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.

Vladimir Putin and the Snow Revolution

The “Snow Revolution” part of the title comes from the Epilogue of the book “The Man Without a Face:  The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” by Masha Gessen. A dissident put up a Facebook post asking people to wear white ribbons on their arms to show they protested the announced election of Putin to be president of the Russian Federation in December 2011. The author estimated as many as 150,000 people arrived at the protest wearing white armbands or some other white article. The Russian people deserve better if only a few of the allegations and speculations put forward by the author about Putin are true.

Gessen was interviewed by John Williams of The New York Times, and he said she had cataloged disastrous events “…and lay much of it at Putin’s feet. How much of this is concretely provable?” Gessen’s response was that conclusive evidence would have to be obtained by law enforcement, and “None of the murders or acts of terror that have occurred in the last 12 years have been properly investigated.”

How many people arrived to join the Snow Revolution protest? The estimates vary widely, but are significantly lower that what the author predicts. An article on by Julia Ioffe says the protestors claimed 85,000, the police estimated 25,000, and the media said 50,000. There no dispute that there were thousands of people all over Russia who protested the “…rudely falsified elections.” There is an article with photos of thousands of people in the the streets, and many are holding white ballons. What is important now is what happens with the protest movement. An article titled, “Russia’s Revolutionaries Ponder Next Move” includes a photo of many people carrying white balloons. The protestors are said to face the challenge of creating a unified front.

Russian protest leaders have never pretended that things would be easy. “One peaceful march will not change our country,” protest organizer Boris Nemtsov said on the eve of one rally. “We are in for a long, hard struggle.”

I’ll give a brief review Gessen’s book, which gives background for why there is a Snow Revolution. The book details how Putin made it from being a self-described thug in his youth to becoming the brutal leader of the Russian Federation. He was a bureaucrat in the KGB, and claimed he resigned from that secret police organization when the Soviet Union was collapsing. A man named Sobchak worked himself into being chairman of the Leningrad City Council. He hired Putin as an assistant, because he was said to know “…that it is wiser to pick your KGB handler yourself than to have one picked for you.” There were several steps from there to leadership, and apparently one high level person after another picked Putin as the person to be beside them believing he could be trusted and controlled amongst all the political intrigue. The last in this chain was Boris Yeltsin, who had launched democracy in the Russian Federation with great hope but was forced to resign.

Putin immediately began to transform Russia back into the USSR. He is said to have used state control of the media, murder, corruption, and perhaps even terrorism to retain power. The book discusses how he took control of the government while making himself an incredibly wealthy man. Critics were beaten, imprisoned, or murdered. Some critics died of mysterious poisons which could not be obtained by anyone other than a central government.

The accounts reminded me of a book I reviewed titled “Spy Catcher” by former senior British intelligence officer Peter Wright. There is a description of a container of antidotes for all the known Soviet poisons that was kept with Soviet agents who had escaped the USSR to turn themselves in to British authorities. I believe Wright would also have said that Putin was following the advice of Lenin in keeping control of the country. “Lenin understood better than anyone how to gain control of a country, and, just as important, how to keep it. Lenin believed the political class had to control the men with the guns, and the intelligence service, and by these means could ensure that neither the Army nor another political class could challenge power.

I fear for the author. She is obviously at risk of violence if only a fraction of what she writes about Vladimir Putin is true. She writes in the Prologue that she worked as a journalist in war zones “…but this was the most frightening story I ever had to write:  never before had I been forced to describe a reality so emotionless and cruel, so clear and so merciless, so corrupt and so utterly devoid of remorse.” She lives in Moscow, and told The New York Times interviewer that she had thought of leaving, but “I love my home, my friends, my life. And if Putin doesn’t like me he can leave.”

Recent statistics on this web site indicate there are large numbers of readers in the Russian Republic and Ukrainia. I thought of those readers as I was reading Gessen’s book and prepared the review and this post and wondered how many Russian readers would be Putin supporters and how many would be protestors.

To readers in the United States, I think we should all renew our appreciation of the freedoms we have. I read a joke said to have been told quietly within the Soviet Union. The joke isn’t all that funny, but I think it is pertinent. An American and Russian were arguing about which country was best. The American said, “We are so free that I could stand on a street corner in New York and shout ‘Reagan is an idiot’, and nothing bad would happen to me, although some might stop to argue with me.” The Russian replied, “That’s nothing. I could stand on a street corner of Moscow and shout ‘Reagan is an idiot’, and nothing bad would happen to me, and no one would even argue with me.”

The Road to Communism: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union

This book by Ted Gottfried is in first of a series covering the history of the Soviet (meaning council of workers, peasants and/or soldiers) Union. The illustrations by Melanie Reim are in the style of Soviet propaganda posters. The book is easy to read, and the key players and events are presented in sufficient detail to give someone new to the subject a good introduction to the remarkable series of events that led the Communists to take over Russia and begin the experiment called the Soviet Union that wouldn’t end for nine decades. Other books take many more pages to present the information in greater detail, which is a validation of the value of this book for someone who wants to read the basic facts.

The peasants who produced the food and wealth for the Romanov Empire lived in primitive and deprived conditions. The tsar and aristocrats seldom if ever considered what was in the best interest of the peasants. Tsar Alexander II issued an emancipation proclamation to free the serfs, but the mortgages and interest on the land sales kept them enslaved. Undeveloped infrastructure often resulted in failure to transport what was produced on the farms to markets and population centers, and there were frequent famines while food rotted near where it was produced.

The eventual success of the Communist revolution was possible because no one other than the Communists promised to do anything to ease the suffering of the peasants. The seeds of the revolution began in the early 1800s when Georg Hegel began campaigning to improve the lives of the poor and downtrodden. Karl Marx was one of Hegel’s disciples, and would write The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Marx also wrote Das Kapital, which predicted that revolution had to occur in an industrialized country and would not occur in pre-industrialized Russia. The teachings of Marx became the basis of the views taken by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Zinoviev. Marx suffered from many medical problems and went through many periods of poverty. Only one of his children lived to see the successful Communist revolution. Marx received financial support from Friedrich Engels, whose money came from an inherited mill.

The landowners and aristocrats often lived beyond their means, and by the 1880s many were deeply in debt to the tsars. They were baffled that their university-educated children became radicals dedicated to bringing down the monarchy. Alexander Ulianov was in that category, and was hanged for being part of a plot by the ultraviolent group called “People’s Will” to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. Ulianov’s brother was Vladimir Ilich Ulianov, who would change his name to Vladimir Lenin. Lenin had a checkered history as a Communist leader, since he often ran away from conflict. He fled to Finland soon after shooting broke out in the rebellion that began in 1905 and didn’t return to Russia until the revolution was a reality in 1917.

Tsar Nicholas II and his family were protected from assassins in the early 1900s by a well-funded secret police that carried out “a hideous reign of terror” that “spread all over Russia.”

A bizarre part of the Romanov story involved the frantic efforts of the tsarina to save her son Alexis from hemophilia. She found a holy man in Siberia named Rasputin, or the “Mad Monk,” who seemed to be the only person who could control the bleeding. Rasputin gained immense influence over the tsarina. He was soon courted by everyone who wanted some appointment or favor from the tsar and tsarina. He was described as a filthy man who had hypnotic power, and he often demanded sexual favors for his assistance. There was a plot to murder him, and he did not die easily. Food spiked with cyanide seemed to have no effect. A gunshot to the head momentarily stunned him, but he wandered off and didn’t die until he was hit with more bullets.

The book describes the frequent and violent oppression of Jews in Russia based on rumors that Jews were using the blood of Christian children to prepare for the Passover feast. Jews were savagely murdered in pogroms fostered by the reports. Tsar Nicholas used the anger at the Jews to defuse unrest against his regime among the oppressed peasants. By 1917 more than a third of the surviving Jews had left Russia and immigrated to the United States.

The Second Party Communist Congress was held in Brussels in 1903, and Lenin dominated the meeting. He insisted party membership be restricted to professional revolutionaries, and they called themselves Bolsheviks (those of the majority). Those who didn’t agree with the restrictions were called the Mensheviks (those of the minority). The Communists held several congresses, and effectively made little progress. World War I gave them their chance. Millions of poorly supplied Russian soldiers died, and the tsar decided he had to take direct control of the military at the front. That of course took him out of the royal court and gave more power to Rasputin. Crops rotted in the fields because most of the young men who would normally have done the harvesting were dead or still with the army. Protests and troop rebellions were common. Nicholas was forced to abdicate, his brother refused the crown, and three hundred years of Romanov rule ended. The charismatic Kerensky established a provisional government.

The Germans paid Lenin with millions of dollars in gold to destabilize the Russian regime and transported him and thirty-one other radical Russians in a sealed rail car to St. Petersburg. Lenin’s collaboration with the Germans was eventually revealed, and he was forced to escape to Finland. However, Bolshevism was on a steady rise as more and more thousands joined. The Provisional Government faded away and the Bolsheviks took over in an almost bloodless revolution. The tsar and his family would eventually be executed and buried in secret.

The Communists began to be attacked from all sides. Approximately 60,000 Czechs who had volunteered to fight Germany began attacking via the Trans-Siberian Railway. White Russian forces attacked from several fronts. Western countries including the United States landed troops in Russia to oppose the Communists. The Japanese seized Vladivostok. Trotsky organized the Red Army under former tsarist military officers, and they prevailed. Stalin would never forgive Trotsky for enlisting the tsarists, and probably also never forgave him for being credited with winning. Lenin wanted to expand the revolution and ordered Stalin to invade Poland against Trotsky’s advice. The Poles counterattacked and defeated the Reds. Stalin was recalled to Moscow and censured by Lenin. (George Orwell’s fairy story “Animal Farm” is  about how Stalin eventually vilified Trotsky to gain complete control.)

World War I and the civil wars that followed left Russia in a devastated state. The peasants balked at planting crops when they were told they didn’t own the land. Lenin violated Communist principles by granting peasants ownership of their farms. However, famine had already begun. Lenin appealed to the Capitalist nations for food, and it began to arrive. Herbert Hoover organized a massive international relief effort that saved millions of Russians.

Stalin had taken complete control by the time Lenin died in 1924, and millions would die in purges and as slaves in the Gulags during his thirty-year reign.