The Man Without a Face

By Masha Gessen

In a 2013 review of the book Strange Rebels by Christian Caryl, David Runciman had this to say about the author’s line-up of the four people who changed the world in 1979:

If you had told someone at the start of 1975 that the architects of the new age were going to be the MP for Finchley, the bishop of Krakow, the exiled ayatollah and the ostracised apparatchik, you would have been laughed at. Apart from anything, they looked so powerless. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we can’t yet spot who is going to make the difference this time round.

I was reminded of this in reading Masha Gessen’s account of the “unlikely rise” of Vladimir Putin. Five years before taking power as Russian president Putin was a little-known functionary in the government of Saint Petersburg. Five years before that he’d been a typical KGB loser stationed in East Germany. Like the Soviet Union itself, he seemed to be stuck in a rut going nowhere.

What happened?

That’s a hard question to answer, as much of Putin’s early political career is shrouded in mystery. The final step, however, his selection (one can’t say election) as president, seems to have been the result of the decisions of a group of people who underestimated him. He was seen as someone blank and dutiful: the perfect placeholder to manage the affairs of the new elite. He had other plans.

People don’t underestimate Putin as much these days, though he is still not well understood. In this account we can glean a few points. He hates democracy. He is very cynical about the media, seeing it either as a lying enemy or as a tool to be used to control the masses. He is greedy for the most vulgar material things. He likes to power trip. He is intelligent, but conceals it well behind a surprising vulgarity. Donald Trump, in his campaign for president, would express his admiration for Putin’s strength as a leader, but he probably recognized more familiar qualities as well. As Gessen concludes:

What had I learned? That the person I had described in this book – shallow, self-involved, not terribly perceptive, and apparently very poorly informed – was indeed the person running Russia, to the extent Russia was being run.

It’s hard not to draw the comparison. If you had told someone only a year before the American election that the next president would be the much-mocked billionaire host of a reality TV program you would have been laughed at. And yet, here we are.

Review first published online January 30, 2017.

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