Masha Gessen Takes on Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency of Russia for the third time last March. The next day, journalist Masha Gessen posted a powerfully revealing entry on her weekly New York Times blog about the difficulties Russia’s protest movement would face were it to succeed in ending Putin’s now 12-year reign. Gessen commented on the fear that nationalism may be the most potent force to emerge in the absence of a strong civil society, a vacuum created by Putin’s own systematic destruction of fledging democratic institutions. Already, certain liberal values and non-mainstream identities are shunned by those in the anti-Putin protests who fear that they will discredit the movement. Gessen wrote, “Our revolution has not yet won and fellow organizers have already on occasion asked me to keep my lesbian, Jewish, and American-passported self off the front pages.”

Masha Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Penguin), immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1981 when she was a teenager. She returned to Moscow in 1991 as a journalist and human rights activist, and moved permanently to Moscow a few years later. Her own unorthodox biography makes Gessen seem, to some, an unlikely revolutionary in the Russian context.

To this end, Gessen views talking about her personal life in public, as difficult as it is, as a necessity in the face of growing intolerance in Russia. On the one hand, she told Lilith in an interview, even if she wanted to keep silent about her sexual orientation it would probably be discovered and then used to blackmail her. The Putin government has in the past manufactured scandals of a sexual nature to discredit members of the opposition, and a notably homophobic society could be susceptible to leaders who seek to discredit opponents. To be open about her personal life is to begin the process of normalizing sexual and ethnic identities that veer from the predominantly conservative mold and to incorporate such issues as gay rights into the larger civil rights discourse.

Earlier this year, Gessen taped a series of brief television appearances, dubbed “sermons,” for TV Rain, the only liberal channel broadcasting in Moscow. In one of these sermons, Gessen, standing against a dimly lit and foggy background dressed in black, looks determined as she flips through a series of photographs: one of her son, adopted at age two; another of the daughter she gave birth to a year later; and others of the baby her partner gave birth to earlier this year. Some, familiar with her outspokenness, have accused her of propagating “the superiority of the homosexual lifestyle over the traditional one.” A law prohibiting such “propaganda” to minors was recently passed in St. Petersburg and a number of other Russian cities. Such laws, Gessen says in her televised sermon, aim to penalize a family like hers — nonsensically — for “propagating” itself to its children. Being a lesbian is as essential to her identity as being a Jew. To be accused of propagating homosexuality, she noted elsewhere with her usual wit, would therefore be akin to being accused of propagating Jewishness — simply by virtue of being herself.
Gessen’s commitment to LGBT rights for over two decades is part of her larger involvement in civil rights activism. I first met her at the large anti-government demonstration (80,000-100,000 people by some estimates) in Moscow on May 6, 2012 — one in a series of recent protests in Moscow that were the largest since the demonstrations at the end of the Soviet period. The demonstration united groups with diverse political views, from liberal intellectuals to nationalists and everything in between, around their opposition to Putin’s inauguration the next morning. The demonstration had a sizeable LGBT contingent — evidence, Gessen pointed out to me, that gay rights are very slowly being incorporated into the larger struggle for political and civic freedoms.

The proponents of gay rights marched in that demonstration with a giant banner that read, in English, “Start the Pussy Riot.” The reference is to the Russian feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot, three members of which were, at the time of the demonstration, held in jail and were put on trial for staging a political performance in the main cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church; they have now received two-year sentences. “As unlikely as this may seem at first glance, this is the case that may determine Russia’s future,” Gessen wrote in The Guardian, arguing that the trial has demonstrated to the world that Russia can no longer pretend to be a democracy.

Gessen has helped organize and facilitate many of the protest activities in Moscow, following the parliamentary elections in December 2011 and presidential elections in March 2012, both of which were generally acknowledged to have been rigged. There was a lot of will to be out in the streets, she felt, but no actual organizing on the street itself. Her response was to set up the Protest Workshop, a kind of clearinghouse of ideas for protest actions. At a typical meeting, as participants took turns relaying their ideas and concerns, those who found a cause that interested them were encouraged to seek out the speakers just outside the meeting area and begin turning ideas into thought-out plans of action.

Gessen devotes the epilogue of her decidedly unauthorized biography of Putin to these protests, which began just two and a half months before the book’s publication. She writes in a personal tone of her initial hesitancy about leaving her then-pregnant partner at home while she herself could have been arrested, and then experiencing her fear dissipate when she saw that the protests, despite a decade-long virtual ban on unauthorized public assembly, were starting to snowball into a potent, if loosely defined, force for change.

Gessen’s biography of Putin was written in English, and, like all her previous five books, has yet to appear in Russian. The Man Without a Face is a highly readable telling, not just of Putin’s story but also of Russian history of the past 20 or so years, from the time of Perestroika through the winter of 2011.

Gessen takes a new look at the history of civic activism in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the waning days of the Soviet Union, Putin’s potential role in the August 1991 coup that caused the eventual unseating of Mikhail Gorbachev as the President of the U.S.S.R. and the demise of the Soviet Union itself, and at Putin’s likely involvement in the series of apartment bombings that rocked Russia shortly after Putin was appointed Prime Minister in 1999. With the help of several high-profile witnesses, Gessen recounts key events of Putin’s reign, including the murders of politicians Galina Starovoitova and Yuri Shchekochikhin, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and ex-spy Alexander Letvinenko; the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000 and the hostage-taking crises in Moscow in 2002 and Beslan in 2004; the takeover of independent media and the case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, among others. Gessen’s story of Putin’s work in the Leningrad city government is particularly compelling: it involves the narrative of one purchase of 92 million Deutschmarks’ worth of meat that never arrived in Leningrad, and reads like a hair-raising mystery novel.

In her new book, Gessen pieces together the life of a faceless bureaucrat who accidentally ascended to the presidency of Russia and, in the process, discovered an authoritarian streak in himself coupled with an insatiable appetite for wealth. “The only thing smaller than the pool of candidates seems to have been the list of qualifications required of them,” Gessen writes of the 1999 attempts to identify a successor to Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s ailing and unpopular president. Vladimir Putin — “a small guy in every sense” as Gessen quipped to Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” — was chosen, because it seemed that he would be easy to manipulate by those close to Yeltsin.

Putin’s past is veiled in secrecy; he spent most of his adult life as a low-level bureaucrat at the KGB, an organization not known for openness. As a result, Gessen relies heavily on a few anecdotes from an earlier, quickly written, authorized biography assembled in 2000 by a group of journalists hired by Putin’s image-makers. One of the stories that Gessen is after, then, is the political implications of Putin’s self-presentation. In his official biography, for example, Putin chose to describe himself as a young street bully who couldn’t quit a fight without knowing he was the clear winner. Gessen creates a narrative arc that connects this self-described boyhood thuggishness to Putin’s style as a politician, for whom personal offenses cannot be forgiven or forgotten.

Gessen’s questions about Putin’s early days in government service invite the conclusion that access to money during that time was the beginning of Putin’s acquiring what is rumored to be a vast personal fortune. Gessen also cites a few colorful, if bizarre, examples of a kind of kleptomania (Putin appropriated a $300 bottle of vodka shaped, gaudily, like a Kalashnikov rifle that someone had given to the Guggenheim museum as a gift when he was a guest there in 2005) and diagnoses Putin as having “exotic pleonexia, the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.” In describing the government’s case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil oligarch who disappointed Putin by supporting humanitarian causes and opposition parties, Gessen suggests that Putin’s desire to possess Khodorkovsky’s wealth may have spurred him to keep the entrepreneur in jail while those close to Putin sliced up his very successful oil company, Yukos.

There does seem to be a contradiction in Gessen’s book. While presenting Putin’s narrative as a partially invented story used for the nascent leader’s self-creation, she also relies upon it heavily to understand parts of his personality. Is Putin, as he appears in Gessen’s rendering, a kind of Golem who evolved into more of a monstrosity than his creators — the members of the oligarchy that replaced the Soviet system — intended? Or is he — and does he remain — a product of a larger system more than its sole enabler?

Gessen is justifiably vengeful toward Putin’s alleged complicity in the murder of some of her colleagues and friends, and for scaling back civic liberties and freedom of the press. Gessen, who has also authored books on popular science, was fired on September 1, 2012, from her position as editor in chief of Vokrug Sveta (Around the World), Russia’s oldest continuous journal. (Putin heads the Board of Trustees of the Russian Geographical Society, which only recently became an official partner of the journal.) Aligning with a pattern of censorship she herself has identified, Gessen was fired after refusing to send one of her journalists to cover Putin’s latest publicity stunt involving a combination of wildlife and displays of machismo: flying with a group of endangered cranes to lead them on their seasonal migration. Reacting to the news of her dismissal, a mutual friend suggested that someone in the Putin administration must finally have actually read Gessen’s book — with the help of a dictionary.

Yet Putin himself, despite — or perhaps in addition to — the authoritarian tendencies that Gessen identifies, remains a figurehead of the financial system that is much larger than he is. She risks elevating a single biography far above the circumstances — largely economic in nature — permitted to this historical actor by the larger forces that enabled his arrival on the scene in the first place. Putin was elevated to power to protect the interests of those in Yeltsin’s inner circle who abused the privatization process in the 1990s for the construction of vast personal fortunes. When some of them sponsored social and political projects that contradicted Putin, a new cohort of people aligned with Putin was elevated to the inner circle of the oligarchy that controls all resources of the Russian state. Even if Putin wanted to step down, how could he now do so without jeopardizing his own wealth and security, unless he first guaranteed the continued access to wealth of those who have enriched themselves throughout his reign?

As an activist, Gessen recognizes that Russia’s problems are vaster than the persona of Vladimir Putin alone. This summer she began laying the groundwork for discussions on what to do if protests succeed in helping remove Putin from power. She is building on the experience of 1991, when hopes for a democratic system of governance quickly gave way to the oligarchy, which eventually produced Putin himself. The motivation behind such discussions, which will be structured as public hearings, is apparent in the group’s working name: “How Not to Fuck Up the Revolution” (in Russian, colorful with its swear words, the title idiomatically refers to a different bodily function). Not fucking it up, it seems, depends on a timely realization that anger at Putin, however deserved, would be a misplaced use of energies if the larger structural problems of the system of which Putin is a part remain unaddressed. We should all hope — despite a history that cautions us otherwise, and the steep deterioration of the political situation in the months since her biography of Putin was published — that Masha Gessen will soon have material for a new book on Russia’s first successful opposition movement.  

Sasha Senderovich is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian and East European Studies at Lafayette College.