The Man Without a Face
by Masha Gessen takes an intimate look into the life of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his questionable past. Gessen investigates the puppet master behind the political party United Russia, which has been denounced as a group of crooks and thieves. It is clear that she believes Putin has condoned and encouraged illegitimate activities during his time as prime minister, including bribery and nepotism, resulting in the corruption of the head of state and a government body that Russians have grown to loathe.
Born in the Soviet Union, Masha Gessen emigrated with her family to the United States when she was fourteen years old. Now, back in Moscow and raising a family of her own, she admits to feeling some fear in writing this book, discussing the darkest secrets of a man whose enemies are known to drop dead without him so much as lifting a finger.
Gessen interviews Marina Salye, one of the leaders of a democratic movement in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, in the final years of the Soviet Union. Salye witnessed Putin’s rise to power, from a low-level KGB goon to what she refers to as Kremlin master. Concerned about the powers of Putin and the KGB to silence her, Salye lives in self-imposed exile in a deserted village in Russia.
Gessen asserts that Putin is not just turning a blind eye to the growth of crime and corruption, but actively encouraging and participating in these activities as one of the chief orchestrators. According to those closest to Putin, including an ex-KGB officer, the prime minister does not concern himself much with stealing because he assumes it as the norm.
Salye launched her own investigation into Putin’s work under Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak. At the time, the central government in Moscow lacked the funds to perform all the necessary functions to support society, and so it granted certain local authorities increased power to make decisions independently of the central government, allowing them to grant export licenses. The thinking was that the more Russian firms with the power to export goods, such as nickel, diamonds, and oil, the more money would be flooding into Russia, at a time when it desperately needed it.
Putin was one of the people granted the power to provide export licenses, and he did, signing off on billions of dollars of export deals with firms that he hand-selected. Although he was a lawyer well versed in contractual legalities, most of the exports under his watch went undocumented, and the contracts he created were legally invalid. The commissions received by the exporting firms averaged more than a third of the value of the contracts, and none of the food that was supposed to arrive in exchange for the materials ever did.
Salye’s investigation revealed a total of 900 million dollars unaccounted for. She suggested the launch of a criminal investigation into the situation, as well as Putin’s immediate dismissal. However, nothing ever happened. It is clear that Salye has been on the receiving end of threats so great that she refuses to even talk about them and was motivated to move deep into the Russian countryside.
Gessen, the editor of the Russian magazine Snob
, was one of the first reporters to follow up on a lead that Putin was using his ill-begotten funds in the construction of his own personal palace on the Black Sea coast.
Aside from his thievery, Putin is also known for his diabolical schemes and the many assassinations involving poison that occurred during his time as prime minister. Gessen refers to political journalist Anna Politkovskaya, known for her dissident views and speaking out against Putin. On his birthday, the journalist was shot dead after having been poisoned. There are many other incidences of dissident voices dying as the result of poison, but none can be linked directly to Putin.
In spite of his transgressions, Putin cultivates an image as a kind of king of the underworld, punishing those who deserve it but very generous towards those he likes. His patriotism towards Russia also works in his favor, all of it coming together to conjure the persona of someone who is tough but fair. This image has allowed Putin to remain in power. As long as he succeeds in playing the role of man of the people, he will continue to reign in Russia, at least until his thievery runs its course and becomes unsustainable. His toughness leads his constituents to believe that he will do anything to defend the motherland, even if, in reality, his actions are destroying the nation he claims to care about so much.