Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.
There is a case to be made that Vladimir Putin is the only world leader operating today with a coherent long-term strategic vision for his country. Russian policy has been derided as amoral, wicked, and misguided. But for the last ten years, since the departure of the stroke-addled boozer Boris Yeltsin, Russia has never been called unguided, and its mysterious steersman is unquestionably Putin himself.
Masha Gessen’s political history of Putin’s times, The Man Without a Face, gives at least a dozen reasons to tremble before her subject. It is a rage-filled indictment of the Russian prime minister, astonishingly brazen in its personal animus and willingness to name Putin as the author of terrible crimes. Among recent profiles of contemporary Russia, there are certainly books that are more sober and more cautious. There are few as furiously accusatory.
Putin comes across as a sort of malevolent and murderous Russian Bismarck, expertly consolidating power after a decade-long anarchic slide. Once in power, Gessen claims, he and his government have spared no effort or life to silence critics and cow the population into acquiescence. Gessen strongly implies that Putin has something akin to a mental defect that compels him not only to triumph over but to rob and destroy his enemies.
As a biography, The Man Without a Face struggles to weave the sparse available details of Putin’s life into a coherent narrative. We know certain facts about his childhood: by his admission, Putin grew up a “real thug,” a bloody-knuckles neighborhood brawler constitutionally incapable of backing down from a challenge. His father suffered terrible war wounds but survived, and even as a child, Putin aspired to join the KGB. Normal Russian kids from that era, Gessen says, wanted to be Yuri Gagarin. Putin wanted to be the guy who kept tabs on Yuri Gagarin.
He got his wish and joined the KGB as an operative sniffing out internal dissent. Subsequently, as an officer in Dresden, East Germany, he watched the Soviet Bloc unravel around him. When the newly free East Germans rioted and confronted him personally, Putin appealed to Moscow for guidance and was permanently shaken when his superiors responded that they were powerless and left him and his young family at the mercy of uncertain times.
Gessen contends, contra Putin’s publicly acknowledged CV, that after the break-up of the Soviet Union he never left the intelligence services, and that nearly from the start of the new Russia he has been insidiously tunneling under Russian democracy and preparing it for the utter collapse that we witness today. When he came to power, as Yeltsin’s chosen successor, few knew much about his origins or fitness for the job. He appeared to be “malleable and disciplined,” says Gessen, and therefore a good caretaker for the rich Yeltsin-linked incumbents from the first decade of independent Russia. But, she says, “the people who lifted him to the throne knew little more about him than you do,” and they were spectacularly wrong.
After sketching this thin biography (the ingredients of a detailed version are presumably locked in a KGB vault somewhere) Gessen describes a long series of crimes, most of them well-known, and in almost every case sees Putin as either a silent partner in their execution or as solely responsible. None of the accusations are new — for years journalists and activists have accused the FSB of blowing up apartment buildings, killing hundreds, as false-flag operations designed to boost Putin’s support as an anti-terror figure — but arrayed here in series they make Putin’s government look insanely sinister. These crimes, needless to say, include the murder and beating of the anti-Putin press. Putin has even menaced foreign journalists. At a public press conference in Brussels, a Frenchman asked an uncomfortable question about Chechnya, and Putin responded by inviting him to come to Russia and have his gonads chopped off.
But the darkest note in Gessen’s book is not political but psychological. Putin’s need for total dominance of others, personally and politically, reaches levels that — if these stories are true — should spook us all. In 2005, when Putin met Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, he asked to examine the American’s ring, a diamond-encrusted monstrosity given to winners of the Super Bowl. “I could kill someone with this,” Putin said, creepily, and then placed it in his pocket and left. Putin’s fortune is estimated at $40 billion, allegedly the result of skimming a huge share of business deals, so he doesn’t need to take such items for money. But Gessen says Putin’s nature is to covet, and when he combines pathological covetousness with unrestrained power, the result is the kleptocratic disaster that is contemporary Russia.
Putin’s public presence has, of course, been an occasion for some comedy. Bloggers half-jokingly have professed crushes on him, Stephen Colbert called for a “Putin ’08” write-in campaign for the White House, and we see a photo gallery every time the Kremlin’s releases another album of beefcake publicity photos (showing Putin in varying states of virile undress, performing outdoors activities such as fly-fishing and underwater archaeology).
For those of us safely abroad, where the free press and its gonads are relatively secure, it’s easier to appreciate the humor in all this. Even Russians have been known to laugh: when George W. Bush announced that he had looked into Putin’s eyes and “was able to get a sense of his soul,” Russians thought the quote was a real knee-slapper, since among Russians it is common knowledge that Putin has no soul. But in the context of Gessen’s jeremiad, and the elections this month (widely predicted to be rigged and unfair), the only humor possible about Putin is of the gallows variety.