The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen

As events in Syria and Ukraine over the course of recent years have demonstrated, Vladimir Putin is a deft hand at the cynical art of international realpolitik. However, to those who have watched his emergence from the obscurity of KGB officialdom to the ultimate power of the President’s Office in the Kremlin, Putin’s success on the international stage comes as no surprise: he has already demonstrated his capacity to seize and hold power on the domestic front, along the way outmanoeuvring and overcoming all opponents.

Masha Gessen, one of Russia’s most courageously outspoken and independent journalists, has produced far more than either a personal biography or a political autopsy: rather, she has brought out of the shadows the human character that is Putin the man – an apparently dour, charmless individual given to embarrassingly public threats and crudity, devoid either of philosophical vision or political ideology, who is driven by the single, iron law of his own will. And that will is to turn the KGB he has so loyally served, not into a mere instrument of the state, but into the State itself.

It is not enough to say that modern Russia is a kleptocracy; organised crime in Russia, and the economic oligarchs who ransacked the state during the chaotic years of the Yeltsin presidency, walk to the beat of the Putin drum. Nor is it merely a return to the USSR, although Putin employs many of the same devices used by the Soviet Union, up to and including embezzlement, murder, forced exile, and harassment by the apparatus of the State. Rather, Putin is determined to convert Russia into his own image, dominated by his will alone, all the while maintaining the façade of a modern state that (on the surface) eschews the narcissistic insanity so evidently on display in North Korea.

Poignantly, Gessen concludes her book with a personal account of the so-called “White Ribbon” demonstrations in December 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Russians defied Putin to stage mass protests against his re-nomination for the Presidency, a time when Gessen herself felt the nation had reached a watermark of change; but as subsequent events have so tragically revealed, Putin is as firmly entrenched in power as ever, having once again prevailed over those who would unseat him. A gripping, if chilling, account of some of the grimmer realities of life and politics in post-Soviet Russia.

(c) Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.