Throughout, Gessen paints a bleak picture of the “hijacked state media” and the gradual though systematic erosion of freedom of speech. The elimination of those courageous enough to speak or write about injustice reminds us that although the KGB may now operate under a new moniker, its practices remain the same. Conspicuously, many political opponents have been dispatched by poisoning. Yuri Shchekochikhin—liberal politician, muckraking journalist, and member of the independent committee investigating the apartment bombings—died after contact with an unknown toxin; Alexander Litvinenko, the whistle-blowing FSB agent, was killed with polonium-210 during exile in London; and Anna Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of Putin for years, was poisoned while on a flight to Beslan to cover the siege. She survived the first attempt but was shot dead two years later. Gessen doesn’t mince her words. On state-collusion in Beslan and the Moscow theater sieges, she writes “it can certainly be said that Putin and the terrorists were acting in concert.” Her choice of adverb is more emphatic with regard to Litvinenko’s death, which “is indisputably the work of the Russian government authorized at the very top.”
If there is one criticism to be made of this otherwise superb book it is Gessen’s relentless insistence that Putin play the bogeyman. “Putin wanted to rule the world, or a part of it, from the shadows,” she writes, at once transforming him into a mad Blofeld figure bent on global domination. When he arrives late on the scene of the Kursk disaster he is dressed in black—no doubt to signify mourning, but to Gessen he looks “vaguely like a mafioso.” The child-thug morphing into the adult-hoodlum seems too convenient a trajectory, and thus too simplistic an argument.
But these are rare lapses. In the main, Gessen presents her case calmly, picking holes in Putin’s character, his policies, and his rule without stooping to hysterical condemnation. Quite a feat for what it is: the most scathing of hatchet-jobs. The problem with writing a biography of a person who is still alive is that significant events still play out after publication. It is too bad we don’t have Gessen on the recent foiled plot to assassinate Putin, or the March election, the outcome of which, at the time of writing, has generated waves of protest across the country. That said, Gessen did write a short piece for the Observer (UK) on election day, which serves a fitting coda: In her eyes, the demonstrations on the streets are not just the middle classes in revolt; we are witnessing something bigger, “a mass movement.”
Finally, it is worth mentioning another article from another UK journal, this time The London Review of Books. On February 23, Tony Wood wrote that it is the “vast edifice of wealth, privilege and authority that the protest movement is really confronting behind Putin’s self-satisfied mask.” Paradoxically, it is “mask” here that is most revealing. It has something in common with Gessen’s book’s title—The Man Without A Face—and with how others perceived Putin before he assumed power: “devoid of personality and personal interest”—in other words, faceless.
Gessen makes much of this anonymity, presumably to help heighten his menace: But more menacing surely is not Putin’s facelessness but his two faces. When he steals the ring Gessen writes that this irrepressible urge to take what belongs to others “helps explain his split personality: he compensates for his compulsion by creating the identity of an honest and incorruptible civil servant.” Gessen exposes Putin as Janus-like, but concentrates on delineating his ruthless side. In doing we are presented with an electrifying read from what can only be described as an incredibly brave writer.
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