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When Vladimir Putin became acting president of Russia after Boris Yeltsin’s resignation on New Year’s Eve, 1999, the retired KGB Major-General Oleg Kalugin, then already living in or around Washington, was asked about the former KGB lieutenant-colonel. “Never heard of him,” Kalugin answered. The youngest chief of counterintelligence in Soviet history, Kalugin may have wanted to underscore the difference between them in achievement and rank. (Since then, Putin has never referred to Kalugin as anything but a “traitor.” Two years into Putin’s first term, Kalugin was tried in absentia, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to 15 years.) Yet, professional jealousies aside, Kalugin could be telling the truth. The best and brightest in Soviet intelligence were sent to “capitalist” countries: first and foremost, America, then Britain, then Scandinavia. Putin wound up in the German Democratic Republic—and even then not in East Berlin, close to the Wall and the action, but in the backwater of Dresden. His job, if he was lucky, was to recruit a stray leftist from West Germany or the Third World. By other accounts, Putin’s brief was even less glamorous: He was a mere liaison between the Stasi and the KGB’s Fifth Directorate, which dealt with domestic dissent. There were legions like him in the back rooms of the secret-police offices of the “socialist camp” countries.
Obscurity is only one of many factors that makes Vladimir Putin’s route to power like that of many a modern autocrat: modest beginnings, by-the-bootstraps perseverance, discipline, hard work, education, assignment to armed forces or secret police, strong will, a relentless but far from spectacular bureaucratic climb—and, always, the final stroke of luck.
Aside from these commonplace details, there is still another encumbrance on a biographer’s ambition: namely the man himself, who is, by all accounts, controlled, sarcastic, cold, crabby, and tight-lipped. Forging even a mildly exciting narrative of such a man’s “rise” is quite a job, but Masha Gessen springs to the challenge valiantly in The Man Without a Face (Riverhead Books, 336 pages). Far from the intended—and, in the end, rather thin—exposé she set out to write, her book is a powerful reminder of what the Obama White House’s “partner” in the Kremlin is truly like. Gessen tells little that is new, but given our unimpressive capacity for remembering the past and our penchant for constantly “starting afresh,” it might be a good idea to revisit Russia’s guiding mind-set, especially as we attempt yet another “reset” with the Kremlin.
It is hard to think of a Russian journalist better qualified for the task. A leading investigative reporter in the 1990s, Gessen has lived her book’s material. And it takes guts to write a book like hers and still insist on living in today’s Russia, where sanctions for overstepping the line are up sharply since Putin’s reelection last year. Still, even for a writer of Gessen’s experience and aggressiveness, the obstacles are high and cannot be entirely cleared. Like anyone writing a biography of a Russian leader, Soviet and post-Soviet alike, she has been handicapped, and occasionally infected, by the lying spirit of a place where almost every source, in or out of power, is now or has been slave and tyrant, victim and victimizer, traitor and betrayed. What Isaiah Berlin said of Mitteleuropa is a fortiori true of the world of Kremlin survivors: “the terrible twisted [land] in which nothing is straight, simple, truthful, all human relations and all political attitudes are twisted into ghastly shapes by those awful casualties, who, because they are crippled, recognize nothing pure and firm in the world!”
To her credit, Gessen pushed for something exceedingly rare in her hunt: information that would be both new and truthful. She tracked down and interviewed a former KGB agent in East Germany in the 1980s; Putin’s former personal economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov; and ex–Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Alas, in the end, all this work adds little to the dreary childhood narrative that emerged from a book of interviews with Putin, published in 2000, and a few memoirs that have trickled out since. There is the crushing poverty of a rat-infested communal apartment in a crumbling 19th-century building in postwar Leningrad, a city still recovering from the unimaginable suffering of the 900-day siege that killed a million people through starvation and bombardment. Three families huddled together in the flat with no heat, hot water, or a bathroom. (They bathed over a makeshift toilet on the staircase, with water heated on the gas stove.)
A small but tenacious “hooligan,” who fought at the slightest provocation, the young Volodya graduated high school, volunteered for the KGB, and was told to get an education first. He applied to the law department of the Leningrad State University and somehow (he was not a stellar student) passed the tough entrance exams. Along the way he excelled in the Soviet martial art of sambo before moving on to judo. To his delight, at graduation he was spotted by the KGB and became a low-level field officer in Leningrad. In due course he was sent to the Andropov Academy in Moscow, was taught German, and then dispatched to Dresden. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin, by then married and with two daughters, returned to Leningrad and joined the administration of Leningrad’s first elected mayor, the perestroika firebrand (and law professor at Leningrad State) Anatoly Sobchak.
Putin was first put in charge of Leningrad’s foreign economic relations, his fluent German apparently a key consideration in the appointment. A deputy mayor by the time Sobchak lost a reelection bid in 1996, Putin was helped by his ties to some top Yeltsin advisers from St. Petersburg (as well as his KGB connections) and secured a position in the presidential administration in Moscow, where he rose to deputy chief. In 1998, he was appointed the head of the KGB’s successor, the FSB. A year later, in August 1999, apparently impressed by his loyalty, professionalism, and seeming incorruptibility, the Yeltsin circle tapped him to be prime minister. In the next few months, a series of dramatic events made an utterly unknown man Russia’s most popular politician. After three months as acting president, Putin easily won a relatively free election in 2000.
Gessen expertly captures the almost incredible enthusiasm of the spiritual emancipation that the glasnost revolution brought to Leningrad between 1988 and 1991. Her summary of the August 1991 coup and the trials and tribulations of the 1990s are among the finest I have read, in English or Russian. She has an absorbing story to tell and tells it very well. (Summaries are notoriously hard to keep accurate, yet I spotted only one factual error: Ukraine declared independence not in June 1991, but in early December, following a national referendum.)
Much like many writers outside their books, politicians are rarely interesting outside politics. And Putin is as far from Churchill, or Lyndon Johnson, or Yeltsin in color as Vladivostok is from Moscow. Not even a journalist of Gessen’s caliber can make him interesting. It is in his policies that Putin comes alive, far more stark and convincing in his decrees and the laws he pushed through the Duma than in a thousand interviews. One breathes a sigh of relief when, mid-book, Gessen abandons the “man” to concentrate on “his times.”
The overarching objective of the Putin regime could be summarized as the recovery of political, economic, and geostrategic assets lost in the Soviet collapse. This is what might be called the “Putin Doctrine.” He is not a neo-Communist or a totalitarian empire-builder, neither a Peter the Great nor a Stalin. Instead, he seems to think his mission is to restore to the Russian state, at least partially, what he considers its patrimony, its crown jewels: ownership of politics, media, and courts; control over the economy—first and foremost, gas and oil; and unchallenged political, economic, and military dominance over the former Soviet Union.
Gessen chronicles the implementation of this agenda with a keen eye for detail. Putin arranged for the Soviet Union’s national anthem, its melody and lyrics scrutinized and personally approved by Stalin in 1943, to be restored and outfitted with new words. (No one knows the words, but the melody, still in the genes of millions along with terror and awe, is recognized instantly—which, of course, was precisely the point.) The parliament’s upper chamber, the Council of Federation, was no longer directly elected but appointed. The country’s most popular television networks, NTV and Channel One, were taken over by the state. To register for the election, presidential candidates had to collect two million signatures in a few weeks. The soft-pillow suffocation of Russia’s proto-democracy commenced.
Then came the Yukos Affair: the breaking up and effective nationalization of Russia’s largest and most modern private company and the arrest of its principal, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who dared think himself in control of his own company (he came close to selling it to Exxon or Chevron without the Kremlin’s explicit permission) and his own money (he financed the opposition, across the board, from left to right). Convicted for “fraud” and “tax evasion” and sentenced to eight years, Khodorkovsky would be tried again in 2009–10, two years before the end of the sentence, and duly sentenced to five more years, this time for stealing 218 million tons of oil from his own company. (His sentence was later cut by two years on appeal.)
It is never “just business” between Putin and his star victims, as The Godfather would have it; it is “personal” as well. In Khodorkovsky’s case, it was the unpardonable offense of arguing with Putin in the Kremlin in front of other “oligarchs.” (“Mr. President, your ministers are thieves and bribe-takers” is the best-known quotation from that exchange.) If Khodorkovsky is released when his sentence runs out in 2014, which is very unlikely as long as Putin is in the Kremlin, he will have been in the harshest and most remote prison or camps for 11 years. In Russia today, one could get away with a shorter sentence for murder.
The Yukos heist has worked just as Putin intended. Following the seizure of Yukos’s most productive assets by the state-owned company Rosneft, the Kremlin’s control over the oil industry was reaffirmed. Just as important, not only the “oligarchs” but also businesses from top to bottom throughout Russia have been forever scared off from funding political parties, civil-society organizations, or media, without the Kremlin’s approval. Lacking independent funds to secure its links to the electorate, Russian politics has become a Potemkin landscape, dotted with cardboard logos of allowed (“registered”) parties, which could be subverted, banned, or destroyed by the Kremlin at a moment’s notice.
Key insights into Putin’s outlook can also be gleaned from how he handled certain hostage crises instigated by terrorists from the Muslim North Caucasus, a region that under Putin has been consumed by fundamentalist uprisings. Gessen’s accounts of the two largest tragedies to occur in this region are masterful.
On October 23, 2002, about 800 spectators were taken hostage in a Moscow theater by 40 to 50 Chechen terrorists, many of them women in hijabs. A few dozen young children and foreigners were soon released. In the next 58 hours, non-government negotiators came and went, occasionally bringing out a hostage or two or an agreement to let through water and juice (which never reached the hostages because authorities could not agree on protocol). The terrorists’ demands, Gessen writes, were “almost laughably easy to fulfill.” They wanted Putin to declare he intended to end the war in Chechnya and to order a troop withdrawal from any one district in their tiny homeland.
In the early morning of the third day, gas was pumped through the vents and everyone was unconscious within minutes. Entering the building, the Russian commandos killed all the hostage-takers with shots to the head. The explosives with which the Chechens had threatened to blow up the theater were never activated. Later, independent investigators plausibly surmised that the “black widows” wore “dummy” martyr vests.
Poisoned, unconscious, sleep-deprived, and severely dehydrated, the hostages were carried out of the building and, instead of being rushed to the hospital next door, were laid on the steps of the theater on their backs. Many died there, without regaining consciousness, chocking on their vomit. Later, the dead and unconscious alike were loaded onto buses for downtown Moscow. They were transported sitting up. More choked when their heads flipped backward. Still more died after reaching the hospitals because the authorities refused to tell the doctors the composition of the disabling gas. In the end, 129 hostages died.
Two years later, on September 1, 2004, in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, militants who were mostly Chechen took more than 1,000 children and their parents hostage on the first day of school. Woven from the testimonies of independent experts, Gessen’s account of what ensued is heartbreaking and damning. From the very beginning, the hostage-takers were willing to negotiate and named several people they wanted to talk to. One of them, the president of North Ossetia, Alexander Dzasokhov, was prevented by the Russian troops from entering the building. But the former head of neighboring Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, did manage to get in. Along with 26 women with infants, he brought out the terrorists’ demands. They were the usual opening bid: independence of Chechnya, troop withdrawal, and an end to the war. The “president” of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic (“Ichkeria”) and then perhaps the most wanted man in Russia, Aslan Maskhadov, agreed to come to Beslan to negotiate.
As the terrorists, hostages, and thousands of family members behind the troop cordon waited for Maskhadov on the third day of the siege, two explosions shook the school building. Here Gessen’s account flatly contradicts the official version. According to her, what the hostages remember as a “giant ball of fire” came not from the explosives detonated by the terrorists but from Russian grenade launchers fired directly at the overcrowded school gymnasium. The hostage-takers then ordered those who could move to go into the school cafeteria and stand in the windows, to show that troops were firing on women and children. The troops, according to Gessen, responded with tank shells, grenades, and flamethrowers “at a point-blank range.” As the terrorists repeatedly tried to move women and children into rooms not yet on fire, local police pleaded in vain with the Russian troops to stop firing. In the end, 334 people were killed, 186 of them children.
An operational pattern emerges from these instances: Saving hostages is a tertiary issue; negotiations are a sign of weakness; killing hostage-takers, all of them and as quickly as possible, regardless of their demands or willingness to negotiate, is the key. Gessen writes:
Once the hostage-taking occurred, the government task forces acting under Putin’s direct supervision did everything to ensure that the crises ended as horrifyingly as possible—to justify continued warfare in Chechnya and further crackdowns on the media and opposition in Russia and, finally, to quell any possible criticism from the West, which, after 9/11 was obligated to recognize in Putin a fellow fighter against Islamic terrorism. There is a reason that Russian troops in both Moscow and Beslan acted in ways that maximized bloodshed; they actually aimed to multiply the fear and the horror. This is the classic modus operandi of terrorists, and in this sense it can certainly be said that Putin and the terrorists were acting in concert.
Three months later, citing the need for unity and security, the Duma rubber-stamped a law that cancelled gubernatorial elections. Henceforth all the regional governors were to be appointed by the Kremlin. In the same month, a constitutional amendment abolished direct elections to the Duma; by which time half of the seats had been filled. The entire parliament was to be filled by deputies elected from the lists of the Kremlin-approved (“registered”) parties. There was, Gessen perceptively notes, only one official directly elected by the Russian people: the president.
She could have added something else to this powerful coda. Addressing the nation on television a day after the end of the Beslan ordeal, Putin declared that terrorism was but proxy warfare against Russia by some unidentified international malfeasants. These unnamed but hardly unknown villains—after generations raised on anti-American propaganda, his audience, surely, did not suspect France or Germany—“would like to tear from us a juicy piece of the pie,” Putin said. “Others help them. They help, reasoning that Russia still remains one of the world’s major nuclear powers, and as such still represents a threat to them. And so they reason that this threat should be removed. Terrorism, of course, is just an instrument to achieve these aims.” Russia as a besieged fortress whose ramparts Putin valiantly mans would become a key legitimizing theme of his regime.
There was another bad omen in the same five-minute address. “We had shown ourselves to be weak,” Putin said. “And the weak are beaten.” The last phrase was only a slightly modified quote from Stalin’s famous February 1931 speech in which he justified his murderous “industrialization”: “The backward are beaten. You fall behind, you are weak means you can be beaten and enslaved.”
Gessen paints a portrait of a Vladimir Putin who is petulant, preening, forever smarting from perceived slights by the United States, possessed of cold fury, and capable of persistent and effective vengeance. But he is no Saddam Hussein, let alone a Stalin. He does not aim to eradicate any and all dissent through wholesale killings. Thus far, “red lines” have been drawn sparingly, and only two have spelled doom to those who dared to cross them. One has circled Yukos and Khodorkovsky. The other ran through the four apartment-buildings bombings (two of them in Moscow) in September 1999—the tragedy that made Putin famous.
Killing 300 and wounding hundreds more, the blasts, which occurred within weeks of Putin’s appointment as prime minister and were instantly blamed by the Kremlin on Chechen separatists, boosted the popularity of a young and seemingly tough head of government, who famously promised to “rub [the Chechens] out in the outhouse.”
Anti-regime conspiracy theorists almost immediately tied the explosions to the effort by the FSB to solidify Putin’s image as Russia’s savior. This theory ought to have been dismissed as too monstrous to imagine but for the fact that FSB operatives were caught red-handed as they planted sacks of explosives in the basement of the apartment building on September 22 in the city of Ryazan, a hundred miles southeast of Moscow. The official explanation—that this had been a training exercise—was riddled with too many inconsistencies to be believable.
The truth about the explosions will not be known until those in charge testify at trials or at Truth Commission sessions in a post-Putin Russia. But the case for the principal’s involvement is made stronger by the lethality rate of those who persisted in investigating the blasts. The liberal Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov was gunned down on a Moscow street in April 2003. Two months later, Yuri Shchekochikhin, an investigative journalist and deputy editor of the opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, fell ill complaining of a “burning sensation” all over his body. He died within days from what was diagnosed as an “allergic syndrome” caused by an “unknown toxin” after his skin peeled off and his hair fell out.
Two years later, it was Anna Politkovskaya’s turn. She was shot to death in the elevator of her apartment building. Perhaps Russia’s best-known crusading journalist, Politkovskaya had publicized all manner of the regime’s incompetence, corruption, and brutality, especially in the prosecution of the Chechen wars and in the hostage crisis at the theater. But her murder, like those of Yushenkov and Shchekochikhin, just as likely could have been caused by her association with a former FSB official by the name of Alexander Litvinenko, who had made it his life’s mission to get to the bottom of the apartment bombings.
A would-be whistleblower who alleged FSB’s corruption and incompetence, Litvinenko had escaped to London before he was put on trial. Using the FSB connections and expertise he acquired while working there, he pieced together evidence of the organization’s involvement in the explosions and published a book about it. (He had also determined that an FSB informer was among the theater hostage-takers, suggesting that the Russian special services had known about the planned operation beforehand. Litvinenko even figured out the name of the informer and passed the information to Yushenkov and Politkovskaya.)
Three weeks after Politkovskaya’s murder, Litvinenko became sick. Like Shchekochikhin, he felt a burning sensation in his throat, esophagus, and stomach. He could not drink and threw up incessantly. His hair began to fall out. Before he slipped into a coma, Litvinenko dictated a statement to be released after his death:
I think the time has come to say a few words to the man responsible for my current condition. You may be able to force me to stay quiet, but this silence comes at a price for you. You have now proved that you are exactly the ruthless barbarian your harshest critics made you out to be. You have demonstrated that you have no respect for human life, liberty, or other values of civilization. You have shown that you do not deserve to hold your post, and you do not deserve the trust of civilized people. You may be able to shut one man up, but the noise of protest all over the world will echo in your ears, Mr. Putin, to the end of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to my beloved Russia and her people.
A few hours after Litvinenko’s death, London police determined that he had been poisoned by Polonium 210: a highly radioactive isotope, lethal when ingested, and produced almost exclusively in Russia, where its manufacture is tightly controlled by the federal authorities. The extraction of even a tiny amount must be authorized at the highest level. The police followed the radioactive trail to hotels and restaurants, identified a businessman and a former FSB officer Alexander Lugovoy as the prime suspect in the poisoning, and requested his extradition. The reaction was vintage Putin: He had Lugovoy elected to the Duma on the Kremlin’s United Russia Party ticket, thus securing his immunity from prosecution.
Putin, the alleged “authoritarian modernizer” (and, as such, hero of many a U.S. “realist”), has, in fact, presided over the de-modernization of virtually every aspect of the country’s existence. There is backsliding in all the factors that determine political, social, and economic progress in the 21st century: civil and political liberties, democratic self-rule, media independence, and a market economy. His has been a classic reactionary semi-restoration.
Putin chose natural gas and oil as the keys to Russia’s development over the next half century. Russia became the world’s largest producer of oil, pumping more than 10 million barrels a day, and the price of this “black gold” skyrocketed, from $18 a barrel at the outset of Putin’s term to $147 a barrel in 2008. Russia’s GDP followed the commodity trajectory. The country’s real income grew two and a half times its size. Poverty was halved. Mirroring the dynamic of Russia’s wealth, Putin’s approval ratings from 2000 to 2008 were astronomical and rock-solid.
But, as always, there was a price to pay. Russia under Putin began to look more and more like a petro-state, complete with all the niceties associated with such polities: authoritarian consolidation, ballooning military and police budgets, stalled upward mobility, and the immigration of the young and the well educated. Meanwhile, the quality of education declined steadily, as did health-care expenditures, which were already obscenely low as a share of GDP. Today, science and technology have fallen behind steadily even in defense, the one area where the Soviet Union strove to stay modern. The Russian navy now buys French helicopter carriers at $600 million a ship, while the testing of new generations of ballistic missiles has been plagued with failure after failure. In 2012, a Russian satellite fell from the sky.
And then there is the corruption. Russians consistently tell the pollsters that sleaze and venality are far worse now than in the late Soviet Union or in the “accursed” 1990s. (In 1997, Yeltsin fired several top aides after the then free media revealed that they had received $15,000 apiece as an honorarium for a book they would co-author. Putin’s ministers are likely to spend as much, if not more, on wine in Moscow’s myriad ultra-expensive restaurants.) Last year, Russia was 133rd of 176 countries on the “corruption perception” index of Transparency International—a score equal to that of Iran, Kazakhstan, Honduras, and Comoros. The country is about to reach the point at which corruption is not only impeding but paralyzing economic and social institutions. For all their inherent limitations, Gorbachev and Yeltsin tried to appeal to the finest instincts of the Russian people. Putin seeks out the basest. From top to bottom, Russia is mired in cynicism of a kind unknown even under Brezhnev.
It is no longer individual officials who steal. Entire departments or even ministries have been “privatized.” This past November, the Russian authorities announced that an estimated $200 million had been stolen from a space-agency program, while another investigation pursued a $100 million swindle within the Ministry of Defense. In 2009, President Dmitri Medvedev revealed that a trillion rubles (or around $30 billion) is stolen from the budget every year. Three years later, the State Audit Chamber arrived at the same estimate.
Gessen retells the story of perhaps the most conspicuous of scams: In 2007, the Ministry of Finance’s Department of Taxation swindled $230 million out of the Russian Treasury in an elaborate scheme that involved several court decisions and dummy companies. A tax accountant by the name of Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered the scheme, was effectively murdered in jail after he was beaten almost daily and denied medical care for a heart condition and pancreatitis. The only person tried for the murder was a prison doctor, who was acquitted. In a rare discharge of moral duty—and in the face of the White House-opposition—on November 26 of last year, the U.S. Congress passed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which denies visas to Russian officials complicit in Magnitsky’s murder (while freezing their assets in the United States) as well as to other perpetrators of corruption and human-rights abuses.
“Ryba portitsya s golovy,” the Russian adage goes; a fish rots from the head down. Attempting to go all the way back up to the head, Gessen devotes one of the longest segments of her book to Putin’s work in St. Petersburg. He is alleged to have signed off on a dozen contracts, worth $92 million, for food deliveries from Germany to the starving city in exchange for oil, timber, metals, and other commodities. The payment in kind was made, but the meat was never delivered. The leader of the democratically elected St. Petersburg City Council, Marina Salye, claimed to have established Putin’s culpability and passed the documents to Moscow. Nothing came of it. (Mortally afraid of Putin’s retaliation, Salye for years hid in a remote hamlet where Gessen found her and attempted to interview her.)
In the end, there is no smoking gun. Indeed, 22 years since the birth of the new Russia, there is barely smoke, just the usual foul-smelling smog of universal fraud and treachery that surrounds the Kremlin. But the use of power is the final and objective test. Today, Putin’s friends and associates (most from St. Petersburg and almost all from the FSB or his judo club) own or control some of the country’s most lucrative businesses: banks; media conglomerates; the arms-exporting monopoly; cellular networks; Russian Railways; the world’s largest natural-gas producer, Gazprom; and the world’s largest (by output) publicly traded oil company, Rosneft. The fourth largest oil-trading company, Gunvor, which exports at least one-third of Russian oil and generates an estimated revenue of $80 billion a year, is owned by Putin’s longtime judo partner, Gennady Timchenko. In what the American-Russian scholar Nikolas Gvosdev has called “Russia, Inc.,” the fusion of power and property has reached a level at which, as the Director of Moscow Carnegie Center Dmitri Trenin put it, those “who rule Russia today, own Russia.”
On his official salary of $120,000, Putin has managed to amass a $700,000 collection of luxury watches. (He is said to be especially partial to a $60,000 white-gold Patek Philippe.) He is estimated to “have access” to 20 palaces and villas, 58 aircraft, and 4 yachts. Putin’s true personal wealth is anyone’s guess. The opposition experts estimated it to be between $40 and $70 billion, which would make him one of the three richest men in the world. (The almost incredible figure becomes more believable when we are reminded, by Forbes, that Gennady Timchenko is worth over $9 billion. Another of Putin’s old judo partners, Arkady Rotenberg, whose firm supplies large-diameter pipes for the state-owned Gazprom’s pipelines, is estimated to have a personal fortune of at least $1 billion.)
As told by Gessen, the story of Putin’s $1 billion villa on the Black Sea—complete with 16 buildings, several swimming pools, and helicopter pads—seems paradigmatic of how “Russia, Inc.” operates. Shortly after Putin was elected president in 2000, some of the wealthiest Russian “oligarchs” were “asked” to donate hundreds of millions of dollars for a charity to buy medical equipment. They were overcharged by about a third, with the difference to be invested “in the Russian economy ” by a company of which Putin owned 94 percent of the shares. Gradually, according to the former owner of the medical-equipment business, Sergei Kolesnikov, who went public with the story a few years ago (and whom Gessen interviewed), less and less money was available for investment as the funds were increasingly diverted for a “small personal project,” involving “Putin’s house.” In the end, Kolesnikov was told to close down all the accounts as every dollar and ruble had been put toward the construction.
There is a difference, Gessen concludes, between kleptomania—a pathological desire to possess things, even those things for which one has little use—and pleonexia, which she describes as the insatiable urge to have things that rightfully belong to others. She diagnoses Putin with the latter ailment.
The most engaging pages in this depressing saga are in the epilogue, which deals with the mass anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow that broke out after Russia’s most brazenly manipulated elections for the Duma in December 2011. Here Gessen indulges in the most maddening narrative device, also prevalent in the book’s earlier sections: the relentless imposition of herself on her own narrative.
Throughout the book, paragraph after paragraph, the first-person singular appears in every, or every other, line: “I said,” “I thought,” “I had a dinner with,” “I interviewed,” “I asked,” “I coordinated the coverage of.” The subject is Putin; the heroine is Gessen. We know precisely where she was and what she was doing when the key events of the narrative occur. She interrupts her vacation on the Black Sea. She cries at her desk when she hears of the Beslan hostage-taking on September 1, 2004. A caring co-worker gives her a can of Coke.
We learn that Gessen is a tough and fearless ace reporter while remaining, naturally, a sensitive human being. We find out that the stories she wrote in the 1990s “no one had told before” and that they were often on the cover of the magazine she worked for. The reader is treated to a detailed timeline of Gessen’s career, as it unfolds alongside Putin’s: She went from top investigative reporter at Itogi magazine to the Moscow bureau chief of U.S. News & World Report to editor of an unnamed “Moscow weekly” to editor of a political website to editor of the glossy magazine Snob to editor at a publishing house. And let’s not forget the Herald Tribune, to which she is “a regular contributor.” Gessen adopts a boy (“Vova,” the standard Russian diminutive for “Vladimir”) and gives birth (it’s a girl, gentle reader, it’s a girl). She gets “anxious” and, upon dropping the kids off at school, goes to sleep. She “frets,” listening to the radio as she drives home from the dacha. She takes her family to a “vapid American comedy at an expensive shopping mall in central Moscow.” She bikes to work. She goes to a gym.
It appears, as the epilogue unfolds, that we’re in for more and more of this. “Something is afoot,” she declares to her just-awakened girlfriend on the eve of the election. She repeats the same prediction on the next page to a fellow guest at a birthday party, a “smart young reporter from the leading business daily’s presidential pool.” After voting (and photographing the ballot, and uploading the photo to Facebook), she departs for that birthday party, where she is surrounded by the sort of “mixed” but glittering crowd in which she seems always to find herself: “book-publishing people, journalists, designers, and at least one wealthy manufacturer.”
But press on, and eventually you will be treated to one of the finest written accounts of the “Winter Revolution,” from the first demonstration on December 5, 2011, when Gessen suddenly felt “the fear lift,” to that glorious Saturday in Bolotnaya Square on December 10, when the post-Soviet Russian middle class appeared to have come of political age. Having achieved unprecedented economic well-being and personal freedom, they began to clamor for dignity in democratic citizenship. It was Russia’s second national moral awakening, the first being the glasnost revolution of 1987–91.
Like her friends, Gessen came to Bolotnaya not knowing what to expect and found herself among tens of thousands of fellow citizens (100,000 is a frequently accepted estimate), after years of believing that only a few dozen shared her views. Apprised on Facebook and Twitter and LiveJournal of the newly found symbols of the protest, many carried white balloons and wore white scarves, white hats, and even, in the freezing cold of Russian winter, white trousers. “I’ve heard like a million jokes, and they were all funny!” she overheard a young man shouting into his cellphone. “Being surrounded by tens of thousands of like-minded people really does feel like hearing a million funny jokes at once,” Gessen writes. Suddenly, the police were polite and television networks were truthfully reporting the protest. “I recognize something I have observed in other countries, when I covered their revolutions,” Gessen writes. “There comes a day when you turn on the television and the very same goons who were spouting propaganda at you yesterday, sitting in the very same studios against the very same backdrops, start speaking a human language.”
The victory was short-lived, of course. Once he was reelected three months later, Putin made it very clear that the regime would not give up without a protracted and brutal fight. He has staged a calculated and effective counterattack designed to marginalize, scare, and victimize the opposition. Like carefully calibrated turns of the screw, laws have tightened the manacles. Prison sentences or huge fines are meted out for participation in “unauthorized demonstrations.” The definition of “treason” has expanded to the point where receiving information from an organization deemed “hostile” to Russia could land one in jail for 20 years. The Internet is routinely censored, and the cultural memory of terror and spy-mania has been reactivated by the declaration that civil- and human-rights organizations funded from abroad are “foreign agents.” On the sidelines, Kremlin goons harassed the U.S. ambassador, Michael McFaul, and the Kremlin expelled the United States Agency for International Development after 20 years and billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars were spent to promote democracy and civil society—with nary a whimper of protest from the White House.
Having met no international pushback on the house arrest and ongoing trial of the two top opposition leaders, Sergei Udaltsov and Alexei Navalny, the regime is likely to take the judicial persecution to its almost certain conclusion of lengthy prison terms. Navalny is facing a 10-year sentence (on a charge of embezzling 13,000 cubic feet of wood from a state-owned company), and God only knows how many years will be given to Udaltsov, who is accused of plotting mass riots to topple the government and of seeking financial assistance from Georgian authorities. In October, Udaltsov’s associate was kidnapped by the Russian secret service in Kiev and brought to Moscow, where he was handcuffed and held without water, food, or access to a toilet until he implicated Udaltsov. We shall know soon enough if such repression marks the regime’s departure from the relatively soft authoritarianism of Franco and Salazar to that of Marcos, Mugabe, and Duvalier—and, if so, whether it will cause a response in kind by the opposition, which until now has stubbornly clung to nonviolence.
But during that magic December, a free, prosperous, and stable Russia, at peace at long last with its own people and the world, seemed within reach to Gessen and tens of thousands of her compatriots. Although this dream was dashed, they are, historically, on solid ground. Stolen elections are a very bad omen for those who perpetrate them. The insult is never quite forgiven and eventually destroys the offending regime—whether in weeks, as in Georgia in 2003, or in months, as in Ukraine in 2004, or after four years, as in Milosevic’s Serbia in 2000, or after almost a decade and a half, as in Marcos’s Philippines in 1986, or even over the course of two decades, as in Myanmar, whose transition is still unfinished today.
Barring another world crisis and the resultant drop in oil prices, Putin may last till 2018. Yet when he then insists on continuing to rule, with his approval rating at its 12-year low and with millions of Russians already telling the pollsters that they are opposed to his running for another six-year term (which would make his total equal to Stalin’s 24 years), he is likely to precipitate a political crisis that could bring down the regime.
No matter what is yet to come, the December protests have succeeded in something hugely important. They have made sure that the arc of Putin’s story, which he made Russia’s, is no longer in his unchallenged control.
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