No Comment, Six Questions — March 16, 2012, 11:11 am

The Man Without a Face: Six Questions for Masha Gessen


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?

The system’s greatest vulnerability stemmed from Putin’s and his inner circle’s pleonexia, the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belonged to others, that was exerting ever greater pressure on the regime from inside. Every year, Russia slid lower on the Corruption Perceptions Index of the watchdog group Transparency International, reaching 154th out of 178 by 2011 (for the year 2010). By 2011, human-rights activists estimated that fully 15 percent of the Russian prison population was made up of entrepreneurs who had been thrown behind bars by well-connected competitors who used the court system to take over other people’s businesses.—From The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead Books, © 2012 Masha Gessen.

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.

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

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Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

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When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

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e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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