“Imagine you have a country and no one to run it. This was the predicament that Boris Yeltsin and his inner circle thought they faced in 1999.”
What do we really know about Vladimir Putin? What beyond the carefully orchestrated and controlled images, crafted to underscore his macho masculinity and infallible savior persona, is really true about one of the world’s most powerful men? How did he attain his dictator-like position, and why does he manipulate and control far beyond honest or legal boundaries?
Journalist Masha Gessen lived through Russian history as it rapidly changed, has witnessed and chronicled so much of its modern evolution. She thus has unique perspectives and insights on its current state and leadership.
The Man Without a Face opens with Gessen’s recollections of learning about the murder of high-profile politician and Soviet dissident Galina Starovoitova. This is not an unfamiliar narrative by now, but at the time, in 1998, it was something very curious:
Here was another story no one had told before – but it was a much bigger story than any I had written, a much bigger story even than that of the murder, in cold blood, of one of the country’s best-known politicians. What I found in St. Petersburg was a city – Russia’s second-largest city – that was a state within a state. It was a place where the KGB – the organization against which Starovoitova had waged her most important and most hopeless battle – was all-powerful. Local politicians and journalists believed their phones and offices were tapped, and it seemed they were right. It was a place where the murder of major political and business players was a regular occurrence. And it was a place where business deals gone sour could easily land someone behind bars. In other words, it was very much like what Russia itself would become in a few years, once it came to be ruled by the people who ruled St. Petersburg in the 1990s.
I wanted to read this for two reasons. The first being that Gessen is an excellent, meticulous journalist. Second, because the more we learn about Russia’s US election-meddling, the more I realize that despite reading extensively about the country and its recent history, I don’t know that much about its longtime leader or his background.
Since his choice in my presidential election might’ve counted more than mine, I’d like to know a little more about him.
I know the basics: he’s ex-KGB, a dictator in disguise, corrupt as the day is long, secret (probably) billionaire, manipulates his own elections and polling, installed a puppet president when the law didn’t allow his reign to continue uninterrupted – all the headline stuff. But I wanted to know more about where he came from and why he does what he does. His villainous backstory, if you will. His Young Stalin.
Turns out, that’s not so easy. He’s never allowed it to be.
Because Vladimir Putin was catapulted to power from obscurity, and because he spent his entire adult life within the confines of a secret and secretive institution, he has been able to exercise greater control over what is known about him than almost any other modern politician – certainly more than any modern Western politician. He has created his own mythology.
From a thin outline of Putin’s school days and family dynamic, Gessen explains the state of Russia as the Soviet Union began to crumble, and the immediate chaotic aftermath, eventually leading to Yeltsin’s era and its ignominious end. That’s where Putin comes in.
A tiny group of people, besieged and isolated, were looking for someone to take over the world’s largest landmass, with all its nuclear warheads and all its tragic history – and the only thing smaller than the pool of candidates seems to have been the list of qualifications required of them. Anyone with any real political capital and ambition – anyone with a personality commensurate with the office – had already abandoned Yeltsin.
Putin was bland, colorless, faceless, flavorless, inoffensive and unremarkable: the exact “gray suit” guy they needed.
The first chapters, covering what’s known, or at least publicized, about his upbringing and early career were the most fascinating for me. Gessen excellently establishes a foundation using clear aspects of his personality development and behavior in his youth, so that some of his later actions are more understandable in this context.
One such cited example is Putin’s reprehensible response to the Moscow theater crisis, when the Dubrovka theater was flooded with a sleeping gas, hostages removed then positioned carelessly, causing many to die after choking on their own vomit, or fall into comas that couldn’t be helped because doctors weren’t privy to what chemical agent had been used.
This rescue mission was horrifically, needlessly botched, and although the details surrounding its truth are murky, Gessen argues it didn’t have to be this way. The Chechen terrorists’ demands were fairly innocuous and easily conceded. Mainly they wanted Putin to make a statement that he wanted peace in Chechnya, and to order troop withdrawal from any single district of the breakaway republic.
“But for all the seeming simplicity of their demands, the terrorists were demanding that Putin act in a way that ran counter to his nature. The boy who could never end a fight—the one who would seem to calm down only to flare up and attack again—now the president who had promised to ‘rub them out in the outhouse,’ would certainly rather sacrifice 129 of his own citizens than publicly say that he wanted peace. He did not.”
Other high-profile events that were twisted and manipulated for political purposes covered here include the Kursk submarine disaster, the Beslan school massacre, and the poisoning murder of FSB agent-turned-whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko.
It’s only through his most infamous dirty deeds that we can really learn anything about the man, who’s mostly succeeding in maintaining his careful facade, even if his anger and odd psychological quirks (he’s got Scrooge McDuck levels of money but demands on taking or being “gifted” the strangest things) do allow it to publicly slip from time to time, as Gessen reports in great detail.
So the structure is less unauthorized biography of Putin, as I’d hoped for, and more a detailed recounting of political maneuverings or public events made political for strategic, often nefarious purposes.
It started out strong, mainly because Gessen is such a talented journalist, but it didn’t captivate me entirely. Parts were dry, or too complicated, which, to be fair – Russian politics and corruption are extremely complicated and confusing, but I hoped Gessen could better and more readably distill them.
Quoting Litvinenko from a statement he dictated shortly before slipping into a coma:
“You may be able to force me to stay quiet, but this silence will come at a price to you. You have now proved that you are exactly the ruthless barbarian your harshest critics made you out to be.
You have demonstrated that you have no respect for human life, liberty, or other values of civilization.
You have shown that you do not deserve to hold your post, and you do not deserve the trust of civilized people.”
You may be able to shut one man up, but the noise of protest all over the world will reverberate in your ears…
Wise words, and, tellingly, a summary of much of what we learn here.
As she always brilliantly does, Gessen sheds light on some of Moscow’s shadowy corners and dark dealings, but unfortunately, much about the man in question remains opaque for now.