, to give the speech instead. He’s at a big wooden desk in the Kremlin, in front of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree with decorations that, for sure, just came out of a cardboard box in someone’s attic. He looks uncomfortable. Like he’s gotta go to the bathroom. Like he’s gonna get up and bolt.
MASHA: … And speaks this totally bureaucratic language, completely depersonalized. I think everybody was a little shell-shocked.
DAN: But it didn’t take long for Masha to figure out how Yeltsin’s plan to pick his own replacement went down.
[ACOUSTIC MUSIC ENDS]
DAN: Yeltsin’s legal term limit had been approaching. And he was weak. Not just physically — politically.
MASHA: So he was afraid that, if the opposition came to power, he was going to be prosecuted.
DAN: For things like illegally dissolving Parliament in 1993, and then shelling Parliament — his own Parliament — with artillery when they refused to disband. And people died.
MASHA: So there’s stuff to prosecute him for. And so he was looking for somebody who would guarantee him immunity from prosecution. And that’s how he stumbled upon Putin. And then a couple of weeks before New Year’s, they hatch this plan for Yeltsin to resign early, so that there would be an early election for which no one would have time to prepare, and Putin would basically be a shoo-in.
[INTRIGUE-FILLED MUSIC STARTS]
DAN: Because if a President resigns, new elections have to happen in 90 days, instead of in June, like they were supposed to.
MASHA: Putin launched his campaign on December 31st and nobody else was going to be able to launch theirs until mid-January.
DAN: And Putin gets to give the kickoff speech of all kickoff speeches — ushering Russia into the third millenium.
[CLIP OF PUTIN’S ADDRESS: “Не был и не будет. Я хочу предупредить” (That wasn’t and will not be the case. I want to warn …”]
DAN: And leaving zero doubt that he is in control now.
MASHA: And then he goes into this quick sort of speech, saying, you know, “It’s all legal. You’re going to be protected.” And it’s a real sort of us-against-the-world kind of posture. Where Yeltsin said, “We — we did what we could,” and Putin is like, [WITH A STRAINED, INTENSE TONE] “We have a fortress! We have an army! We’ve dug the trenches!”
DAN: And the Russian people buy it. They’re in. The tough-guy talk of strength and stability — it resonates. [PAUSE] But not for Masha.
MASHA: I just really wanted people to understand what a threat he was in the present.
DAN: Did you understand then how much your future in Russia would change based on what had happened that day?
[MUSIC CHANGES TO A SOFT, SAD ACCORDION PIECE]
MASHA: I — I don’t think I understood it fully. But, you know, that said, I didn’t think I was going to have to, like, leave the country. I didn’t think that there — that twelve years later, he was going to make homophobia the cornerstone of his politics. I mean, that was, like, the last thing on my mind.
[PUTIN’S SPEECH CONTINUES: “эти основополагающие элементы цивилизованного общества будут надежно защищены государством.” (These fundamental elements of a civilized society will continue to be protected by the state.)]
DAN: But that’s the future — still just a feeling she has, as she watches the speech on TV, at her New Year’s party, with the woman she loves. And, sure, it’s cold outside, but it’s warm in here, and the vodka makes it more so. The lights on the New Year’s tree, and Auld Lang Syne, and all that good stuff.
[MUSIC CHANGES TO A SOFT, GENTLE ACOUSTIC SONG]
DAN: How was the party that night?
MASHA: I remember, I was so happy. I was, like, so madly in love. That was — that was the biggest thing. [PAUSE] Which probably brings you to your question about what happened with my project of kidnapping that night. [BOTH LAUGH]
DAN: Remember, this all started when Masha stole her love interest from Berlin and drove her to Moscow for New Year’s, hoping the grand gesture would be an irresistible beginning to a romance.
MASHA: So, it worked out.
DAN: It did!
MASHA: It did. She stayed in Moscow with me and, uh …
DAN: Oh, wonderful.
MASHA: … by October 2001, we had two kids.
DAN: Oh my gosh! You weren’t screwing around.
MASHA: They’re very large people now.
[PUTIN’S SPEECH CONTINUES: “каждом нашем доме, за здоровье наших родителей и детей.” (In each of our homes, to the health of our parents and children.)]
DAN: As they watched Putin finish his speech that night …
[PUTIN’S SPEECH FINISHES: “С Новым годом вас! С новым веком!” (Happy New Year! Happy new century!)]
DAN: He times it perfectly.
[SILENCE, THEN THE BELLS BEGIN TO CHIME]
DAN: As the bells in the Kremlin announce the new millennium, in an even newer Russia.
[MUSIC BECOMES MORE DRIVING]
TOBIN: On December 31st, 1999, Masha senses big changes are coming to Russia. But she didn't know just how close to home they would hit.
KATHY: We asked Masha to come into the studio to talk to us about it.
TOBIN: That's coming up, after the break.
[MIDROLL EXIT MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: And we're back.
KATHY: So, New Year, 2000. Masha Gessen is starting a new family with a woman in Russia.
TOBIN: Masha’s had a really complicated relationship with Russia. She was born there and she emigrated to the US with their parents when she was 14. Her parents thought that they’d be safer from anti-Semitism in the US. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, Masha moved back to Russia in 1991 to cover the country at a time of immense change.
KATHY: Today, Russia is known for being incredibly anti-gay. But in those first years after Putin took over, being a lesbian couple wasn’t something Masha and her partner had to hide.
MASHA: In my case, it would have been very difficult to hide anything. I mean, like, uh, the first time I went back to Russia in 1991, the largest newspaper in the country printed on its front page an article about [CHUCKLES] lesbians coming to this feminist conference which is how I came out to my extended family. [TOBIN LAUGHS]
KATHY: Oh my god!
MASHA: And so I've, like, never been not wildly publicly out in Russia. But in a way it was very uneventful. [TOBIN HUMS IN AFFIRMATION] I mean, it was well before the anti-gay campaign began. It was like a dozen years before. And so queer people were just not part of kind of public consciousness.
TOBIN: At what point then did you start to feel the turn, that maybe things were changing?
MASHA: 2011, I guess. I was the editor of a very large, glossy magazine and rather prominent Russians claimed that I and my team engaged in homosexual propaganda [TOBIN SAYS, “HMM”] and forced upon them, you know, foreign, Western values and I didn’t feel at all oppressed by this. I just thought it was … weird.
TOBIN: It felt non-threatening.
MASHA: It felt non-threatening and it felt, like, other-worldly and very bizarre. [KATHY HUMS IN AFFIRMATION] Which, you know … which only just tells you what an idiot I was because — because then, like, about a year later, it so clearly flipped, because laws against so-called homosexual propaganda were passed first in St. Petersburg, the second-largest city, and then on the federal level.
KATHY: Is that when you started thinking that this was not a joke, like, this is happening?
MASHA: Yes. Yeah, I had like a, like … Like, sort of a moment of instant conversion and freak out —
KATHY: Oh, boy.
MASHA: — from thinking that it was ridiculous, to thinking that this was really scary.
TOBIN: In these laws when they refer to homosexual propaganda, gay propaganda, to them, what constitutes gay propaganda?
MASHA: Well, so, those kinds of laws — and that's a great question because those kinds of laws are always created for random enforcement.
MASHA: So you can't actually tell what it is. But this is a law that actually enshrined second-class citizenship.
KATHY: Do you have a sense of why the laws started popping up around 2011, 2012? Like, what was it that changed that suddenly that was a thing?
MASHA: So, 2011, 2012 was when the protest movement, the anti-Putin protest movement, took hold. There were mass protests all over the country as Putin was coming back in as president after taking a sort of break. I think that Putin was really scared of the protests and the goal was to paint the protesters as other.
MASHA: And an anti-queer campaign was very handy for that because it was queerbaiting the protesters and basically calling them “queer” immediately positioned them as other, as imported from the West, as enemies, and as also signifying everything that had changed since the Soviet Union collapsed. So, if you wanted to go back to an imaginary past and not be faced by all the anxiety that the present and the protests caused you, then you had to fight against queer people.
TOBIN: Hmm. So, you — you ended up leaving the country about a year after you vowed to fight the administration on these issues.
TOBIN: What brought you to that moment? What brought you to that decision?
MASHA: So, umm, parallel with the passage of the propaganda law, they passed another law, which went into effect a week later which banned adoptions by same-sex couples. But what that meant was that it de facto created a mechanism for removing adopted kids from same-sex families. And there was an article in — once again, in the largest paper in the country — that pointed out that I had an adopted child.
MASHA: So, my son just had to leave the country immediately. So, the law was passed on June 18th, it was going into effect a week later. June 23rd, he was on a plane to go to the United States.
MASHA: Because it was very clear that we're going to be targeted under that law.
MASHA: We had a going-away party. All his friends, all these kids that he'd known his entire life … you know, he was 2 years old when I adopted him. Everybody came and there was a sense that he might never see any of them again. It was just awful. So once we shipped our son off, it was kind of a no-brainer.
KATHY: So now that you and your family are in New York, how is your life like now compared to what you thought your life was going to be like before you had to leave?
MASHA: Well, umm … it’s really nice to not be in a country that's constantly hostile to you both as a queer person and as a journalist. I miss my friends a lot. I chose for myself a life in Russia where you form much more intimate kind of social relationships where, like, I had this dacha, this house outside the city, where our group of friends would just congregate pretty much every weekend and we would just spend the entire weekend together. So, so, you know, it's a completely … you can't really imagine Americans doing that on a regular basis. Just kind of getting off the grid for two days every week and having a social occasion that lasts 48 hours. Socializing and intimacy are apportioned much more precisely in America and in New York especially.
TOBIN: Oh my gosh, in New York, I cancel if the train is five minutes late.
KATHY: I don't know if I could spend a weekend with you, Tobin, just, like, off the grid. It seems like a lot.
TOBIN: It would be … maybe challenging. [ALL LAUGH LIGHTLY]
MASHA: But I think that one of the great things about being queer is that we invent our families and invent ways of creating sort of community and kinship. I think of that as not some kind of exceptional weird arrangement but as actually exactly the kind of thing that queer people do.
TOBIN: The first time you left Russia, you were at a similar age, or around the same age as when your kids left Russia.
MASHA: Oh yes, yes. I thought that it was really remarkable that one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been through was emigrating as a teenager, so I decided to subject my two teenage children to the exact same horrible experience. So I would say, “I know what you’re going through,” and they would say, [DRAMATIC TEENAGER VOICE] “No, you don’t! You have no idea!” [TOBIN LAUGHS]
KATHY: Do you ever hope that you can go back and live in Russia?
MASHA: That is such a totally American question. [ALL LAUGH] Umm, no. I think that if you emigrate, you don’t look back. You don’t like go wait to sit things out. You don’t put your life on hold to accommodate another political reality. So, if I live here, I live here.
[LIGHT TECHNO MUSIC PLAYS]
[NANCY CREDIT MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: Masha Gessen’s Y2K story was produced by Dan Taberski and Henry Molofsky. Special thanks to Daniel Guillemette for editing this episode.
KATHY: All right, credits!
TOBIN: Production fellow —
KATHY: Temi Fagbenle.
TOBIN: Our editor —
KATHY: Stephanie Joyce.
TOBIN: Sound designer —
KATHY: Jeremy Bloom.
TOBIN: Executive producer —
KATHY: Paula Szuchman.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.