Author: Masha Gessen
It was during a television interview with its author, Masha Gessen, when I heard about this book for the first time and I immediately added it on my must-read list. This charismatic journalist, activist fighting for the rights of sexual minorities and an author of various publications with topics ranging from the genetics to Russian state affairs was introducing her most recent book that was going to be published the following day.
She starts off the biography of Vladimir Putin with a prologue in which she narrates a story of her close friend, politician and a temporary leader of the political party Democratic Russia Galina Vasilyevna Starovoitova. She was mainly known for her work to protect ethnic minorities and for promoting democratic reforms in Russia. It was her murder in 1998 that made Gessen go to Saint Petersburg to write the story of Starovoitova and it was in Saint Petersburg where Gessen found “a state within the state still controlled by the all-powerful KGB”. As she states in the prologue, it was there, where the murders of the politicians and businessmen, unjustified imprisonment and wiretapping of journalists were nothing unusual. According to Gessen, Saint Petersburg seemed very similar to Russia a few years afterwards, when it was governed by the same people as Saint Petersburg in the nineties. The second biggest city in Russia is also home to the man who was about to become one of the most significant world leaders in the years to come, Vladimir Putin.
In the interview, Gessen summarizes Putin´s rise to power in a few phrases. “Putin was plot out of nowhere in 1999, completely unknown, chosen by the former president Yeltzin’s inner circle, from a line of other faceless bureaucrats. He is basically an accidental president who got incredibly lucky during the Russian law reform.”
In the eleven chapters and an epilogue, she narrates a chilling story starting in the years of Yeltzin’s rule and ending in December 2011 when the people in Moscow went to streets to protest against Vladimir Putin. The book was published three days before the Russian presidential elections were held but whose results were known beforehand anyway. In the interview, Gessen called the elections “Putin’s own elections” and added, with an ironic smile, that he was planning to win them in the first round. However, she seemed fairly skeptical about Putin’s ability to maintain in power for long. She stated that Putin’s power structure rests on fear, power, personal connection and money. The manifestations, according to the author, have proved that the fear had been taken out of the equation and that means the whole power structure is going to collapse and it is going to happen soon. “Anything that huge was not happening in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union,” added Gessen with an optimistic look.
In her book, Gessen goes as back as to Putin’s childhood, to talk, between others, about Putin’s uncontrollable and hot-tempered character that Putin did not manage to control even decades later during the years of his presidency. The story line of the book is also enriched with anecdotes from Putin’s private life, such as the story about the unusual way he proposed marriage to his wife.
“When he was chosen, he did not hide what he was like but nobody wanted to see it. As he was working for KGB, he spent his whole life in secret, so he had the opportunity to write his life story when he finally became a public politician.“ Gessen attempts to rewrite the life story of Putin that was written by the biographers during his first presidential election campaign. To do so, she travelled around the whole country in order to find her sources and convinced them to talk to her. Between the most remarkable ones belongs Marina Salye, a charismatic and democratic leader from Saint Petersburg, who had accused Putin for corruption in 1992 when he was working in Leningrad. After being threatened (she never revealed who and how was threatening her) and with the fear of knowing too much, she voluntarily went to exile in a village of about twenty six people in the far Russian countryside in 2000, in the year when Putin became president for the first time. After refusing to talk to journalists for about 10 years, Gessen will be forever one of the few who had the chance to interview this woman. Marina Salye died at the age of 77, twenty days after the book of Masha Gessen got published.
Gessen was trying to keep in secret that she was working on such project as she was already threatened in the past, for the first time in 2000 while carrying out an investigation about the imprisonment of Dimitrij Rozhdestvenski. After reading her book, you might be surprised she and her children still have the courage to live in Moscow, although holding both Russian and US citizenships.
Some call her book “fishy” and suggest changing the name of it to “Why should we hate Vladimir Putin”. The true is that her book rarely seems objective as in nearly every ambiguous case, such as the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko or the various terrorist bombings in Russia, Gessen suggests an explanation that links back to the Russian president.
However, it is unarguable that this biography is an addictive and fascinating reading that can serve as a great introduction to the world of current Russian politics, written by an author who is extremely well acquainted with the topic that she is writing about.