Telegraph: Vladimir Putin: ‘the godfather of a mafia clan’

February 25, 2012

The Moscow journalist Masha Gessen pulls no punches in her biography of Vladimir Putin, The Man Without a Face

The novelty matryoshka dolls that line the souvenir stalls around Moscow’s Red Square, along with the St Basil’s snow domes and the fake Red Army badges, provide a salutary insight into the ephemeral nature of fame and power.

Alongside the dolls depicting Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones and the Princess of Wales are portly, shining representations of such political leaders as George W Bush, Nicolas Sarkozy and, most bizarrely of all, Gordon Brown.

Russian politics is represented by a doll of the country’s president, the Black Sabbath fan Dmitry Medvedev. Nestling inside Medvedev are his predecessors in the post: Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin and Mikhael Gorbachev.

The chronology may be correct, but the symbolism is all wrong. In the four years that Medvedev has served as president he has been not so much matryoshka doll as puppet, in the shadow of Putin, nominally his prime minister, but the man who by iron rule has shaped Russia in his image over the past 12 years – the matryoshka doll in whom all Russia is contained.

It is a position that Putin has consolidated with a mixture of canniness and ruthlessness, and which he shows no sign of relinquishing. On March 4, having arranged with Medvedev to effectively change places, Putin will once again run in the election for the post of president. With opposition virtually non-existent, nobody expects him to lose. Having extended the presidential term from four to six years, Putin could occupy the post until 2024, making him the longest-lasting leader since Stalin.

Masha Gessen is not so sure. A Russian-born writer who grew up in America and now lives in Moscow, and the author of a new book about Putin, Gessen believes that even as he consolidates his power, Russia is seeing the first signs of the inevitable fall of what she describes as ‘this small and vengeful man’.

The tumultuous events of last December, when tens of thousands took to the streets of Moscow and cities across Russia in the biggest anti-government rallies since the fall of the Soviet Union, were the harbinger of what she describes as ‘a revolution’.

Putin will win the election. That, in itself, is not a mechanism for change, Gessen says, ‘because it’s not an election. But I think it will be a catalyst. I think it’s the beginning of the end for Putin. How long this process will last is hard to tell. But I think it is more likely to be a matter of months rather than years.’ She pauses. ‘At least, I hope so.’

Gessen’s book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, provides a compelling and exhaustive portrait of a man who rose without trace from being a minor KGB and St Petersburg bureaucrat to become what Gessen describes as ‘the godfather of a mafia clan’, who has amassed a personal fortune that in 2007 was estimated by one Kremlin insider to be $40 billion.

Read an extract from The Man Without a Face here

It is a brave journalist who undertakes to write a critical – not to say overtly hostile – biography of Putin, in a country where press freedom is severely circumscribed, self-censorship a useful survival mechanism, and where those who have written disobligingly about Putin and his close allies, or dug too deeply into the corruption endemic in Russian politics and business, have often come to grief. In her years as a journalist, Gessen herself has been threatened, intimidated and burgled.

I meet her in a smart coffee shop near her home in central Moscow. Gessen, who is gay, lives with her partner, Darya, a cartographer, and her two children, a 13-year-old son, Voya, whom Gessen adopted as a baby, and an 11-year-old daughter, Yael, born by artificial insemination. Darya is now expecting her first child. It is mid-morning, and the cafe is crowded with the young metropolitan elite, fashionably dressed and happy to pay £5 for a latte, chattering and smoking over their iPads and laptops.

Gessen, 45, is a slight, pale-looking woman with short dark hair, a hawkish profile and an earnest demeanour. She is wearing a black tailored suit jacket and blue jeans. Pinned to her lapel is the white ribbon that has become the symbol of protest against the Putin regime ever since the demonstrations in December.

The catalyst for the protests was alleged vote-rigging in the parliamentary elections on December 4, which were won by Putin’s United Russia party. But they spoke of a deeper anger about the concentration of wealth and political power in Putin’s Russia, and the pervasive corruption that accompanies it.

‘More basically,’ Gessen says, ‘it’s about dignity. Every time a Russian comes into contact with the state, whether it’s to get a driver’s licence or a licence for his business, it’s unpredictable and it’s profoundly humiliating. In that sense the election was almost a stand-in for that contact with the state. It’s humiliating to vote and then have your vote stolen in a blatant manner. In a way there’s nothing more humiliating. It’s saying: you don’t exist.’

Gessen was born in Moscow. Her father, Sasha, was a computer scientist, her mother, Yolochka, a translator and literary critic. In 1981, when Masha was 14, the family joined the growing exodus of Russian Jews, emigrating to America and settling in Boston. After starting and abandoning a degree in architecture, Gessen became a writer. In 1991, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, she returned to Russia on a magazine assignment, reporting on the country’s fledgling women’s movement. Over the next three years she would return frequently on stories, finally moving back in 1994 to take a job as chief correspondent on a news weekly, Itogi.

Moscow then, she says, ‘was the most exciting place in the world. Everything was in flux and every­thing was up for discussion. People were having serious discussions about the relationship between the individual and the state, how the media should be constructed, what the constitution should be. All of this was being seriously debated by any number of smart people, and you felt like you could have a place in the debate. It was amazing.’

Gessen went on to write on every aspect of the new Russia, including reporting on the war in Chechnya from beginning to end between 1994 and 1996, initially for Russian news magazines, latterly for American publications including the New York Times and Vanity Fair. She became a persistent critic of Putin and his regime.

‘I was trying to crusade in American journalism and write about Putin for a long time before it had become an accepted fact that he was not the democratic hope that he had originally been seen as,’ she says. ‘I remember in 2005 I was asked to write a piece about Putin as a threat to democracy. I said, you’ve missed the story – he’s not a threat, there is no democracy. And then I realised that the real story was to try and explain who this man was. Because really, nobody knew.’

Gessen argues that as the product of a highly secretive institution, the KGB, Putin has been able to control the details of his life, and shape his own mythology, more than almost any other modern politician – certainly any Western one.

Putin, she writes, was ‘a faceless man’ promoted by people who wanted to ‘invent’ a president. But that plan was subverted by the man himself and the secret-police apparatus that formed him and continues to sustain him. Rather than being the safeholder of a new era of democracy, as his sponsors had hoped, Putin has turned Russia into ‘a supersize model of the KGB’, where there can be no room for dissent or even independent action.

 Read the full version of the article on The Telegraph.