THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE

By Masha Gessen

Published: March 18, 2012

A joke from Soviet times describes the minister of agriculture on a trip to Sweden, marveling at the acres of irrigated hothouses, the markets piled high with vegetables and fruits, comparing this profusion with the barren shelves of home.

“If only we could perform such wonders,” he laments to his Swedish guide.

“What’s stopping you?”

The Russian sighs deeply: “Not enough Swedes.”

The Soviet Union is no more, but the same top-level condescension toward the Russian governed, the same habit of infantilizing the populace, endures in Vladimir Putin. The Russians – in the attitude passed down from czar to party boss to this elected autocrat – must be instructed, talked down to, disciplined, kept in the dark, managed, manipulated. In Russia, what is called “Western-style democracy” leads to childish blithering and disorder. Russians know this in their hearts, supposedly, which is why they vote for Daddy Putin.

So the Russian balloting has now reinstalled Putin in the presidency that he treats as a personal sinecure. Although his arrogant manner and his failure to deal with the universal corruption gumming up Russian life have eroded his popularity, and although there are important signs that a new, more confident generation is weary of being patronized, those who oppose him have not had time to coalesce around a consensus candidate. A question for those hunting silver linings is whether Putin can reinvent himself and be the president Russia needs, which for starters would entail cleaning up the pervasive corruption in both the economic and political life of his country, and treating his public like grown-ups.

The prognosis is not hopeful. A decade ago, it was possible to imagine two inner Putins wrestling for his soul: the KGB thug versus the modernizer. Sadly, events since then suggest that the inflexible misanthrope we see is the only Putin we get.

Both “The Strongman,” by Angus Roxburgh, and “The Man Without a Face,” by Masha Gessen, are attempts to explain the man who has ruled Russia directly or indirectly for a dozen years – and could conceivably rule for a dozen more – but they represent very different genres. (Not surprisingly, neither author had access to Putin.) Roxburgh has been a longtime correspondent for The Sunday Times of London and the BBC. While he penetrated a little deeper than many of his journalistic peers by working temporarily as a consultant to Putin’s hapless image makers, “The Strongman” is not a biography or an inside-his-head account but a straightforward chronicle of Putin in power. What Roxburgh delivers is a solid foreign-correspondent narrative of Putin’s behavior.

Gessen’s “Man Without a Face” is altogether different: part psychological profile, part conspiracy study. As a Moscow native who has written perceptively for both Russian and Western publications, Gessen knows the culture and pathologies of Russia. But Gessen’s family emigrated when she was a teenager, and 10 years in the United States gave her some distance, along with a delicious command of the English language. She returned to the Soviet Union in 1991, as it was dissolving, but her relationship to her homeland is more outsider than insider – first and foremost as a fiercely independent journalist, part of a tribe with a high mortality rate, but also as a Jew and a lesbian in a society where anti-Semitism and homophobia are commonplace.

Gessen’s armchair psychoanalysis of Putin is speculative. But it is clever and sometimes convincing speculation, based on a close reading of Putin’s own inadvertently revealing accounts of his life, and on interviews with people who knew Putin before he mattered.

Putin grew up in the shared squalor of a city – Leningrad, formerly and now St. Petersburg – that had, eight years before he was born, emerged from the abject suffering of a horrific Nazi siege. The city of his birth, Gessen writes, was “a mean, hungry, impoverished place that bred mean, hungry, ferocious children.” Just in case you thought this was going to be a sympathetic portrait.

Even the most casual Putin-watcher has marveled at his narcissism, manifested in his odd habit of inviting cameras to record him bare-chested on horseback, swimming the butterfly stroke in a Siberian river, scuba diving and collecting skin samples from whales, among other stunts. Gessen traces his self-absorption back to his youth.

Putin’s childhood ambition was to be a spy in the KGB, but Gessen reveals that his actual experience was more Walter Mitty than James Bond. He was basically a paper-pusher, collecting press clippings in Dresden while the East German Stasi did the real dirty work of recruiting informers and policing dissent. By the time Putin returned to Leningrad, Mikhail Gorbachev had begun discrediting the old Soviet system the KGB existed to defend and, Gessen writes,“everything Putin had worked for was now in doubt; everything he had believed was being mocked.”

Putin soon hitched himself to the first of a series of flawed, small-d democrats, who would propel him to power. Gessen spends fruitful effort on Putin’s relationship with Anatoly Sobchak – a loquacious member of the democratic movement and later the mayor of Leningrad. Putin’s time as Sobchak’s right hand seems to have been formative in several respects. For one, Putin (and Sobchak, too) grew fed up with Leningrad’s democrats, who loved endless disputation but never got anything done. Putin very soon began working around the elected City Council, embezzling huge sums and using the money to advance his and Sobchak’s interests. Putin, Gessen reports, kept at least one foot safely in the secret police, meanwhile climbing up a ladder of mentors to Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle.

Putin’s transformative assignment from Yeltsin was to oversee the response, in 1999, to an increasingly bold separatist movement in the republic of Chechnya, a job he handled ruthlessly. The brutal crushing of Chechnya may well have created more terrorist recruits than it killed, but in Roxburgh’s estimation it “catapulted Putin to the highest office.”

Roxburgh’s take, which remains the mainstream view, is that Putin tried for a time to modernize Russia’s economy and restore its place in the club of civilized nations. Indeed, Putin did institute economic reforms that spurred growth, curbed inflation and got people actually paying their taxes. At the same time, he allowed runaway corruption and largely reversed the privatization of major industries. Roxburgh suggests that Putin had a kind of epiphany after the sinking of the submarine Kursk and the death of its crew in 2000, a tragedy that revealed the humiliating extent of systemic decay.

In short, Roxburgh sees a man who emerged with the predictable Soviet prejudices, who for a time was open to overcoming his darker instincts but was simply defeated by the intractable mess he inherited and reverted to authoritarian KGB form. What followed is well known: an abrupt consolidation of power in his own hands; the taming of the news media and of industrialists who failed to toe his line; nationalist bluster in foreign relations; the reimposition of state controls over the resource-based economy; the jailing or killing of political opponents; electoral manipulation.

Gessen sees all of this through a more conspiratorial lens; at times her Putin sounds like the securocrats’ “Manchurian Candidate.” Writing about a series of gruesome terrorist attacks that were met with baffling ineptitude, she examines the popular theory that they were staged by the police to justify tightening the authoritarian screws. This suspicion has been reinforced by the murder of journalists and whistle-blowers who looked into the events.

There is considerable evidence that at least one incident – a foiled apartment bombing in Ryazan – may have been staged by agents of the FSB, the postSoviet successor to the KGB. The two most memorably atrocious hostage-takings – at a theater in Moscow and a school in Beslan, in southern Russia – ended in lethally mishandled rescue efforts, and these tragedies are attended by suspicious twists that have been amplified by the Kremlin’s habitual secrecy.

“Did this add up to a series of carefully laid plans to strengthen Putin’s position in a country that responded best to the politics of fear?” Gessen muses. “Not necessarily, or not quite. ... One thing is certain: Once the hostage-takings occurred, the government task forces acting under Putin’s direct supervision did everything to ensure that the crises ended as horrifyingly as possible – to justify continued warfare in Chechnya and further crackdowns on the media and the opposition in Russia and, finally, to quell any possible criticism from the West.”

Putin’s handling of domestic terror was certainly marred by clumsiness and a chronic lack of accountability. And he used these episodes to justify brutal reprisals and draconian controls. In the absence of more persuasive evidence, though, I was not sold on the theory that these atrocities were intentionally bungled. No doubt Gessen, who chides the West for being slow to notice Putin’s ruthless consolidation of power, will say that I am just being naive.

Roxburgh’s book went to press too soon for him to include the popular protests that began last December, the largest since the upheavals of 1991. Gessen was able to add a hasty epilogue, and after so many chapters verging on despair it is jarring to see her ending on a burst of hope. She thrills at the crowds surging into the streets and the social-media buzz. Suddenly she has premonitions of Putin’s political demise in the resilient courage of the people he seems to despise. “Perhaps this is not necessarily going nowhere after all,” she writes.

At least someone has a little faith in the Russians.

(Bill Keller is the former executive editor of The New York Times and an Op-Ed columnist for the paper.)
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