The Man without a Face; The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen. Riverhead Books, 2013, paper.
In 1999, the ‘family’ surrounding Boris Yeltsin went looking for a successor to their increasingly unpopular president who was also not in good health. They settled on an almost unknown, Vladimir Putin. Other than his loyalty to Yeltsin, they were unsure about Putin. Some viewed him as a progressive leader who would continue Yeltsin’s freeing up of both the economy and Russian politics. Others in that political and economic elite feared that Putin’s selection would lead to the destruction of the fragile democratic structures Yeltsin had allowed to develop in the decade of his presidency. (One of those structures was a relatively flourishing media. The author is a journalist.)
President Yeltsin had sold off huge chunks of the Russian public sector to a small group of “oligarchs.” Grateful, the oligarchs in turn bankrolled his reelection in 1996.
Yeltsin had a reputation for his heavy drinking and often erratic behavior. Yeltsin frequently fired members of his cabinet and replaced them with odd often unknown appointments. Putin had joined his final cabinet, and although the choice of a successor was not his to make, Yeltsin made it clear that he thought well of this St. Petersburg native. And in 1999 when Yeltsin was forced to resign, Putin became acting president.
Masha Gessen can find little to admire in Putin. Certainly not his long career in the Russian secret service. He was employed by the KGB from 1954 to 1991. Putin spent the last five years in Dresden, where he was a faceless spy. While there he witnessed the collapse of the East German government. He returned to Russia, where he became a faceless KGB bureaucrat in the St. Petersburg and then Moscow governments.
Gessen’s narrative is mostly a frame for criticizing Putin. But there is a surprising “Afterword” to The Man without a Face. Putin took the initiative to arrange an interview with the author, much to Gessen’s consternation.
The author gives considerable attention to President Yeltsin’s predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, whom he considers to be the pivotal statesman in post-Stalinist Russia. Gorbachev is best known for his perestroika (restructuring) and then glasnost (openness). Gorbachev prodded the Russian state toward a less authoritarian modus operandi. He commuted the sentences of many dissidents who had been serving time in Soviet prisons and labor colonies. He presided over the disintegration of both the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics and an end to the Communist Party’s long domination of Russian politics. Gorbachev dreamed of modernizing the Soviet economy, though not necessarily through privatization or the creation of a market structure, such as that fostered by Yeltsin. In many ways, Putin is of the Gorbachev school.
Toward the end of Gorbachev’s term, a group of the apparatchik tried to remove him and end his dismantling of the Soviet Union. The Baltic republics had already withdrawn. The Soviet Union was saved by the intervention of more conservative elements, Yeltsin and Putin included. Gessen argues that there is no single narrative for the course of Russian political history in this Gorbachev-Yeltsin-Putin period. Russians hold to various themes, everything from an “inspiring democracy” to a “cynical conspiracy.” Russians enjoy the stability that Putin has brought. However, he often manipulates the media and can be heavy-handed. Russian journalists are not happy campers in Putin’s Russia.
It is interesting that the Russian leadership is judged by how it responds to disasters, and has this in common with the office of the U.S. Presidency. For example Putin did not show sufficient empathy when confronted with the Kurst disaster in August 2000. An initial explosion in this nuclear submarine prevented it from surfacing and none of its 118 seamen were rescued. Putin’s response to a question from a reporter asking about the likely cause Was, “It sank!” He made no apology for the crew’s lack of training on how to use the sub’s emergency escape facilities.
Lately Putin has become a billionaire, joining the ranks of the oligarchs whom he has often charged with tax evasion and embezzlement. And according to Masha Gessen, in some cases he has arranged for their untimely death. He is not beyond a certain amount of rich man’s vulgarity. Gessen believes he is a kleptomaniac; he takes what he likes. His book is not complimentary of Vladimir Putin.
Putin has held office either as President of the Russian Republic or as its Prime Minister since his appointment as acting president in 1999. There is a two-consecutive-term limit for both offices. But he and Dmitry Medvedev have juggled these offices between them. And the term for the President has been extended to six years. So Putin is good through 2018 and longer with a second six-year term. That will be nearly two decades of Putin rule. That is particularly significant because he has made nearly all aspects of government answerable to the President.