Vladimir’s Tale

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin; drawing by John Springs

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…

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