The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin | by Masha Gessen | Riverhead | 304 pages, $27.95

In June 2005 Vladimir Putin hosted a group of American businessmen in St. Petersburg. He was attracted by a 124-diamond Super Bowl ring belonging to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and asked to try it on. “I could kill someone with this,” he is reported to have joked. He resisted the impulse, but instead stuck the ring in his pocket and left the room.

This is one of many illuminating anecdotes to be found in Masha Gessen’s excellent biography of the (recently re-elected) Russian president. Most are captivating because, like this one, they are so outlandish. Gessen, a journalist and author based in Moscow, uniformly impresses with her criticism of her subject, steadily slinging mud but backing it up with enough credible fact and insightful analysis to make it stick. After informing us of the ring incident Gessen goes on to suggest his actions are typical not of kleptomania but “the more exotic pleonexia, the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.” The Man Without A Face bears this out, with Putin’s alleged catalog of crime ranging from siphoned off profits from the sale of public resources to stealing votes in rigged elections. At the end she estimates his personal net worth at $40 billion.

Gessen begins by sketching Putin’s origins. He was born in Leningrad in 1952 and grew up in an apartment whose makeshift kitchen and toilet was shared with three other families. Little Volodya was a thug who gave as good as he got in brawls in the city’s run-down courtyards. “I was a hooligan,” he boasted in 2000 to his official biographers. As a teenager he dreamed of joining the KGB but had to wait until university to be groomed and recruited. His handler believed he had the right credentials: Putin could connect with people—or as he himself nonchalantly put it, ‘I am an expert in human relations.’ Gessen tells of his unsatisfying stint as a pen-pusher in Dresden before fast-forwarding to his break in politics—first as Anatoly Sobchak’s right-hand man in Leningrad’s city council and later, in 1997, as deputy chief of Boris Yeltsin’s presidential staff.

In amongst this back-story Gessen sprinkles telltale signs of the Putin who would eventually emerge and rule Russia with an iron fist. He loved the Soviet Union and the KGB as much as he loathed the nation’s bleeding-heart democrats, and longed to build “a closed system, a system built on total control.” When he finally launched his election campaign and looked likely to ascend to the throne, Sobchak termed his former protégé as “the new Stalin”. Most startling of all is Gessen’s assertion, presented as established truth, that the series of apartment bombings in 1999 that killed hundreds of Moscow citizens were conducted not by Chechen separatists, but by the Federal Security Service (FSB) with Putin then at the helm. This mocked-up terrorist attack ensured stepped-up, not to mention justified, military combat in Chechnya, along with Yeltsin’s early ousting and Putin’s fast-tracked takeover.

It is with these explosive revelations that Gessen truly excels. Her section on Chechnya is harrowing, with pitiless depictions of Russian atrocities and the relentless, almost arbitrary military pounding of Grozny. She then moves on to recount and review the details of two bloody, tragic sieges—those of the Moscow theater in 2002 and the school in Beslan in 2004. Both cases culminated in botched hostage rescues, leading Gessen to suspect more FSB foul play instead of the party-line blame attributed to Chechen and North Ossetian terrorists: “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.” The 2000 Kursk submarine disaster in which 118 seamen died is also revisited, and although Gessen does not accuse the Kremlin of sinking the sub, she rigorously vilifies Putin for his negligent handling of the tragedy’s aftermath.

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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Malcolm Forbes has written reviews and essays for the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, The National, The Australian, The Daily Beast, the Quarterly Conversation, and many other journals. Born in Edinburgh, he currently lives in Berlin.