The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
by Masha Gessen
Riverhead, 314 pp., $27.95
On November 20, 1998, Galina Starovoitova, a member of the Russian parliament, was murdered in the stairwell of her St. Petersburg apartment building. In the weeks that followed, obituaries, articles, and tributes to her life poured forth from all over the world. Starovoitova, almost everyone agreed, was different from the Russian politicians of the past and different from her contemporaries too. She spoke differently, moved differently, thought differently. She was frank, she was energetic, and she seemed genuinely interested in improving people’s lives. “Everything she said seemed fresh,” wrote The Economist. “Unlike others, she did not compromise her principles as the political winds changed; she did not mix business with politics,” wrote The Independent.
To many Russians at the time, Starovoitova’s murder also seemed like an ill omen, maybe even a major turning point in Russian politics. “If at the beginning of the reforms there was an enthusiasm, an optimism, now something has changed,” one of the thousands of mourners at Starovoitova’s funeral told The New York Times. “This shows that in our society the process of intolerance to each other is developing. I think we are on the brink,” a liberal Russian parliamentarian told Ekho Moskvy, a Moscow radio station.
It was therefore not for reasons of sentiment that Masha Gessen chose to begin The Man Without a Face, her book about Putinism—the system both created by Vladimir Putin and embodied by him—with the death of Starovoitova. In November 1998 Gessen was a young journalist who had just returned to Russia after several years in America, and she had thrown herself into Moscow life with enthusiasm. She was personally close to Starovoitova (“Galina clearly felt motherly toward me,” she writes), but she also understood Starovoitova’s symbolic significance:
In a country where political role models ran from leather-jacketed commissar to decrepit apparatchik, Galina was trying to be an entirely new creature, a politician who was also a human.
For Gessen’s generation—liberal journalists, activists, and intellectuals in Moscow, mostly under the age of thirty when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991—Starovoitova represented the hope that Russia, and Russians, could change. Uncorrupt, unscripted, dedicated to serving her constituents, willing to speak honestly, able to laugh at her own flaws and foibles—perhaps if more politicians were like her, then Russia’s future really could be very different from the past. By contrast, her death represented the end of that hope. It also coincided with the beginning of Putin’s rise to power.
In fact, at the time of Starovoitova’s murder, Putin was not yet president of Russia. He had only recently been named head of the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB, and was just beginning to become a nationally known figure. Until then, most of his career had been passed in Dresden, East Germany, where he worked for the KGB, and in St. Petersburg where, Gessen believes, he continued working for the KGB, both while “studying” (he wrote a plagiarized thesis) and while serving as deputy to Anatoly Sobchak, the city’s flamboyant and rather opaque mayor in the tumultuous years between 1991 and 1996.
Though he hadn’t been in office very long, Putin had already begun to work on the FSB’s tarnished image, and the even more tarnished image of the KGB that had preceded it. He brought back the word “Chekist,” an old term for Lenin’s political police, coined in the 1920s, and used it with pride. He also initiated a minor cult of Yuri Andropov, the longest-serving KGB boss in Soviet history (1967–1982), as well as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, a post he held only briefly, in the year before his unexpected death in 1984. As FSB chief, Putin laid flowers on Andropov’s grave, and dedicated a plaque to his hero inside the Lubyanka, the KGB’s notorious Moscow headquarters. Later, as president, he ordered another plaque placed on the Moscow building where Andropov had lived and erected a statue to him in a St. Petersburg suburb.
But Putin wanted to restore more than Andropov’s name. He also, it seems, wanted to restore the old KGB boss’s way of thinking. Andropov, in Soviet terms, was a modernizer—but not a democrat. On the contrary, having been the Russian ambassador to Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Andropov understood very precisely the danger that “democrats” and other freethinking intellectuals posed to totalitarian regimes. He spent much of his KGB career stamping out dissident movements of various kinds, locking people in prison, expelling them from the USSR, and sending them to psychiatric hospitals, a form of punishment invented during his tenure.
At the same time, he understood, like everyone else in the KGB, that the Soviet Union was falling behind the West economically. At the time of his death he was seeking ways to solve that problem, and he’d come to the conclusion that the problem was one of order and discipline. Though some, in retrospect, believe he sought a “Chinese” path to reform—free markets and unfree politics—only one of his ideas was ever put into practice. This was the mass anti-alcohol campaign, which included everything from restricted vodka sales to the destruction of Moldovan vineyards, and it was carried out by one of his successors, Mikhail Gorbachev.
The anti-alcohol campaign was a disaster. Not only did it create sugar shortages—sugar being an ingredient used in homemade vodka—it may have unbalanced the budget, which had relied heavily on alcohol taxes. In any case, Gorbachev abandoned it, decided that more profound changes were necessary, and the rest is history. Nevertheless, nostalgia for Andropov remained widespread among the ex-KGB elite for a very long time. The idea that Andropov died “too early” was a sentiment common to many in the ranks of the former KGB, and some even saw a conspiracy in his premature death. “They got him before he finished the job,” one ex-officer told me wistfully in 2000, just after Putin became president for the first time.
But Putin had not only made his career in Andropov’s KGB, he also shared some similar experiences with the former secret police boss. As ambassador to Budapest, Andropov had been shocked when young Hungarians first called for democracy, then protested against the Communist establishment, and then took up arms against the regime, even lynching one or two secret policemen along the way. Putin had a similar experience in Dresden in 1989, where he witnessed mass street protests and the ransacking of the headquarters of the Stasi, the East German secret police. Both men drew the same conclusion: talk of democracy leads to protest, protest leads to attacks on the Chekists, better to stop all talk of democracy before it goes any further.
For Putin, and for those in his generation—twenty years older than Gessen, and as loyal to the old Soviet state as Gessen’s friends were to the idea of a “new Russia”—Starovoitova was not, therefore, a happy harbinger of a better future. On the contrary, she was exactly the kind of person who threatened the social order. Putin understood very well the threat that uncorrupt, unscripted politicians had posed to the KGB. By 1991, he also understood very well the threat that uncorrupt, unscripted politicians posed to the secret business empires then being created by the former KGB.
Gessen does not suggest that Putin killed Starovoitova. In fact, she never found out who killed Starovoitova. The two men eventually convicted of the murder were just hired hands. As Gessen writes, “It was impossible to determine what had gotten Starovoitova killed, precisely because her standing as an enemy of the system had made here a marked woman, a doomed one.” But her friend’s death did lead her to explore, as a reporter, the secret police milieu from which Putin had emerged, and within which there were so many people who might have wanted Starovoitova out of the way.
Her book, although focused on Putin and his rise to power, is at heart a description of this secret police milieu. Born in Andropov’s KGB, it subsequently gave rise to the Russian business and political elite, while never losing the deeply cynical worldview and twisted morality of the Soviet secret police. Putin did not bring this elite to power. On the contrary, it was already in place by the end of Boris Yeltsin’s first presidential term in 1996, by which time Yeltsin, not Putin, had already restored many of the powers and privileges of the security services, and Yeltsin, not Putin, had overseen the redistribution of Russia’s natural resources to a tiny group of insiders. But as Yeltsin’s health declined, some of these insiders began to look around for a trustworthy successor who would look after their interests, and Putin seemed to have all of the right qualities.
To illustrate the nature of Russia’s new ruling class, Gessen provides portraits of several major and minor characters who have functioned within and around it since the 1990s. They include Mayor Sobchak, a friend and mentor to both Putin and his sidekick, ex-president Dmitri Medvedev; Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch—a former mathematician and engineer—who, by his own account, introduced Putin to Yeltsin, and thus facilitated his rise to power; Andrei Bystritsky, the Russian state television executive who was one of the chief propagandists for the Putin reelection campaign in 2004; and Alexander Litvinenko, the FSB officer murdered by radiation poisoning in London in 2006, after attempting to expose corruption in the FSB. She investigates Putin’s role in the botched KGB coup attempt of 1991, in the terrorist attack on a Moscow theater in 2002, and in the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil oligarch who was arrested in 2003 after becoming too critical of Putin, and who remains in prison almost ten years later, following a series of what can only be called show trials.
In some ways the most intriguing of all Gessen’s characters—with the exception, of course, of Putin himself—is Marina Salye, a liberal St. Petersburg politician who was chairwoman of the Leningrad City Council’s committee on food supplies in 1991 (and who died at age seventy-seven on March 21 of this year). At that time, Sobchak was the mayor, Putin was his deputy, and Leningrad, now renamed St. Petersburg, ran out of food. The Soviet economic system was imploding, there had been a tobacco riot and a sugar riot, and the city council negotiated the purchase of several trainloads of meat and potatoes. Salye was sent to Berlin to sign the contracts, as Gessen relates:
“And when we get there,” Salye told me years later, still outraged, “and this Frau Rudolf with whom we were supposed to meet, she tells us she can’t see us because she is involved in urgent negotiations with the City of Leningrad on the subject of meat imports. Our eyes are popping out. Because we are the City of Leningrad, and we are there on the subject of meat imports!”