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Vladimir Putin is emerging as an iconic figure for Russian politics in the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but he remains rather mysterious even at home, and widely misunderstood abroad. Now Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen has completed a comprehensive and penetrating look at the experiences that shaped Putin and the character of his stewardship of Russia. I put six questions to Gessen about her new book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin:
1. Vladimir Putin has been elected once more as president of the Russian Federation, but this time observers say the outcome was marked by extreme fraud. How do you expect Putin to cope with a growing opposition that increasingly includes urban elites once close to him?
The smart thing to do would be to institute some reforms—this would pacify some of the protesters and possibly even effectively divide the movement. Outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev has indicated that he will introduce an electoral-reform package that would reverse some of the damage done in the Putin era, and he has indeed even formed a working group that includes at least one protest leader. So some optimists are hoping for a Gorbachev-style scenario, where the system slowly dismantles itself from the inside. I, however, hold out little hope for that. I think Putin will find it too difficult to resist his natural urge to punish the opposition and tighten the screws in the hopes of preventing further protest. And this, I think, will ultimately speed up his demise by consolidating and radicalizing the opposition.
2. Putin was a fisticuff-prone youth, pampered by his parents and accompanied by suspicious material wealth. What traces of this early life can be seen in Putin today?
Most of what we know about Putin’s early life is what he has chosen to tell us—he did spend his life in the secret police, after all. He has portrayed himself as aggressive, incapable of controlling his temper, and vengeful—all traits he has exhibited in his twelve years as the leader of Russia. His remarkable relationship to material wealth is a less well-controlled part of his public image. He was the only child in his first-grade class to sport a wristwatch—a luxury item even for adults in those days. As a college student, he appropriated the car his parents won in a lottery—a car they could have taken cash for instead, enough to get them out of the communal squalor in which they lived. He made relatively large amounts of money working summer construction jobs in the Far North (a common way to spend college summers) and kept all the money both times, once spending it all in a few days on the Black Sea coast and the next year buying an expensive overcoat for himself and a cake for his mother. As a grown president, he has also had trouble distinguishing the boundaries between what is and is not rightfully his, and has never learned to share.
3. From 1985 to 1990, Putin was stationed as a KGB officer in Dresden, where you note that he had dealings with West German radicals associated with the Red Army Faction. During this time, the RAF carried out the assassination of Deutsche Bank chairman Alfred Herrhausen, among other terrorist acts. Is there anything tying Putin to the RAF’s trail of assassinations and robberies?
I had a source claim that there was, but I was never able to corroborate what he told me. That is why I refrain from speculating on this in the book.
4. Who is Marina Salye, and how did she help you resolve the puzzle about the “missing years” in Putin’s biography?
Marina Salye is Putin’s oldest enemy. In the late 1980s, she emerged from the world of academia to become the most popular politician in Leningrad. She was a leader of the popular, pro-reform People’s Front, and she was elected to city council and became a leader there, too (though, sticking to her radically democratic principles, she chose not to seek the chairmanship). In 1992 she spearheaded a city-council investigation that concluded that Putin, as St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor, had embezzled or helped embezzle as much as $100 million. The council passed a resolution calling on the mayor to dismiss Putin and refer the case to the prosecutor’s office for investigation. Instead, the mayor dismissed the council, and ruled the city by decree for the next year. Salye became a professional organizer and eventually moved to Moscow.
When Putin suddenly rose to national prominence in 1999 and was running for president in 2000, she tried to draw attention to her old investigation, warning in one memorable article that he would become “the president of a corrupt oligarchy.” This uncannily accurate prediction was ignored by the public and by Salye’s old comrades from the pro-democracy movement, as was Salye herself (though she was not ignored by everyone). She was threatened—she refuses to say by whom or how—and she fled the city. Rumor had it she was in Paris, but I eventually found her in a tiny, semi-abandoned village in the woods not far from the Russia–Latvia border. She had been living there for a decade. She talked to me about her investigation (I had the report itself), allowed me to make copies of many important documents relating to corruption in the St. Petersburg city administration, and talked about that period in detail. On February 4 of this year, she emerged from her hideout to be the lead speaker at an anti-Putin protest in St. Petersburg.
5. After becoming president, Putin spoke of a “dictatorship of the law,” and when Dmitri Medvedev ran for the presidency in 2008, he criticized the cynicism and weakness of Russia’s legal culture and promised reform. This seems to have appealed to a whole generation of young Russians, who thought their nation was charting a new course. One of them was a young auditor named Sergei Magnitsky. What happened to Magnitsky and what does this say about the Putin government’s commitment to law?
I found the “dictatorship of the law” slogan disturbingly oxymoronic from the beginning: the law does not rule by dictatorship; the law serves as an arbiter. It facilitates deliberation and ultimately leads to justice. Or it should. But we got exactly what Putin promised: a corrupt system of law enforcement and the judiciary, which acts in concert with the executive branch to exert terror—just like a dictatorship would. Sergei Magnitsky uncovered a corruption scheme that allowed a group of tax-police officers to use the courts to steal several companies and then fraudulently obtain $230 million in tax returns filed on their behalf. When Magnitsky pushed for an investigation, he was jailed; when he persisted while in jail, he was tortured to death. He died in November 2009, at the age of thirty-six, in prison.
6. Galina Starovoitova, Anna Politkovskaya, Natasha Estemirova—repeatedly in recent decades, brave women who reveal Russia’s dark secrets have fallen to assassins. You are now one of Russia’s most prominent exposé journalists. Moreover, your writing reveals the unflattering side of a man known to hold a grudge. Are you concerned for your own safety?
I am sometimes. I wouldn’t say that I live in fear, but I have considered leaving the country. Then I decided he is the one who should leave.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”