What an eye-opening book.
Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Riverhead Books, 2013) is a biography that pulls no punches on President Vladimir Putin’s unprecedented and unexpected control of Russia. The title and cover alone is intriguing enough to get you interested. Although a former KGB officer during the Cold War and director of the FSB (the KGB’s successor) for less than a year at the end of the century, Putin was relatively unknown before entering the international spotlight as President.
“Who is Putin?” many diplomats, journalists, and politicians asked Russia after his ascension to the presidency in 2000. The answer? Well, there really wasn’t one. Nobody knew who he was. Russia scrambled to put out an interview-biography of Putin (which I will be reviewing soon) to answer this question, but that hardly helped.
“Who is Putin?” This is what Gessen wants to answer. And she offers a fuller picture than any other work. She examines the period of Putin’s childhood, how he boasts about growing up a poor, though tough and no-nonsense, kid in Leningrad; Gessen examines how Putin we know today was shaped by opportunities and idealism as a KGB officer, and after the fall of the Soviet Union. She continues, to the present day, on how the personality cult of Putin has reformed the image of Russia after the disastrous terms of President Boris Yeltsin.
Gessen really puts in perspective the culture that shaped Putin, and, in later years, the culture that Putin shaped. Nationalism is on the rise in Russia, something that no one would have expected after the economically and technologically-stunted phase in the 1990s.
All this being said, this is not a book that anyone can jump in to. If you know nothing of recent Russian history, then this book would seem, at best, tedious and hard to understand. There are numerous names, cities, and effects during many events, including the fall and attempted coup of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin’s resignation, the Chechen Wars, the Moscow city bombings, and so on. This could get overwhelming and lost to someone who does not have a passing understanding of these events. Gessen is a journalist, which explains why this book is written more in a journalistic manner and less in a narrative or “story-telling” manner. However, even with a basic interest or knowledge of Russia’s politics, this minor point is irrelevant.
The Man Without a Face is an essential read for anyone that wants to know who Putin is in hindsight of his foreign and domestic policies (something his Russian biography could not predict). This work is especially relevant today with Russia’s ascendancy in global order. A recent poll showed that President Putin has a 90% approval rating, an all-time high. Therefore, in order to understand Russia, you need to understand Putin. There is no other book that can offer this with such an eye-opening, detailed account of the President’s mind and actions.