This is the chilling account of how a low-level, small-minded KGB operative ascended to the Russian presidency and, in an astonishingly short time, destroyed years of progress and made his country once more a threat to her own people and to the world. Handpicked by the "family" surrounding an ailing and increasingly unpopular Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin seemed like a perfect choice for the oligarchy to shape according to its own designs. Suddenly the boy who had stood in the shadows was a public figure, and his popularity soared. Russia and an infatuated West were determined to see the progressive leader of their dreams, even as he seized control of media, sent political rivals and critics into exile or to the grave, and smashed the country's fragile electoral system, concentrating power in the hands of his cronies. As a journalist living in Moscow, Masha Gessen experienced this history firsthand, and she has drawn on sources no other writer has tapped.--From publisher description.
Putin was plucked from obscurity in 2000 to take over for the ailing (and drunken) Russian Premier Boris Yeltsin. Suddenly the scrappy boy from Leningrad had the power he had always dreamed of. After dismantling the tentative early steps to democracy begun by Yeltsin, Putin went on to employ henchmen to carry out his vision of a return to the old USSR. Among his achievements: the government takeover of the cable TV stations, the seizure of assets from members of the Russian oligarchy, total control and manipulation of elections, the transition of the upper house of parliament from an elected body to an appointed one, and the accumulation of personal wealth that has been estimated at $40 billion dollars. Under Putin’s watch the arrest, imprisonment, murder or poisoning of those who disagreed with him were common. His term has been highlighted by several calamities that were mishandled terribly by Putin. In August of 2000, the nuclear submarine Kursk exploded killing most of the 118 member crew immediately but 23 people were in a part of the submarine that saved them from the initial blast. However, Putin wouldn’t accept help offered by Norway and Great Britain and, indeed, did not have anything to say about the tragedy because he was vacationing at a beach resort on the Black Sea. When he finally spoke five days into the ordeal, he was dismissive of the whole incident and spoke only of salvaging what they could from the submarine. After nine days the 23 seamen perished as well.
Greshen lays out the evidence in a narrative that proceeds at breakneck speed illustrating, step by step, how Putin has pulled off this incredible heist of Russian wealth and a tally of the growing stack of dead bodies he leaves in his wake. This one is not to be missed.
Another trend I've noticed in my recent nonfiction reading is evident here: this is a book which is not quite about what its title, or more specifically, its subtitle, implies. Ms. Gessen documents many of the ways in which Russia under Putin is corrupt and is convincing in her argument. Yet we actually find out very little about how he came to be the leader of Russia. I found I knew almost nothing more about how he came to be leader than before I read the book. But, how much can we really know in a country which controls information so carefully?
I'm not convinced, though, that Putin's rise was "unlikely". His strong-man persona appealed to those looking for a leader to bring them through tough economic times. In fact, some information on the economic and social context of the times surrounding Putin's rise would have strengthened the book. Another reason his rise to power may not be "unlikely" is that there is virtually no culture of democracy in Russia and few institutional or non-governmental agencies to support this form of governance. Marching in protest isn't enough to build a democracy...is anyone prepared to take the reins if the protests succeed?
Towards the end, the book becomes more of a memoir/story of Ms. Gessen and her family. I liked that part and feel the author was very brave to right this book.
At its root, this book presents a type of conspiracy theory. Ms. Gessen is a highly respected journalist with solid credentials. She is also an activist with an agenda -- she's open about that. In the end, until/unless more evidence is discovered, each reader will decide how much they believe, and want to believe, about Mr. Putin.
Gessen lays responsibility for Russia's devolution from a fledgling democracy in the nineties to a corrupt dictatorship in the aughts at Vladimir Putin's feet, though she simultaneously argues that Putin was just one of a type, a member of the old guard that retreated during the 90s but never went away.
When Putin was selected as Yeltsin's successor, he was an anonymous bureaucrat, a behind-the-scenes KGB agent. A nobody. Within weeks of being elected, Putin began began systematically shutting down the instruments of democracy: city councils, free elections, television stations.
Putin consolidated power around himself at the expense of his countrymen, progress, freedom, etc. As an American, it's terrifying to read about how quickly Putin dismantled the building blocks of democracy in Russia. By the time most people took notice, the damage had been done. They had no avenue of protest: the courts were rigged, the elections were rigged, the news was rigged.
And if that were Putin's sole legacy, it would be bad enough. But what really makes THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE chilling is Putin's gleeful thuggishness. Gessen spends time on the made-to-order biography of Putin published around the time of his first election. The biography is apparently full of stories about how Putin, as a scrappy youth, engaged in streetfights at the least provocation. That's what he wanted his people to know about himself -- that he was a violent, short-tempered bully.
As President, he was very gung-ho about national security. He apparently likes to threaten, in his cheerfully thuggish language, "to rub out" his enemies, or "rub them out in an outhouse". And it seems that from the first, he saw his own people as his greatest enemy. Gessen writes about the Beslan hostage crisis in 2004, when a group of Islamic separatists took a school full of children hostage. Putin ordered federal troops to attack the school; tanks fired on the gymnasium full of hostages, soldiers launched flamethrowers through gaps in the wall made by tanks. Hundreds of children died.
Gessen catalogues several similar catastrophes. During a countrywide famine, Putin was in charge of importing food from abroad for St Petersburg. He embezzled funds designated for the purpose, blocked the city council's attempts to purchase meat, and let the citizens starve. During a botched military exercise, Putin let dozens of trapped seamen die in a submarine (the Kursk) rather than accept aid from foreign divers. When he visited the widows of the fallen soldiers, he took their anger and grief as a personal affront. He ranted at them, and it was after news networks broadcast audio of his tirade that Putin decided to end freedom of the press.
And then, if that's not enough, Gessen catalogues a laundry list of murders that Putin appears to be responsible for: bizarre poisonings, assassins lurking in stairwells. Putin seems to relish a good threat and Gessen relishes the task of repeating them - everything from phone calls to police raids to one ominous incident where Garry Kasparov was splattered with ketchup.
Gessen ends the book on a hopeful note - misplaced, in retrospect. But she successfully portrays Putin as a true psychopath, a man with infinite self-regard and no concern for human life, a man with a delicate ego and no empathy, easy to offend and baffled when others find his violence outrageous.
Twenty years of Russian history turns out to be a lot for one volume, and Gessen isn't aiming to be comprehensive. I would have liked to know more about the changing economic situation in Russia, which she glosses over (diverting only to mention the wealthy entrepreneurs that Putin has put in prison, or mention Putin's personal wealth, estimated at $40 billion - a huge sum for a man who's worked for the government all his life), or how she'd managed to keep her own career alive in such a repressive, hostile regime. But this isn't the work of a historian, surrounded by books in a university somewhere. It's written in the trenches, in the first person, by a journalist who counts herself part of the opposition.
I listened to the audiobook of THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE and I absolutely loathed the narrator. She pronounced every sentence in this intense, portentous way and voiced all direct quotations in the same horrible Russian accent, as though the speakers were extremely elderly and trembling with fear. I mean this trembling, vibrating, half-moaning speech pattern that made everyone sound feeble and overcome. Awful.
Gessen offers a round condemnation of Putin, stopping only from calling him an evil little tyrant (Although one of her interviewees does). She starts the biography with his early childhood (a schoolyard bully turned fervent club member) and early years in the KGB. He was a devoted, but relatively ineffective spy whose best achievement was purchasing an American technical manual for 800 Marks and recruiting one engineering student.
The fall of the Soviet Union (which Gessen describes with admirable and frustrating detail) was a crushing time for Putin. He devoted his life to the state, and yet he had nothing to show for it. Even his East German neighbors were richer than he was.
When the coup effort came around in 1991, Putin was on the fence to resign or not, depending on how the coup went. He stayed, and remained a Colonel.
With the utter chaos of the democratization effort, Yeltsin had tried, and then rejected a variety of successors, and wound up alienating nearly all but a handful of supporters from him. His approval rating was 2%, and he was desperate. He had to have a successor before he keeled over.
A certain Colonel Putin was suggested by one of his trusted aides, because he appeared pliant, eager, and dependable. Such is the nature of his charm - he is a diplomatic chameleon. Once in power, he systematically began to dismantle the fragile democratic apparatus. Federal leaders could only be installed by appointment. The oligarchs who opposed him were jailed and replaced. The press was muzzled. Putin, in his rarer interviews and press statements, was crude, blunt, and sometimes threatening. But for a while, this was his appeal. A strong leader in economic crisis.
Yet it must be said that the book has some glaring flaws. For some incidents (Ryazan bombings) it appears too much of a stretch to tie the staged efforts to Putin.
But it is not impossible. The assassination of dissidents seems more likely (Politkovskaya and Litvinenko most prominent).
And for all this grim recounting, and possible strength of Putin's semi-autocracy (he is up for another six-year term after this one is finished, thanks to shuffling positions with Medvedev), there is a growing discontent in Russia, fueled by social media. His iron fist has not choked the life out of Russia yet.
Masha Gessen delves into the rise from the shadows of this man who learned his politics from within the KGB and we witness the outcome in what we see coming out of Russia on the world scene everyday. It should not be surprising that such a figure would emerge from what had been a long unending line of these characters save maybe Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
Some of it was interesting, much I found not as she drones on and on about how Putin orchestrates everything on the political scene in the guise of open democracy which is really nothing of the sort. And that is pretty much the purpose of the book.
What will come after Putin exits the scene will be interesting but I suspect more of the same. Because in reality the power of political muscle and in Russia that clearly is muscle will usually if not always prevail. And so the story goes.
Another slight issue is that the book was dry, but I wasn't reading it because I wanted to read a good story. I was reading it for the information and insight that it could provide. The information was so intriguing that I didn't want to stop reading it. Before reading the book, I knew that this man was one who has encouraged homophobia, sexism, and who was linked to some very suspicious deaths of political dissidents. The story painted in the book showed that my personal description of him was way too nice. One could argue that everything was conjecture and speculation, but I can't. There were so many well-known victims of this man's corruption who were mentioned and whose stories were told in even more depth than I'd seen before. It helped to give this book more credence in my perspective.
Several people have said that it is a biased account, which is obvious without their stating it. She lived under someone who can easily be classified as an authoritarian or a tyrant. That would lead one to develop certain opinions of that political leader. And when the leader is notoriously private about his life and is a real "lives in the shadows" personality, it is hard to present the full picture of this man. Gessen did the best that she could with the information that she was available to accumulate. The whole idea of him being "a man without a face" comes from his extremely secretive nature and ability to be whatever the situation requires him to be--so long as it doesn't conflict with his own personal interests.
I think this is definitely a very informative book and that people who are interested in Putin, Russia, and the more recent history of the country will enjoy the book. Other people probably should look for something a little less intense.
From a series of official interviews with the man himself in 2000, and from interviews from some of his former friends and associates, a picture emerges of Putin as he was under the Soviet system. Essentially he was an unremarkable young man, but with a self-confessed tendency from boyhood towards violence when he did not get his own way. He unsuccessfully volunteered his services to the KGB when he was still at school and was in turn sought by them while at university. During the years of Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost, Putin was a minor KGB operative in Dresden in East Germany, gathering low level information from newspapers and attempting to persuade Latin American students to become spies. The fall of the Soviet Union seems to have left him initially bewildered and confused as it meant the relatively sudden collapse of the system that had made him what he was; in the 1990s, he played lip service to notions of reform and democratisation and seems to have been able to fool enough people to get on, including the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who effectively made him what he became towards the end of that decade.
All this certainly explains Putin's recent actions - along with a large number of his fellow countrymen, he hankers after the certainties of the Soviet system, but unlike them he has a firm grip on the levers of the state with which he can make reality fit with his vision. He has no compunction about the methods he uses in order to achieve this, as he has been used to getting his way after nearly a decade and a half at the top of the Russian state and effectively thinks he can get away with almost anything. He follows a very old (as old as the Tsars) Russian political tradition of completely blackening all political and personal opponents. Seen in this light, his actions in almost certainly sending troops into the Crimea, while denying having done so, abrogating Ukraine's treaty rights, and portraying the Ukraine authorities as fascists who are supposedly suppressing the rights of Russian speakers, make a kind of sense. An important book at the current time.
nonfic> politics> russian> contemporary
As I haven't read his biography I am not in the best seat to judge whether the refutations made by Gessen hold commonsense perspective. What is easy to glean is that Putin is a foul man, a squirmy deflector of questions, a killer and a climber. Whoever mentioned 'Stalin: the Sequel' down there in all the reviews (too lazy to trawl through again) seems to be right when it comes to mindset.
No wonder GW Shrub, Burlesqueoni and Spitoon looked to be having so much fun when they met, they were, and at humanity's expense.
That said, it is time to highlight this book and one word comes up 'subjective'. This is written from the anti Putin camp, and the narrator (I listened to the audio book) delivered in a cracked voice that at times descended to whinge tone. So read not listen to this book, it is eye-opening, yet also read what this is refuting/endorsing i.e. the bloke's take on things: 'First Person'.
The fact that Putin wants everyone to be aware that he is a thug from boyhood who came to the stage through KGB and various machinations speaks volumes about his personality.
3* to author
2* to narrator
4* for eye-opening
1* and a 'Room 101' sticker to Russian Federation for allowing Putin full rein.
so take that as a 3* overall