Books

Back to the Soviet Union in Putin’s Russia

Arvind Jayaram | Updated on June 29, 2012

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Who is Vladimir Putin? While the question often attracts answers like “Russian President”, “former KGB spy” and “tough-talking ultra-nationalist”, Putin largely remains an enigma to most of the world today, even after being elected as Russian President for the third time this year.

When the same question was asked at the World Economic Forum in Davos before Putin faced his first election as President in 2000, Russian officials sat in dumb-founded silence. Given that Putin was already serving as Acting President of the world’s largest land mass at the time, one would have expected the political elite to have some knowledge of his life story and political credentials prior to his first election.

The fact is that little was known about Putin even in his home country when he was elected. His sole political exposure was a short stint as the Deputy Mayor of Leningrad. So what made Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first elected President, call upon an unknown individual to serve as Russian Prime Minister in August 1999, just six months before he would step down as President on the eve of the new millennium, and thereby pave the way for Putin to become President?

Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face – The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, attempts to tackle these questions and more, shedding light on a man who is regarded as untouchable in modern Russia.

The Moscow-based journalist narrates the spectacular rise of a “hooligan” — as Putin describes himself in his school days in a biography that was written in three weeks ahead of his first electoral win – from a low-level KGB agent stationed in East Germany at the time when the Berlin Wall was brought down, to the deputy of a corrupt and arrogant Myor of Leningrad (the city in which he was born), through his first electoral win in 2000 and up to his latest triumph in 2012.

The entire non-fiction account is based on Gessen’s interviews with people close to Putin and investigations into the shadowy underbelly of Russian politics. The narrative begins with a murder of an opposition politician, which she describes as the catalyst that galvanised her into writing the book.

Spy thriller

While non-fiction, the plot would not be out of place in a spy thriller as the author details a series of mysterious bombings that rocked Russia ahead of the 2000 elections and the subsequent crackdown on Chechen rebels that cemented Putin’s tough guy reputation; a political activist’s self-imposed exile after being warned by a “certain person” against pursuing an investigation into an essential commodities import scam that was allegedly masterminded by Putin during his time as Leningrad Deputy Mayor; and the poisoning of a Soviet defector to Britain with a radioactive agent in 2006, which he blamed on Putin in his last words.

In the book, Gessen rails against the curbs on democracy that have been imposed by Putin during his time in office, particularly freedoms for which pitched campaigns had been waged against the former Communist leaders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

She questions Putin’s incredible wealth, estimated at $40 billion by at least one Russian political expert, and his Government’s acts of taking over Russian businesses and wealth, to be run by his cronies, as something akin to pleonexia (the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others).

Gessen protests Putin’s apparent disregard for human life by detailing his callous reaction to the deaths of Russian sailors aboard an ill-fated submarine (questioned by CNN’s Larry King on the disaster, he shrugs, smiles and says, “it sank”) and a botched attempt involving tanks to rescue school children taken hostage by terrorists at a school in Beslan, which left 330 dead, many of them children. She also questions whether Putin ever left the KGB, as he claims, and hints at the organisation’s role in getting him into the President’s chair.

Ringside view of Russia

The author provides a ringside view of Russia, its politics and culture, from World War II up to the present day, from a journalist’s perspective. Agree or disagree with her conjectures, the book manages to somewhat dim the halo hovering over Putin’s public image.

And while some of her claims will leave you incredulous, one cannot help but get a feeling of déjà vu when comparing Putin’s Russia to the former USSR after reading the book.

Published on June 29, 2012

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