The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin

This book by Masha Gessen describes how Vladimir Putin rose from low-ranking member of the KGB to “…absolute—and absolutly corrupt—power…” as the leader of the Russian Federation. I was eager to read the book and post this review because the latest statistics on this web site indicated large numbers of readers in the Russian Federation and the Ukraine.

The story of Putin’s childhood is murky. His parents were a disabled man and a woman who had almost starved to death and had lost another son. They had a larger apartment and more amenities than neighbors. The apparent advantages of the parent’s living arrangement created rumors about what the father might have done to serve the KGB. There also are rumors that Putin was adopted. The author says what is indisputable is that he “…by the standards of his time, was a miracle child.”

The KGB expected new recruits to be skilled in hand-to hand combat, and Putin studied Sambo, a Soviet martial art. He was assigned to a unit created to fight dissidents and later trained as a spy. He was assigned to Dresden where there were few spying opportunities. Mikhail Gorbachev began the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, and dissidents in Leningrad had been emboldened by the time Putin and his wife and family returned from Dresden.

The demolition of the Angleterre Hotel, a Leningrad historic site, spawned a revolution. Dissidents calling themselves “Informals” began gathering and giving speech in front of the site, which they called “Information Point.” Glasnost had released the power of freedom and brought about the rapid collapse of the Soviet system.

Putin claimed he resigned from the KGB when the Soviet Union was collapsing. A man named Sobchak worked himself into being chairman of the Leningrad City Council and hired Putin as an assistant. One theory was that Sobchak was said to know “…that it is wiser to pick your KGB handler yourself than to have one picked for you.” Putin convinced one after another higher ranking officials he could be both trusted and controlled amongst all the political intrigue.

Oligarchs became incredibly wealthy as the country lurched to corrupt enterprise. Russia defaulted on its debts in 1998 amidst hyperinflation. The turmoil opened opportunities for the nondescript Putin. He worked his way into the trust of Boris Yeltsin, who had launched democracy in the Russian Federation with great hope, but Russians quickly became disillusioned amidst terrible economic conditions. Yeltsin resigned and named Vladimir Putin prime minster of Russia August 9, 1999. Yeltsin probably picked him because he believed Putin would not prosecute or persecute him.

The date of Putin’s appointment was intended to make him the “…instant incumbent…” The Russian people and world leaders were “…relieved that unpredictable, embarrassing Yeltsin was gone …” Few understood Putin believed a “…country is as great as the fear it inspires, and the media should be loyal.” The American media was focused on the Bush-Gore election and paid no attention to the turmoil in Russia or Putin’s immediate moves to transform the country back to a Soviet-style government.

There is a story about a tobacco riot  that gives insight into the kind of desperation that led to the collapse of democracy. People were constantly forced to search for food and other commodities, and the stores were often empty. Several thousand people gathered in central Leningrad to demand cigarettes. City council members arrived to prevent violence. It was well after dark when a stash of cigarettes was located and delivered. The protestors lit up and dispersed. However, “…it seemed the city would run out of everything.”

Putin used state control of the media and, according to the author, intimidation, corruption, murder, and terrorism against Russian citizens to solidify his power. The book presents many chilling stories about his actions and how he used corruption to make himself an incredibly wealthy man. The most disturbing accusation is that the FSB, the replacement for the KGB, set off bombs in apartment buildings that killed hundreds of men, women and children. Sacks of the explosive hexogen labeled “sugar” that were used to demolish the apartment buildings were found in a FSB warehouse. It is speculated the bombings were intended to make people want stricter state control; Putin used them to justify canceling gubernatorial elections. The bombings were officially blamed on an Islamic terrorist group. The official response to terrorist attacks was to “…maximize bloodshed…aimed to multiply the fear and the horror.”

There are disturbing stories of Putin’s willingness to punish critics. Wealthy people and powerful public figures who decided to publically oppose Putin’s abandonment of democracy and development of a “tyranny of bureaucracy” paid with their freedom or their lives if they didn’t first escape the country. Some critics died of mysterious poisons such as the radioactive element polonium which could not be obtained by anyone other than a central government. Some critics were convicted of invented crimes and imprisoned by Putin’s imposition of the Stalin theory that the courts existed to “…do the bidding of the head of state and dole out punishment…” He didn’t just apply his “don’t mess with me” policy domestically. He also officially abandoned the “no first nuclear strike” policy against foreign foes. Disasters such as the failure to rescue men on the nuclear submarine Kursh and the slaughter of more than 300 people, mostly women and children, at a school in Breslan by terrorists seemed to cause Putin little concern.

Putin also apparently can’t resist taking things. He pocketed the diamond Super Bowl ring shown to him by New England Patriot owner Robert Kraft. Kraft later ended the embarrassment by saying the ring was a gift. Putin took a glass replica of a Kalashnikov filled with vodka shown to him at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The author calls him a pleonexia, which is a person who has “…the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.”

Dmitry Medvedev (who is around five feet tall, although his height is classified) served as the stand-in when Putin had to leave office because of term limits. Medvedev publically admitted in 2011 that he and Putin had made arrangements for Medvedev to hold the office for Putin until Putin was once again eligible to be president.

All of this leads to the Epilogue, which gives a day-by-day description of the events immediately before and during the Russian Federation election in December 2011. Putin was announced to have been the winner, although the margin was narrow despite the suspected corruption of the election. Mikhail Gorbachev called for a re-vote. There was a Facebook posting “The Snow Revolution, or a Clean Slate.” Large numbers of people (the author estimates 150,000) arrived wearing white armbands or other white articles. I haven’t noticed U.S. coverage of what has happened since, but I intend to research the subject for a blog posting at that link.

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