The Bureaucrat Who Would be King
I will never forget the first time I saw Putin’s face. It was September of 1999, and I was staying with my mentor, the late Mira S., in her apartment in St. Petersburg. I was just beginning my graduate research and was working in the manuscript collection at the St. Petersburg Public Library; Mira was translating the memoirs of the composer Nicolas Nabokov (cousin to the novelist) into Russian. In the evenings we would eat together in her kitchen, listen to the radio, and talk about literature and translation. Until the explosions began. In the four years I had known Mira, I had never been aware she owned a television, but after the first apartment building bombings in Moscow she took it out and set it up in the study. Putin, the expressionless, recently appointed Prime Minster under Yeltsin, made one of his first nationwide addresses in September of 1999. He gazed purposefully into the camera and assured the people of Russia that the government would hunt the terrorists down, “even in the toilet.”
I was not the only one seeing Putin’s face for the first time that evening. As Masha Gessen recalls in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, this television appearance was most Russians’ first time seeing the man who would control the country for the next decade and counting, bringing it from the haphazard democracy of the Yeltsin era to something that resembled Soviet-style autocracy combined with the most flagrant examples of mafia tangentopoli. Gessen’s unauthorized biography of Putin appeared on the eve of the recent election that returned him to the presidency. In it, she shows us the face of a KGB bureaucrat who, through a series of seeming accidents, managed to secure dictatorial control, the downfall of all serious opponents, and a tsar’s share of Russia’s economy. The story unfolds through a string of familiar political assassinations, blunders, and scandals. By intimately connecting the history of Putin’s regime to her own experience, Gessen compels the reader to reassess the post-Perestroika period, and compels at least this reader to link it to her own.
The summer of the apartment bombings, I left Russia early. Mira, who had appointed herself my Russian guardian, had begun to worry each time I left the apartment, and urged me to accompany an elderly writer on a speaking tour to Vilnius. In the Lithuanian capital, everyone was also talking about the explosions, but rather than assuming, as Putin had suggested, that Chechen terrorists were responsible, many Lithuanians assumed Putin was behind them, a conspiracy theory I attributed to the country’s hard-won departure from the Soviet Union. Most Russians (including, Gessen, who had covered the Chechen war as a journalist) were prepared at that time to accept the plausibility of Putin’s explanation: “The war in Chechnya had never really ended … Russians were very much a nation at war, and, like all nations at war, they believed the enemy to be both less than human and capable of inflicting unimaginable horror.” (26) Gessen’s book offers evidence that the Lithuanians, however knee-jerk their anti-Russian sentiment was, may have been onto something. By analyzing the work of serious journalists whose reports had been suppressed by the government, and through a series of interviews, Gessen offers evidence that links the explosions directly to the FSB (the KGB’s successor organization), implicating, if not to Putin himself, then to the infrastructure that needed to place a strong new leader in power.
Gessen’s book covers much of the disturbing news that has come out of Russia since the 1990s: the coup that put Yeltsin into power; the rise, fall, and mysterious death of Sobchak, former Mayor of Leningrad; the apartment bombings in 1999; the explosion aboard the Russian submarine K-141 Kursk in 2000, which resulted in the death of 118 sailors; the Moscow Dubrovka theater siege in 2002, ending with the death of 129 hostages; the death of 400 children and their caretakers during the Beslan elementary school siege in 2004; the murder of the politician and human rights activist Galina Starovoitova in 1998; the deaths of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and the KGB officer-turned journalist Alexander Litvinenko in London, both in 2006. The events she covers are not news to us, but Gessen recounts them so thoroughly and concisely that they begin to form a distinct picture of a Russia that has gradually reverted to its former Soviet policy. She supplements existing journalism with her own interviews, many of them with key figures who have been forced out of the country or into hiding. Gessen managed to interview the popular Perestroika politician Marina Salye, who retreated to her dacha after exposing Putin’s embezzlement of funds in an article, “President of a Corrupt Oligarchy” (Salye passed away this past March, at the age of 77). Gessen was also granted interviews with Alexander Litvinenko’s widow Marina and with Boris Berezovsky, the “kingmaker” who had once hand-picked Putin to be Yeltsin’s successor, and who later was forced into exile. The book is highly engaging and clearly written. At times, it reads a bit like a murder mystery, the kind where the murderer is clear from the start, but the motive isn’t. The book poses important questions: how did a man as unremarkable as Vladimir Putin become one of the most powerful in the world? How was Russian democracy killed? And can it still be resurrected? “If anyone in Russia or outside had cared to pay attention, all the clues to the nature of the new regime were there within weeks of Putin’s ascent to his temporary throne. But the country was busy electing an imaginary president. (154)”
Putin, the only surviving child of a couple that had, themselves, barely made it through the WWII Siege of Leningrad, was born in 1952. He grew up fighting in his Leningrad courtyard (the Russian leader recalls his childhood with a measure of pride (“I was no Pioneer; I was a hooligan,” he remarks in his 2000 autobiography). It was during his university years, Gessen suggests, that Putin developed his abnormally extravagant relationship to material wealth. His parents won a car in a lottery, and the young Putin accepted it as a gift, though selling it would have helped the family considerably. After spending a summer working on a construction site, Putin, in a Gogolian gesture, “spent the money he had made on an overcoat for himself – and a frosted cake for his mother.” When he was tapped for the KGB and sent to spy school, Putin saw his life-long dream fulfilled. He was posted as a KGB bureaucrat in Dresden until the East Germans stormed the Stasi headquarters in January of 1990.
Putin eventually managed to work for Anatoly Sobchak, the purportedly liberal chairman of the Leningrad City Council who would later become mayor. Whether Putin’s appointment was a KGB assignment or not is somewhat unclear. (Gessen speculates that Sobchak hired Putin for his KGB affiliation. “This was the sort of politician Sobchak was: he talked a colorful pro-democracy line, but he liked to have a solid conservative base from which to do it.”) Putin worked as Sobchak’s deputy mayor, eventually running the “committee for Foreign Relations.” His department “entered into a dozen export contracts, together worth $92 million.” Once Sobchak fell out of favor and lost the Petersburg mayoral election 1996, he was vulnerable to prosecution for corruption. The former mayor went into hiding, probably with Putin’s help. Putin became the deputy head of the presidential property management office, “which sounds very much like another ‘active reserve’ posting.” Sobchak returned to Russia in 1999 to speak out on Putin’s behalf, and died under mysterious circumstances the following year. During Putin’s campaign, Sobchak “called Putin ‘the new Stalin,’ promising potential voters not so much mass murder as an iron hand”.
When on August 19 the coup d’état of 1991 began I had just returned from Russian language camp, a month-long immersion experience in Minnesota where each cabin was named after a Soviet Republic – Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Latvia. We high school girls lived in “Russia”. It was a tradition that the camp would reenact the Revolution, overthrowing the counselors and establishing the Soviet Union, but that summer it was decided that we would try something new. We would overthrow the Soviet Union, each cabin seceding in turn. When I arrived home in August, tanned, full of folk songs and declensions, what had been a game took on the air of prophesy: Gorbachev was placed under house arrest and crowds gathered in Moscow, advocating for Russian to break with the Soviet Union. Gessen does not try to explain all of the events of the breakdown of the USSR, but she does ask, convincingly, whether there may have been “a carefully engineered arrangement that allowed Yeltsin to remove Gorbachev and broker the peaceful demise of the Soviet Union but also placed him forever in debt to the KGB”. The coup, Gessen reminds us, fell apart just as rapidly as it began, and Putin appears to have spent those August days of uncertainty carefully under cover together with Sobchak, the Leningrad mayor. Despite comments Putin has made to the contrary, he was still a KGB officer when the 1991 coup that overthrew Gorbachev began.
Nearly a decade later Putin would emerge as a possible successor to Yeltsin or, as Gessen calls him, as “the accidental president”. Putin was tapped, Gessen convincingly argues, by Yeltsin’s inner circle, a last desperate attempt to keep the country going after the failure of the 1990s.
The country was battered, traumatized, and disappointed. It had experienced hope and unity in the late 1980s, culminating in August 1991, when the people beat back the junta that had threatened Gorbachev’s rule. It had placed its faith in Boris Yeltsin, the only Russian leader in history to have been freely elected. In return, the people of Russia got hyperinflation that swallowed up their life savings in a matter of months; bureaucrats and entrepreneurs who stole from the state and from one another in plain sight; and economic and social inequality on a scale they had never known.
It was up to Yeltsin’s advisors to find a suitable replacement for a president who had been abandoned by “anyone with any real political capital and ambition.” The candidates to replace Yeltsin were, as Gessen puts it, “all plain men in gray suits.” Putin, a relative unknown, seemed as good a choice as any.
Throughout the book Putin comes across as an emotionless man, a man who will always place bureaucracy before sensitivity. When his secretary informed Putin that his dog had died, “there was no emotion in his face, none.” The country would witness a similar lack of emotion following the tragic explosion aboard the Kursk submarine the summer of 2000. Following the initial explosion, twenty-three surviving young men huddled in the safe part of the submarine for two days, until their breathing apparatus caught fire. The Norwegian and British navies offers of help but were rejected by the Russian government on the grounds of security protocol. Putin, who continued his vacation in Yalta for a week following the explosion, was confronted by a television crew about the foreign offers of aid, and told them, “I did the right thing, because the arrival of non-specialists from any field, the presence of high-placed officials in the disaster area, would not help and more often would hamper work. Everyone should keep his place.” To Gessen, “The remark made it clear Putin viewed himself as a bureaucrat—a very important and powerful bureaucrat, but a bureaucrat still.”
By exposing the fundamental fallacy in Putin’s unwillingness to accept foreign aid, sympathize with his constituency or negotiate with his adversaries, Gessen offers a strong critique of any policy that would favor political legacy over human life. This kind of policy is hardly unique to Putin or to Russia, but Putin, Gessen shows, has allowed it to undo the basic underpinnings of democracy in Russia. Putin’s administration opted to storm the Dubrovka Theater in 2002 rather than consider meeting the petty political demands of terrorists that held it hostage. In the process, 129 innocent people were killed. In 2004, when a group of terrorists held a Beslan elementary school hostage, Russia chose to open fire on the school, rather than continue to negotiate with the insurgents. “In all, 312 people died, including ten non-FSB officers who died in the fire while attempting to save the hostages.”
In pushing the book on the Daily Show, Gessen got laughs by calling Putin “a small man in every way” – a direct attack upon the virile image Putin tries to present of himself topless on horseback and shooting tigers. By exposing Putin as a faceless man, she is dismantling the heroic image of the dirty-talking, scrappy fighter that initially attracted Russians to him. Moreover, Gessen suggests, Putin may well suffer from a kind of high-stakes kleptomania, or rather, pleonexia, “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.” As evidence, she cites the Khodorkovsky case, which ended in a circuitous appropriation of Yukos, Russia’s major gas company formerly owned by Khodorkovsky, as well as a series of odd behavior patterns, including the pocketing of a 124-diamond Super Bowl ring from the New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (Kraft later covered for Putin by dismissing it as a gift), the bizarre requisitioning of a $300 souvenir bottle of vodka in the shape of a Kalashnikov from the Guggenheim museum. In the case of Yukos, “once Khodorkovsky was behind bars, the opportunity to rob him presented itself. In seizing this opportunity, Putin, as usual, failed to distinguish between himself and the state he ruled. Greed may not be his main instinct, but it is the one he can never resist.” We see this reflected in the Corruption Perceptions Index kept by the group Transparency International. Russia reached 154th out of 178 for the year 2010. “By 2011, human-rights activists estimated that fully 15 percent of the Russian prison population was made up of entrepreneurs who had been thrown behind bars by well-connected competitors who used the court system to take over other people’s businesses.”
Russia under Putin, then, combines the policy of a Soviet police state with the worst of post-Soviet greed. And yet, as Berezovsky comments to Gessen, “The Russian regime has no ideology, no party, no politics—it is nothing but the power of a single man. … All someone has to do is discredit him – him personally.” Perhaps, Gessen suggest, this might be easily toppled? After all, Yugoslavia was toppled along with Milosevic, and, more recently the Arab spring has caused the rewriting of government systems with the ousting of key dictators. “The problem with Russia, however, was that the huge country was as atomized as it had ever been. Putin’s policies had effectively destroyed public space. The Internet had developed in Russia over the last ten years, as it had in other countries, but it took on the peculiar shape of a series of information bubbles.” Gessen notes that, unlike blogospheres outside of Russia, “the Russian blogosphere consisted of discrete circles, each unconnected to any other. It was an anti-utopia of the information age: an infinite number of echo chambers.” The same was true of other media: “The Kremlin was watching its own TV; big business was reading its own newspapers; the intelligentsia was reading its own blogs.” For any form of true mass resistance to emerge, these disparate groups would have to talk to each other. When asked in an interview with the Australian-based Wheeler Centre whether Putin knows about her book, Gessen is doubtful. “For him to know about it, someone has to tell him about it. It’s an amazing symptom of the situation in Russia that no one will tell him about it.”
Medvedev’s brief presidency had promised some hope to Russians eager for a change in regime. But if Medvedev’s puppet status wasn’t clear from early in his presidency, it certainly was by the time Medvedev announced, last year, that he and Putin had essentially arranged a swap by which Putin would return to the presidency, and Medvedev would take on the role of Prime Minister:
Medvedev’s role was almost exclusively ceremonial, but in their addresses to the public, the two leaders divided and conquered the country. Medvedev, with his refined diction, his talk of innovation, and his promises to fight corruption, played to the once vocal minority of activists and intellectuals, and succeeded in pacifying them. For the majority, Putin produced ever more of his memorable vulgarisms.
Masha Gessen, one of bravest journalists writing today, is perhaps the only person who could have written this book. The Man without a Face, like most of Gessen’s others, appeared in English, and speaks to an international readership. The book has yet to appear in Russian, and Gessen has indicated that she will only accept a contract with a Russian press. Gessen, who immigrated with her family to the US as a teenager, made the unorthodox decision to return to Russia in 1991. She has risen to the status of a respected journalist in Russia, as well as a successful writer in English. Her past writing has covered an eclectic range of topics: Perfect Rigour, a 2011 biography of Grigorii Perelman, the eccentric Petersburg mathematician who solved the Poincare conjecture; Dead Again: The Russian Intelligentsia After Communism (2005), as well as books that are deeply personal, like Blood Matters, From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies: How the World and I found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene, in which Gessen discusses her decision to have prophylactic surgery due to a genetic predisposition toward cancer. In The Man without a Face, too, Gessen readily discusses her partner, her children, and her political activism. The story she is telling belongs to her personally, no less than to all of Russia.
The morose content notwithstanding, it is clear that Masha Gessen has written this book out of optimism. If there is a weakness to the book, this optimism may be it – it is unclear whether a strong anti-Putin movement would be enough to fully undermine Russia’s leader at this point. Putin is, after all, still operating under a KGB ethos, meaning he simultaneously seeks to uphold structure and is willing to erode it for personal reasons. Mikhail Gorbachev, in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, expressed his disapproval of Putin’s bid for a third term, commenting that “not long ago, before the election, I said that Putin had been in power for two and de facto three terms and that it was enough and it was time to leave. He is surrounded now by a whole clan which entangles him like an octopus.” On May 7, 2012, Putin was sworn in as president in his third inauguration ceremony. But Gessen’s enthusiasm for the recent protests does shed a glimmer of hope in an otherwise grim time for Russian democracy. The book ends with the suggestion that there may be some ethical decency emerging amidst Russia’s recent protest movement. In the “Afterward” she describes the enormous response by protestors to the preliminary elections this past December, 2011. “’There are so many people there!’ a very young man shouts into his cell phone. ‘And they are all normal! I’ve heard like a million jokes, and they were all funny!’”
Amelia Glaser is an Assistant Professor of Russian Literature at the University of California, San Diego.
The author thanks Natalia Roudakova for her consultation on this piece.