The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
This is Ms. Gessen's 2013 biography of Vladimir Putin.
I stopped paying attention to Russia around the late nineties. I'm old enough to remember it being a terrifying Evil Empire, and to remember how surreal it was to see glasnost and perestroika take shape, and then see the Berlin Wall come down. Then I saw real elections take place there, and it was a warm and fuzzy feeling, like democracy was inevitable and Russia had pretty much sorted itself out. My sister visited there -- something that would have been, a decade before, as fanciful as visiting the moon -- and reported back on how much fun she'd had, and how beautiful St. Petersburg was.
And then it faded from view. I'd hear bits and pieces of news over the next twenty years -- usually quick references to corruption and to "oligarchs". The annexation of Crimea happened, and I'm sad to say I didn't respond much beyond "Huh, that seems odd." It was only with the current Russia investigation that I took anything like a closer look -- and what I saw seemed like a nightmare: corruption and embezzlement on a level that the world had never seen, and Putin literally using sick orphans as bargaining chips over the Magnitsky Act, and rogue agents getting fatally poisoned with polonium, and the "Internet Research Agency" generating as much online chaos as possible.
The Man Without a Face tells you what happened.
The book is frankly terrifying. Masha Gessen is a Russian journalist who's written fearlessly about Russian politics -- her latest is a biography of Pussy Riot -- and at this point I'm frankly shocked she's still alive. Her story of Putin serves very well as the story of Russia, picking up right where my attention left off.
You see Gorbachev make his reforms. You see the dissolution of the Soviet Union. You see the first steps towards an idealistic, nascent democracy. And then you see it almost immediately get smashed to bits.
The speed of the collapse is the scariest thing. At least the way the book frames it, it feels like the population is kind of flummoxed by their intelligentsia's press for democratic reforms, and they all immediately yearn for the old days: a totalitarian ruler, massive bribery and corruption, and constant monitoring by the secret police. Sure, those are miserable problems to endure, but they're *familiar* problems. Traditional. And it's like, as soon as there's the smallest fumble in the reform movement, everybody just assumes, "okay, we're back to the old ways now" and reverts, instantly looking for a dictator to bring to power.
In a way, the book is even scarier because Putin himself is not that terrifying. At no point does he seem like a genius puppetmaster, cleverly orchestrating his ascent to ruler-for-life status. Instead, he's more like Zelig, or Chauncey Gardiner -- he's a nobody paper-pusher in the secret police who gets magically elevated by all the Game of Thrones-like machinations of the oligarchs and ex-Party aparatchiks. They needed somebody bland and anonymous, and they found their man.
And so he rises in the ranks. He never does anything clever, and he never out-crazies or out-cruels the people around him. But it's a system that's so rotted -- so intent on embezzlement at every turn, and so resigned to autocracy as the natural way of things -- that Putin just blooms out of the rot like a mushroom.
And suddenly everything is terrifying. Businessmen are arrested so Putin's cronies can seize their businesses. Journalists are shot dead so Putin doesn't have to worry about bad press. Millions, and then billions, of dollars get embezzled out of the government and the oligarchy to Putin and those closest to him. There are reporters that fight it, and citizens that protest, and occasional honest soldiers (Alexander Litvinenko, the whistleblower who got poisoned to death with polonium, was ex-FSB), but they're fighting a country that seems largely indifferent to the rolling catastrophe -- all collectively shrugging and grumbling that life is suffering, and there's nothing to be done, and at least they have a strong man in charge who will make their enemies run scared.
And making this scarier: the western press never covered any of this. My dim awareness of Russian politics perfectly reflected the Western press's dim awareness of Russian politics. Things started spiraling downwards in Russia at about the same time the Internet was making the Western news business implode. Agencies started closing their foreign offices. First on the chopping block: Russia. Because we all knew that Russia was turning itself around and entering a phase of bland, nascent democracy. If it bleeds, it leads, and Russia was apparently done with bleeding.
The scariest bit might have been the afterword.
After the 2012 completion of the book, and after some Kremlin-worrying rumblings of protest in Russia, Putin has found a sort of second life as a culture warrior. After massive Russian protests, he came out swinging against gays and lesbians in Russia, and started tripping all the usual conservative, hard-line social concerns. Suddenly he was whipping up genuine support in Russia. He was finding fellow travelers among the former Soviet states in Eastern Europe. And he was finding fellow travelers among American evangelicals.
In a way, the whole book is a way of tipping your point of view from "wait, why would Putin interfere with the US presidential race?" to "OF COURSE Putin would interfere with the US presidential race".
The book isn't great -- the translated prose doesn't really leap off the page, and a lot of the people it includes are sort of vaguely drawn -- but the story it tells is absolutely riveting. And it's at least a high-level view of what went down in Russia over the course of our lives -- and these days, that's information we all should have.
For next week: I'm watching the first season of Atlanta and reading the post-apocalyptic-Africa sci-fi novel Who Fears Death. On audio, I'm listening to an audiocourse about the history of food.