Early in this study of Vladimir Putin, journalist Masha Gessen recalls the cloud of uncertainty that enveloped the Kremlin in 1999. President Boris Yeltsin was ailing, near the end of his term, and his inner circle was desperate to find a successor. “A tiny group of people, besieged and isolated, were looking for someone to take over the world’s largest landmass, with all its nuclear warheads and all its tragic history,” Gessen writes, “and the only thing smaller than the pool of candidates seems to have been the list of qualifications required of them.”
Most prominent politicians had abandoned Yeltsin, and the remaining prospects were “all plain men in gray suits.” Boris Berezovsky, the wealthy oligarch and ambitious power broker who was close to Yeltsin’s team, personally recruited the largely unknown Putin, thinking he would be pliable. “Possibly the most bizarre fact about Putin’s ascent to power,” Gessen says, “is that the people who lifted him to the throne knew little more about him than you do. . . . Everyone could invest this gray, ordinary man with what they wanted to see in him.”
What Gessen sees in Putin is a troubled childhood brawler who became a paper-pushing KGB man and, by improbable twists and turns, rose to the top in Russia. He grew up fighting in the courtyards of St. Petersburg apartments. He became “a consistently rash, physically violent man with a barely containable temper.” When studying at a KGB academy, he once got into a fight on a subway when someone picked on him. On the day of his inauguration in 2000, Putin’s stiff gait was “the manner of a person who executes all his public acts mechanically and reluctantly, projecting both extreme guard and extreme aggression with every step.” Putin, she concludes, is a “hoodlum turned iron-handed ruler.”
It was clear to me as a correspondent in Moscow in 1999 that Putin’s toughness was key to his early appeal among Russians. He was a welcome antidote to the uncertainty and humiliation of the first post-Soviet decade, particularly after a string of terrorist bombings that autumn, widely blamed on Chechen separatists. In a comment that became a trademark of his earthy, sometimes vulgar style, Putin vowed to wipe out the perpetrators “in the outhouse.”
Now, 12 years later, Putin has served two terms as president and one as prime minister, and in May he will take office as president again, with a potential 12 additional years (two six-year terms) ahead of him. Gessen was finishing the book as protests broke out last fall against election fraud and the cavalier way Prime Minister Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev decided to swap jobs. If her portrait of Putin is correct, he won’t easily tolerate the opposition movement that brought tens of thousands to the streets. But whether he likes it or not, the protests left a big crack in his political legitimacy.
Gessen’s portrayal of Putin’s character also suggests he may prove prickly with Washington in the years ahead. As a tough guy, Putin may need to show that Russia is not a declining power. But appearances aside, he is in a tough spot and won’t be able to bully his way out of it. Russia desperately needs modernization, both political and economic, including Western capital and investment. Can Putin lead the way toward real modernization, given the system of stagnant authoritarianism and crony-state capitalism he built? Perhaps, but it would require a sea change in his approach. And that’s not likely.
Gessen’s book does not attempt to weigh up Putin’s record but rather examines his biography, mind-set and methods. She portrays him as a thug loyal to the KGB and the empire it served who never had a clue about the Earth-shattering events that blew the Soviet Union apart.
Putin was sent by the KGB to a backwater post in Dresden in 1985 just as Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and began his revolution from above. When Putin returned to St. Petersburg in 1990, so much had changed that he “felt betrayed” by those who had loosened the reins of Soviet power. The country was in a sorry state, and Gessen recalls that Putin’s wife, Lyudmila, found it not only “humiliating but frightening” to scour empty store shelves or stand in long lines for necessities. Gessen writes that this feeling of betrayal was not Putin’s alone but that the KGB “was filled with people who increasingly felt betrayed, misled and abandoned.” Having missed the great leap toward political freedom, Putin never understood it.
Gessen questions the veracity of Putin’s statements in a series of interviews that became the basis of his autobiographical book, “First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President,” published in 2000. For example, Putin claimed that during the coup attempt in August 1991, despite danger, he went to factories around St. Petersburg, speaking to workers, along with his mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, an early leader in the democracy movement. But Gessen says the truth is that Putin and Sobchak spent at least two days of the coup hiding in a bunker, under a factory, waiting to see how it would turn out.
Once in power, Putin began to demolish the fragile democracy that was Yeltsin’s legacy. Gessen describes how Putin rolled back the popular election of governors, seized control of television news and forced the oligarchs to heel. She also covers the big events of the day: the murder of journalists, terrorist attacks and corruption cases.
This kind of reporting in Russia is difficult and often leads to a dead end. When Gessen reaches a point where the facts aren’t clear, she often speculates. Events are described as “probably” or “presumably” or “most likely” to have happened. It might have been wiser to just admit the unknown.
Gessen’s verdict on Putin is dark, but there are other dimensions to his rule that demand more nuanced investigation. His tough talk was not always accompanied by action. He once pledged to eliminate the powerful oligarchs as a class. One of the tycoons, the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was arrested and tried on trumped-up charges. Others fell in line or fled. But then Putin proceeded to replace them with his own cronies, many drawn from the security services. The players were changed, but the system survived. Also, Putin’s tough-guy approach was supposed to end the lawlessness of the previous decade, but after his long years in power, corruption has grown worse. Finally, while Putin did control the big television stations, new channels of information sprang to life, particularly on the Internet, beyond the Kremlin’s control. When young protestors finally took to the streets in frustration last fall, it was Facebook and Twitter that enabled them to swiftly organize rallies of tens of thousands.
No thug or iron fist could stop them.
The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
By Masha Gessen
Riverhead. 314 pp. $27.95