Review: Biography: The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladmir Putin by Masha Gessen
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Actually, the face is quite distinctive: the weaselly features, apparently sharpened by cosmetic surgery; the smile that is really a threat; the misleading eyes, able somehow to seem both doleful and menacing. They complement a gait that, as Masha Gessen writes, projects "both extreme guard and extreme aggression with every step".
Much has been said about Putinism, a petro-fuelled fake democracy that mixes authoritarianism with nationalism. Less has been written, in English, about the man himself.
What made him "so emotionless and cruel", as Gessen puts it, "so corrupt and so utterly void of remorse", so breathtakingly cynical? Her short answer is: the KGB. The Putin who emerges from this important book appears to be a grudge-driven mass-murderer and extortionist.
The conspiracies that Gessen chronicles will seem shocking and baroque to some. To others, they will be dimly familiar: some Russians living under Putin and outsiders who do business with his regime will have heard such allegations, but preferred to forget them.
Like others, Gessen thinks the FSB, the main successor to the KGB, was probably responsible for the spate of apartment bombings in 1999 that were officially blamed on terrorists -- and helped to launch Russia's second war in Chechnya and Putin's presidency. As the FSB's former boss, she reasons, Putin himself would have known about such a plan.
Her view of the two other acts of mega-terrorism of the Putin era is almost as damning. She suspects that the Moscow theatre siege of 2002, in which 129 people died, was also, to some degree, an inside job (a theory first advanced by Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist murdered in 2006).
Gessen notes that the Beslan school siege of 2004, in which more than 300 were killed, ended in hurried and needless brutality, and was used by Putin as a pretext to tighten the political screws. Both he and the terrorists, Gessen concludes, "aimed to multiply the fear and the horror" and in this sense "were acting in concert".
Perhaps the freshest part deals with Putin's upbringing in post-war Leningrad, "a mean, hungry, impoverished place that bred mean, hungry, ferocious children".
Putin shared a room with his parents until he was 25, developing, in Gessen's analysis, both his acquisitiveness and his vengeful temper. He joined the KGB at the fag-end of the Soviet Union, then watched the empire crumble as a lowly officer in Dresden.
Back in St Petersburg, she suggests that Putin honed "the politics of fear and greed" as an aide to Anatoly Sobchak, the city's boss, and she accuses him of suborning the media, buying off opponents and repressing them when necessary.
Contrary to Putin's own claims, Gessen argues that he was still working for the KGB at the time of the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, and that he covertly supported the hardliners.
Sobchak died in 2000, just before Putin's succession of Boris Yeltsin was rubber stamped in the first pseudo-election of his reign. Gessen explores the idea that Putin's old patron may have been assassinated. She blames Putin personally for Alexander Litvinenko's poisoning in London.
Gessen's family emigrated to America when she was 14, but she returned to Moscow to work as a journalist in 1991. Her engaging prose combines a native's passion with a mordant wit and caustic understatement that are characteristically Russian. But is her Putin authentic? If some of her claims are debatable, all are plausible.
Still, Gessen's view of him as a bloodthirsty tyrant is incomplete: her personal animus and reporting both charge and limit her courageous book. If Putin himself is too inclined to economic determinism, believing that everything and everybody has a price, Gessen neglects economics.
Violence has often been seen to be one of his regime's tools, but a selective one. Money, which the Kremlin has been accused of using to buy allies and loyalty, has been a more widespread and subtle weapon.
Russia's economic gains in the years before the financial crisis -- due more to the oil price than Putin's policies -- help to explain why ordinary Russians have put up with him, consent about which Gessen has little to say.
Conversely, economic development is part of why many Russians are now urging him to go. The thousands currently demonstrating against him want, among other things, an end to predation by state officials, which prevents them enjoying their just rewards.
Compared with all previous anti-Putin protests -- which were pitifully small, and generally dispersed with extreme force to make sure they stayed that way -- the current bout are huge and peaceful. Gessen writes about them in an epilogue; her main narrative ends with the announcement that, after a farcical four-year stint as prime minister, Putin would be returning to the Kremlin following the presidential "election" last week.
Her exhilarated, upbeat view of the protests -- she thinks this is the beginning of the end for the gangster-president she so despises -- sits rather uneasily with her bleak description of his stranglehold on her country. If Gessen is halfway right about Putin, he is unlikely to go quietly.
AD Miller's Snowdrops (Atlantic) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Miller is a former Moscow Correspondent for The Economist.