The remarkable and sudden rise of Vladimir Putin to the zenith of Russian politics from a place of obscurity will ring a bell for Pakistanis. Here was a man chosen by the embattled Boris Yeltsin not because of his political nous or sparkling charisma; rather the complete opposite was the case. Putin was dull, grey and seen as an obedient yes-man who would protect those who had elevated him. Instead, he embarked on an orgy of violence and score-settling. It took only the merest hint of dissent for Putin to lash out, often violently and sometimes through cooked-up trials, at his former patrons. The parallels with Generals Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf are quite eerie and speak to the natural human tendency to be corrupted by absolute power.
Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, in her brave and valuable portrait of the less seemly aspects of Putin in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, posits that the man he has become in power is the man he was all along. Growing up in a one-bedroom apartment with his family, a place that would be his home till his mid-twenties, Putin was a thug from the start. He sought fights as a kid and personal enrichment as a KGB employee. His first KGB posting in Dresden was notable only for his desire to accumulate material goods, snatched from benefactors without so much as a thank you.
Gessen also dismantles the self-created myth of Putin as the dashing young spy fighting the good fight during the Cold War. According to her, he was little more than an office drone, gathering information no one wanted and writing reports that would never be read. Gessen also believes that Putin, while fiercely nationalistic, had no particular attachment to the Communist cause. Thus, in her opinion, Putin could play a secret role in supporting the hardliners in their 1991 coup attempt, distance himself from the aspiring coup-makers once their failure was guaranteed and then align himself with the non-Communist politician Anatoly Sobchak in Leningrad.
Of the incredibly risky reporting Gessen has undertaken, none is as impressive as her investigation into the $90 million Putin siphoned off while serving under Sobchak. She tracks down a woman who had looked into this matter and then fled to an almost uninhabited town after being threatened by Putin’s regime. The scheme goes something like this: with Leningrad facing a severe food shortage, Putin was responsible for selling raw materials to Germany in exchange for food. Nearly $100 million in raw materials was sold but almost no food arrived. Putin, as it transpired, purposely prepared legal documents for the import/export that were so flawed they would have no standing in court.
Peering behind the image of Putin as a nationalist who has brought prosperity to Russia, in The Man Without a Face, Gessen exposes a web of criminality and gangsterism that can all be traced back to Putin. She writes in painstaking detail about the various ways in which he took over the largest companies in Russia, simply arresting his opponents on fraudulent charges or intimidating them into leaving the country and abandoning their businesses.
Then there is the pile of corpses. The victims include journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Yuri Shchekochikhin, former patron-turned-critic Sobchak and secret service defector Alexander Litvinenko. Gessen goes a step further and accuses Putin of masterminding a string of terrorist attacks which were then used to brutally subjugate the Chechen people, including apartment bombings and the Moscow Theatre hostage situation of 2002. Given the diminished life expectancy of Putin critics, collecting all these theories in one book testifies even further to the courage of Gessen, who has lived in Moscow since 1991.
Gessen is equally scathing in her assessment of Putin’s rapacious appetite for wealth. She estimates that his fortune may be as high as $40 billion. One anecdote in particular illustrates her claim that Putin is motivated by a need to take what belongs to others. During a meeting with the owner of American football team, Putin was shown a Super Bowl ring that had 124 diamonds. He looked at it keenly and then simply pocketed it. After a few days of controversy, the man simply had to say that he had intended to give the ring to Putin just to diffuse a potentially fraught international situation.
So thorough is Gessen in her indictment of Putin as an evil force and so courageous is her willingness to do this freely, it seems a bit churlish to point out a couple of inadequacies in her book. Still, it is a bit jarring just how willing Gessen is to excuse the Russian people, who after all have consistently returned Putin to office, for tolerating and even supporting Putin. She overlooks the fact that Russia under Putin enjoyed a robust economic boom, sparked primarily by record-high oil prices and that this in itself could explain why a blind eye has been turned to Putin’s kleptocratic and murderous regime.
The other jarring moment is the epilogue to the book. After 250 pages of unremitting gloom, Gessen suddenly turns naively optimistic. She writes of a few protests that started to take place in 2011 and begins predicting Putin’s downfall. Gessen starts believing in the power of Facebook status updates and the white ribbons that come to symbolise opposition to Putin. Just a few short months after these protests, however, Putin’s grip on power does not seem to have loosened a bit. This is something anyone could have figured out just by reading the rest of Gessen’s book. That she does not do so, shows just how strong her hatred of Putin really is and just how badly she wants to believe that his rule may soon come to an end.
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
By Masha Gessen
Riverhead Books, US