The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
Then President Vladimir Putin at a 2007 summit in the Russian spa town of Volhzsky Utes.
Photograph: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images
In an article for the website slon.ru, Alexander Baunov recently recalled an old Soviet joke about a dissident arrested for handing out blank pieces of paper on a city square. Asked why there's nothing written on the leaflets, he says: "Why bother? Everyone knows everything."
In today's Russia
, what is it, exactly, that everyone knows? When protesters denounce Vladimir Putin
's puppet political party, United Russia, as "the party of crooks and thieves
", who is it they're thinking of? For sure, they're addressing the mass of office holders and contractors feeding from the bribe-taking, deal-skimming, nepotistic money machine the Russian state has become. But who, in the party of crooks and thieves, is the chief thief?
The Russian protesters think they know. As a service to the rest of us, Masha Gessen makes their belief (which she shares) quite clear. It is one V Putin, prime minister of the Russian Federation, president of the country from the turn of the millennium to 2008, and likely winner of the presidential election on 4 March, which would give him six more years as head of state.
Russian government officials don't pretend the state isn't rotten; sometimes their cynical acceptance can be breathtaking. In an interview in El País
in October, Viktor Cherkesov, one of the ex-KGB goons from St Petersburg whom Putin brought to power, described the attitude of the man who was, until recently, his close associate. "Putin doesn't pay much attention to theft, because he reckons everyone steals," he said.
But Gessen's clear, brave book
makes a strong case that Putin is not merely turning a blind eye to embezzlement and skimming. He is, she asserts, an arch-practitioner. Gessen tracks down Marina Salye, one of the leaders of the democracy movement in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in the last years of the Soviet Union. Salye was a witness to the still-mysterious rise of Putin, in less than a decade, from low-ranking KGB nonentity to Kremlin master; she now lives in self-imposed internal exile in a near-dead village in the far Russian boondocks, afraid she knows too much.
Salye investigated Putin's work as head of the committee for external relations in the office of the Leningrad mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, just before and after the 1991 coup that precipitated the USSR's collapse. In those days Moscow, lacking money to support the basic functions of society, handed out chits to local authorities that gave them the power to grant export licences. The idea was that licensed Russian firms would export raw materials – oil, nickel, diamonds – in exchange for food and medicine, or the money to buy them.
According to Salye, Putin signed off on a billion dollars' worth of export licences. Less than one-tenth of that, $92m, was documented; although Putin was a trained lawyer, the contracts were legally invalid, the exporting firms were hand-picked by him, the commissions they earned averaged more than a third of the value of the contracts, and none of the food arrived. As for the other $900m, it simply disappeared. Salye recommended Putin's dismissal and a criminal investigation, but nothing happened and, six years later, she fled to the mud and silence of the deep Russian countryside in the face of a threat so terrifying that she refuses to tell Gessen what it was.
As editor of the Russian magazine Snob
, Gessen was one of the first to report the allegations of the businessman Sergei Kolesnikov that Putin had personal control of a nested set of Swiss companies, funded by millions of dollars creamed off charitable donations to buy medical equipment, which he was using to build an estate on the Black Sea coast. Pictures of the main building
published recently show a neo-baroque palace replete with ornate gold mouldings and bad paintings of hunting scenes.
Wondering how this squares with contradictory testimony of moments where Putin flaunts his honesty, Gessen recalls the bizarre moment in 2005 when Putin tried on a 124-diamond Super Bowl ring belonging to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and then literally pocketed it
. Perhaps, Gessen speculates, the Russian prime minister suffers not so much from kleptomania as pleonexia, "the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others… He compensates for his compulsion by creating the identity of an honest and incorruptible civil servant."
Of the three characteristics of the Putin years – pilfering, pettiness and poison – it is the last which stands out for the west. The assassination body count in general is high, and can't be tied directly to Putin. When poison replaces bullets, the suspicion of state involvement becomes higher. The dissident journalist Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned
before she was shot dead
(on Putin's birthday); the candidate Moscow wanted to lose Ukraine's 2004 election was poisoned with dioxin; Yuri Shchekochikhin, the liberal MP and investigative journalist, was poisoned and died; Gessen suggests that the death of Anatoly Sobchak may also have been poison.
With the case of a defector from the Russian secret service murdered on foreign soil, using an isotope of a radioactive metal called polonium only produced in tightly controlled conditions in Russian state factories, Gessen argues there is no room for doubt: Putin, she says, must have personally sanctioned the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko.
All this, incidentally, underlines the courage of Masha Gessen, born in the Soviet Union, emigrating with her family to the US when she was 14, and now raising a family of her own in Moscow. But both her book and the tenor of reports from Russia over the past years suggest that if Putin's power is challenged it will not be because his enemies die mysterious deaths but because the scale of the plundering he has enabled becomes intolerable.
In English, "crooks and thieves" sound like synonyms. In Russian, there's a subtle opposition. The word for thief, vor
, represents someone ruthless, strong, fair to those who don't cross him, personally generous, even patriotic, a muscular, wise, tattooed king of the underworld – a made man, the villain who's a diamond geezer. In the prison camps of the Stalin era, Putin's secret police predecessors worked with the criminal inmates, the community of thieves, to keep the political prisoners, the intellectuals, in check.
It's that image of the street-fighting, motherland-loving tough guy that Putin cultivates, and Gessen offers intriguing details of the scratching, biting, hair-tearing, undersized, brawling boy Putin, refusing to be bullied in the grubby back yards of Leningrad, nursing grievances. He remains proud of his youthful violence – he often picked fights in the street as a young KGB officer – and it's that yearning for noble vor
-like toughness that unites his obsession with posing stripped to the waist in PR
shots with his penchant for public displays of scatological menace – threatening to "wipe terrorists out in the toilet" or to have a French journalist castrated.
The other word, zhulik
, usually translated as "crook", is quite different: the zhulik
is mean, treacherous, a cheat, a sneaky hooligan, a small-time rip-off merchant of primitive appetites without loyalties or wisdom. Nobody, not even a vor
proud of his vorness, wants to be called a zhulik
. As Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Silvio Berlusconi and many others have found, the perceptive transition can be sudden and politically fatal. The man on the Volgograd trolleybus might support a tough, patriotic vor
long after the liberals of Moscow had marched against him, but not a shifty, swindling zhulik
only out for himself.