I once wrote a review of a biography of Katherine the Great in which I opined that her history explains what made Vladimir Putin possible. Having just finished, under some protest, Masha Gessen’s, The Man Without a Face, The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, I find my then-judgment confirmed. Maybe I ought to write a book about it. Naw. Too much time studying Russia is a sure-fire depressant.
After our recently-departed president declared that he’d looked into Putin’s eyes and discerned a good soul, some pundit whose name I don’t recall said that when he looks in Putin’s eyes, he sees KGB. The pundit was right, and on this, as on so much else, Dubya was oh, so wrong.
Gessen describes Putin as a KGB bureaucrat, stuck in middling position, who managed to attach himself to the right people when the regime crumbled in the nineties. He was never really close to anyone, but he made himself useful to a great many people. And, in a wild west era when a few powerful and/or rich guys stepped into the vacuum and needed a figurehead to stick into power as Yeltsin disintegrated, Vlady was in the right place at the right time.
As part of his election campaign, he published a biography, which Gessen helped contribute to. Among various lies and spins, he in a moment of honesty describes himself as a thug. In saying so, he means the term not as a pejorative, but to emphaise that he’s a strong man who gets things done and doesn’t let niceties get in the way. Having given democracy a brief and frustrating try and finding it ineffectual, people were ready for just such a man at the helm. During his campaign, he gave virtually no speeches and promulgated no programs to promote his candidacy. However, certain media outlets were consolidated to gave him maximum exposure compared to the other candidates. In addition, a reign of terror–several apartment buildings were blown up, ostensibly by Chechens–swept through Moscow, thus underlining the need for someone to, as he put it, “destroy them in their outhouses.”
These bogus violent incidents (bogus not in the sense that they didn’t happen or that people didn’t die, but in the sense that there were no Chechens involved and only scapegoat arrests were made) as well as the famous theater and elementary school hostage attacks, were almost certainly initiated by the KGB, or FSB as it was called by that time. It is not clear whether they were ordered from the top, but they were used by Putin to his own brutal advantage once they occurred.
So, you have a Stalin-like dictator who erases his enemies either by murder (the London Polonium poisoning) or show trial (the phony convictions of several entrepreneurs who dared get too rich or too big) or exile (the number of former Russian higher-ups now living abroad is easily in the thousands.)
The sad thing is how long the West was taken in by all his talk of reform and the appearance of stability he brought to the country. Dictatorships always appear stable and orderly until they collapse in chaos. Well, it’s not THE sad thing. THE sad thing is that his control is so firm and embedded and far-reaching that it will take a long time to shake it loose. Gessen noted a brief flurry in 2012 where it looked like things might soften, but no. As she predicted, Putin is no Gorbachev, willing to introduce minor reforms in hopes that they will satisfy the great unwashed. He’s going to keep the clamps on until he’s forced out and has to fall back on his stolen $40 billion dollar fortune and go into exile somewhere.
Gessen evokes enormous sympathy for herself and her countryfolk in this extremely well- written and closely researched account of her despicable subject. My question is whether the Russians, when he finally goes, will have the patience to weather the next period of turmoil long enough to let some democratic chaos take hold, or whether they will yearn once again for a Peter or Katherine or Josef or Vlady and once again settle for the iron fist that keeps everything orderly and unfree.