Monday, August 25, 2014

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Russian journalist Masha Gessen's The Man Without a Face is both chilling and frightening, farcical and surreal. It describes a world where murder and mayhem manifest as a matter of routine, yet explanations for such crimes often border on the absurd. The book provides a bracing history of Russia's faltering democracy.

Masha Gessen in a Russian journalist, activist and author. This 2012 book (with a fascinating new afterword, written for the 2013 edition) is not so much a biography of Vladimir Putin as a Russian history of the period 1990 to the present. Gessen has been there for all the key events, following them closely as a journalist and participating in protests. The Man Without a Face has a very urgent and up to the minute feel.

The basic premise of the book is that Putin's character and political outlook were formed by his time in the KGB, the main security agency of the Soviet Union, which employed him between 1975-1991. Gessen argues his whole thinking and psychological make-up was formed during this period. When the democracy movement started in the early nineties, this was a threat to Putin’s worldview. Putin’s current whittling away of democratic checks and balances is his attempt to restore authoritarian government.

There is enough subterfuge, mysterious killings, bullying, blowing up of public buildings and other mayhem in The Man Without a Face to permanently set your hair on end. Gessen marshals convincing evidence to point the finger for the Russian apartment bombings of the early 90s at the state’s secret service, the FSB (formerly the KGB). Putin blamed these outrages on terrorists.

When one of the bombings was foiled, it took several days for the FSB to come forward and claim responsibility. They concocted a bizarre story, claiming they had placed sacks of sugar, masquerading as explosives, in the bottom of an apartment stairwell as part of a training exercise to test that the public was remaining alert. The fact that an alert citizen reported suspicious looking bags with 'sugar' written on them proved security was in order! (Investigations make it appear likely that the 'sugar' sacks were indeed filled with explosives.)  

While The Man Without a Face is a chilling and frightening book, a lot of the events described (such as the FSB’s bizarre training exercise explanation) are absolutely farcical and surreal. The Russian public are asked to believe the most far fetched stories from their straight faced government officials.

Another chilling episode the book describes was the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium-210, a substance which could only be manufactured at the highest levels of government. Litvinenko was a whistleblower and former FSB agent. It was he who suggested that the apartment bombings could have been done by the FSB. A British investigation (Litvinenko died in a British hospital) found that the most likely poisoner was Andrei Lugovoy - a former KGB bodyguard and current member of the Russian parliament. Russia has refused Britain’s requests to extradite him. Gessen suggests that it was Putin who ordered the killing.

Many who have read this book have noted Masha Gessen’s bravery. She chronicles the terrible fate of several journalists, mysteriously murdered. Reading The Man Without a Face you do fret over the author’s safety, not your typical experience when reading a book.

For Australian readers, it may make you appreciate our long history of democratic institutions. In Russia, trying to put together a democracy after so many years of totalitarian government is a process of two steps forward, one step backward. At the moment, however, Russia’s democratic future looks very grim.

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen. Published by Granta.  ISBN: 9781847084231 RRP: $24.99

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