In this episode of “Cape Up,” I go in-depth on Putin with Masha Gessen, a journalist who wrote a book about him and fled Russia because of him. Her book, “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” was published in 2012. “It’s very funny because now, seven years later, it sounds ridiculous to say that the message of that book is the man is much scarier than you think,” Gessen told me during an interview on June 24 at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, “because now I kinda want to backtrack on that and say, ‘Yes, he was much scarier than you thought he was in 2012.’ ”
Gessen walks through Putin’s rise to power in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. “There were people who really missed the Soviet Union. There were people who felt profoundly traumatized by the ’90s and by the transformations of the country. And, so, they saw in him a promise of returning to the Soviet Union because he came from the KGB and because his rhetoric was not as bombastically democratic as [former president Boris] Yeltsin’s,” explained Gessen. She also noted that the story Putin chose to tell about himself presaged the kind of leader he would be.
“He commissioned an official biography. He was interviewed for it by three journalists on six occasions, and it’s fascinating to see what he wanted people to know about him. He wanted people to know that he was a thug,” said Gessen. “He wanted people to know that he was vengeful, that he had an uncontrollable temper. . . . He didn’t tell any stories about his political ambition or his vision for the future, anything like that. But he told stories about being a thug.”
I asked Gessen to compare and contrast Putin and Trump. How are they different? “They're emotionally completely different. Trump is all affect. He's all raw emotion,” Gessen pointed out. “Putin actually prides himself on being inscrutable.” How are they similar? “What they do have in common is the way they lie,” she said. “Another thing that they share is that they use their political office for personal gain, and they see nothing wrong with it. In fact, that's why they're in office.”
Then I asked Gessen what scares her about Putin. Her answer took an interesting turn when she responded: “There are two things that scare me about Vladimir Putin and they’re the exact same things that scare me about Trump." Listen to the podcast to find out what they are.