The Man Without a Face: Not the emotive Mel Gibson disfigurement drama of the same name, but Masha Gessen's bold and brave attempt to offer a factual account of the rise Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a man who has made no secret of his disdain for journalists and under whose reign a good deal of those plucky pen-wielding dirty laundry rummagers have lost their lives.
Putin is a cold-hearted bastard, but he has cultivated such an obtuse, inconsistent and essentially unknowable public profile that nobody really knows why he is a cold-hearted bastard. As Gessen states: 'Possibly the most bizarre fact about Putin’s ascent to power is that the people who lifted him to the throne knew little more about him than you do.'
Like the majority of Russians in those years, Putin's was a childhood blighted by the twin horrors of poverty and authoritarianism. He lived in in St. Petersburg, which had been the site of a devastating siege by the Nazis. 'The siege had begun when Nazi troops completed their circle around the city, severing all connections to Leningrad, on September 8, 1941, and ended 872 days later. More than a million civilians died, killed by hunger or by artillery fire, which was unceasing for the duration of the blockade.'
In spite of their impoverishment, young Vladimir was doted on by his parents and grew into something of a bully, with a schoolground reputation for violence (although Gessen hints that he may have invented this 'brute-thug' version of himself wholesale). This was also a Russia where the heroes of boys’ stories were all spies and secret agents, as in the fiction of Yulian Semyonov, and where young men could hang around on street corners and see KGB officers with good salaries, power and comfortable lives. So it was inevitable that he would join the security services, even as the Soviet Union was in its death throes.
After an apparently dull stint in East Germany, with a depressed Putin drinking a lot and ignoring his wife, East Germany collapsed and he returned to Russia. It was here he became involved in politics, working in the office of Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg. It is a matter of some debate whether he had left the intelligence services (now called the FSB) by this point; Putin claims he had but Gessen presents a compelling case that he didn't, and had no intention of doing so.
Russia around this time was in an advanced state of chaos, the old Soviet system had broken and crumbled, Yeltsin and the pro-democracy lobby were rapidly trying to construct a functioning democracy but there were disparate pockets of power and influence all over the country. All too often there were competing authorities, communist party officials, the army, the new democracy-lovers and the FSB all running separate agendas. It was in this atmosphere that many disappearances of resources and wealth occurred, instances of massive misappropriation of state resources were commonplace, radical and shadowy privatisation programmes were creating the now-famous oligarchy and attempted coups and counter-coups further confused the situation.
Gessen takes the opportunity to highlight the contradictions in Putin's account of himself during these years. He had a reputation as incorruptible, he has made various claims that he would spare no resource in the eradication of corruption and maintains total innocence about his time in Sobchak's office. Yet this Putin, the one who whips up nationalist fervour against those who betray 'mother Russia', who says he will follow corruption to the ends of earth and abhors carelessness, is the same man who allowed millions of pounds worth of food and fuel to go missing, who personally signed contracts in such a way as to render them legally void (Putin is a trained lawyer) and who seems to have allowed and perhaps facilitated continuation of the virtual and occasionally literal looting that took place all over St. Petersburg. The enrichment of the oligarchy was well under way by the time Putin came to prominence. When he became president, he declared emphatically that it would stop, but the only real difference was one extra provision: Putin now got to pick and choose the beneficiaries.
The oligarchy features heavily throughout this book, and in a variety of roles. One of them, recently losing litigant Boris Berezovsky, is an explosive cocktail of confusing politics and massive wealth, a real all-rounder. Berezovsky emerges as a power-monger who 'used his connections to arrange for “No Entry” traffic signs to be placed on both ends of a city block, essentially marking a segment of a residential street as his own,' and who 'cultivated the image of a kingmaker, certainly exaggerating his influence and just as certainly believing half of what he said.' Berezovsky was central to Putin's rise. Using his Über-connected status and influence to smooth his ascent to national recognition and potential leadership.
Time and time again those close to Vladimir Putin have thrived, or escaped punishment for blatant crimes, while his opponents get silenced or roughly crushed beneath the crude repression of untouchable security services.
He recounts early conversations which offer some picture of Putin's mindset and the atmosphere of Russian politics: 'He did not even feel safe in his own office: whenever he met with Berezovsky, the two would take their conversations to a disused elevator shaft behind Putin’s office; this was the only place in the building Putin believed their discussions would not be recorded. In this desolate and dysfunctional setting, Berezovsky met with Putin almost every day to talk about his battle with former prime minister Primakov—and, eventually, about becoming president of Russia.'
But later on Berezovsky criticised Putin heavily, having seemingly discovered that the president was not the man he'd thought, and poor Boris had to flee to London. Mortal enemies ever since (Putin is rumoured to have ordered Berezovsky's assassination), the man who made Putin has ended up sheltering and funding his most serious enemies, from Chechen separatist leaders (officially terrorists) and journalists, to KGB defectors like the unfortunate Alexander Litvinenko.
Others fared worse: Mikhail Khordorkovsky, a man who made huge sums in the energy business and rose to become the richest man in Russia, found himself unexpectedly arrested, summarily tried and has been imprisoned ever since. His company Yukos was stripped of its assets, which were promptly sold at low prices to poorly disguised government-owned companies. It's not really clear to anyone what Khordorkovsky did wrong, if he is innocent or guilty it has never been satisfactorily established, it seems he was simply not wanted. Time and time again those close to Vladimir Putin have thrived, or escaped punishment for blatant crimes, while his opponents get silenced or roughly crushed beneath the crude repression of untouchable security services.
The Man Without a Face, is also, in some ways, a remembrance of the dream of democracy that flourished in Russia in early nineties: 'Throughout the 1990s, while young people like me were constructing new lives in a new country, a parallel world had existed alongside ours. St. Petersburg had preserved and perfected many of the key features of the Soviet state: it was a system of government that worked to annihilate its enemies—a paranoid, closed system that strove to control everything and to wipe out anything that it could not control.'
Masha Gessen's powers as an investigative reporter come to the fore and her most devastating work is done simply in building a clear and coherent narrative from the swirl of hysterics, paranoia and hyperbole
This was to be the character of Putin's government. The way that Gessen describes it amounts to little more than a KGB coup. It occurred because in the midst of the democratic movement, which was confused and multi-faceted, as all democracies necessarily are, the KGB and their allies were organised. It occurred because Russians had never known anything except authoritarianism, they were unused to the change, to choices and freedom; people didn't know how to operate a democracy, and before they could learn how to, the system was hijacked. When a new national anthem was proposed, a reworking of the (admittedly rather stirring) old Soviet anthem, the one that had inspired dread in the hearts of pro-democracy dissidents for decades, there was almost no resistance.
'Rybakov and Kovalev were only two out of 450 members of the Duma, as tiny a minority as dissidents had always been. The Soviet ethos had been restored. The people who held the revolution of 1991 to be theirs were now profoundly marginalised. Nor would the parliament itself, as it had been constituted in the 1990s, exist for much longer.'
Where The Man Without a Face really shines is when dealing with the most controversial aspects of Putinism. Masha Gessen's powers as an investigative reporter come to the fore and her most devastating work is done simply in building a clear and coherent narrative from the swirl of hysterics, paranoia and hyperbole which surround them. This is particularly in relation to the accusations of poisonings, the infamous siege at Beslan and the Moscow Theatre Siege. Gessen never strays from the facts, is never tempted to outright accuse the Government of anything, of what so much of the evidence points to, but there can be little doubt that it's a very dirty business indeed:
On the Volgodonsk Apartment bomb: 'Rybakov gave Litvinenko the transcript of the September 13 Duma session. The speaker had interrupted the session by saying, “We have just received news that a residential building in Volgodonsk was blown up last night.” In fact, the building in Volgodonsk would not be blown up for three more days: it seems the FSB plant in the speaker’s office had given the speaker the wrong note at the wrong time, but had known of the planned Volgodonsk explosion in advance.'
This just about sums up the lot of journalists and investigators in Putinist Russia: it's your lucky day if you aren't in your car when it blows up.
On the death of Anatoly Sobchak (former mayor of St. Petersburg, Putin's mentor): 'Back in Paris, Arkady Vaksberg decided to launch his own investigation into his acquaintance’s death. He was never a close friend or even a great fan of the imperious Russian politician, but he was an investigative journalist with actual forensics experience and a great nose for a story. It was Vaksberg who dug up the most puzzling detail of the circumstances of Sobchak’s death: the two bodyguard-assistants, both physically fit young men, had had to be treated for mild symptoms of poisoning following Sobchak’s death. This was a hallmark of contract killings by poisoning: many a secretary or bodyguard had fallen similarly ill when their bosses were killed. In 2007, Vaksberg published a book on the history of political poisonings in the USSR and Russia. In it, he advanced the theory that Sobchak was killed by a poison placed on the electrical bulb of the bedside lamp, so that the substance was heated and vaporized when the lamp was turned on. This was a technique developed in the USSR. A few months after the book was published, Vaksberg’s car was blown up in his Moscow garage; Vaksberg was not in it.'
This just about sums up the lot of journalists and investigators in Putinist Russia: it's your lucky day if you aren't in your car when it blows up. Gessen talks about being under surveillance and subjected to intimidation, it seems as though the old KGB and their old-fashioned methods still torment Russians, as though the cold war never ended.
What's most bizarre about all of this is the lack of any real agenda. It never seems as though Putin and his allies are actually trying to achieve anything. They claim to live in the service of Russia and yet they pillage the larders and purses of ordinary Russians and never treat them with anything other than total disdain. It's power for its own sake, just to have it, not because they want to actually do anything with it. Then of course there are those rumours about Vladimir Putin's incredible wealth, his concern with his palace rather than the Kursk submarine tragedy.
The Man Without a Face is a frequently astonishing account of modern Russia, of modern times, of what can happen in a power vacuum. This is a sitting Russian President remember, this man is still in charge one of the largest and most powerful countries in the world, and an assessment of his character yields a monomaniacal, greedy, violent and belligerent man, devoid of empathy, devoid of ideals, a man who may have ordered the murder of his mentor and some of his oldest friends (sound familiar Russia?). Few people, I think, can better embody the crisis of democracy and global politics, how badly the political systems of the world are failing and betraying their populations.
Gessen still lives in Moscow, and the epilogue describes her experiences at the first social-network influenced protests in the city. In a way it seems she has gone full circle, from the democratic hopes of an optimistic youth to the utter pessimism of watching those hopes powerfully crushed. When she sees these new protests and fresh calls for democracy, her reaction is to be scared, scared of what might happen to the protesters, to her children. It's almost as though, in spite of the positive spirit in the air, she doesn't quite believe it's real.
Published by Granta Books, 320 pages