The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
Look out for Masha Gessen's new book, The Future is Histor y, coming October 2017
From journalism's bravest, Masha Gessen-whose regular appearances on Samantha Bee, Rachel Maddow, the pages of the New York Times , and more have been a beacon of clarity in our troubled times -- comes a portrait of a ruthless man's ascent to near-absolute power.
In 1999, the "Family" surrounding Boris Yeltsin went looking for a successor to the ailing and increasingly unpopular president. Vladimir Putin, with very little governmental or administrative experience-he'd been deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, and briefly, director of the secret police-nevertheless seemed the perfect choice: a "faceless" creature whom Yeltsin and his cronies could mold in their own image. Russia and an infatuated West were determined to see in him the progressive leader of their dreams-even as Putin, with ruthless efficiency, dismantled the country's media, wrested control and wealth from the business class, and destroyed the fragile mechanisms of democracy. Within a few brief years, virtually every obstacle to his unbridled control was removed and every opposing voice silenced, with political rivals and critics driven into exile or to the grave.
Masha Gessen has experienced and reported this history firsthand, and brings it up to its present moment of unrest and uncertainty. Her spellbinding account of Putin's rise and reign will stand as a classic of narrative nonfiction.
A Slate and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2012"[An] absorbing portrait... Gessen is most illuminating when she details the historical accidents that allowed an unexceptional bureaucrat to rule Russia." - The New Yorker "Part psychological profile, part conspiracy study... As a Moscow native who has written perceptively for both Russian and Western publications, Gessen knows the cultures and pathologies of Russia... [and has] a delicious command of the English language... A fiercely independent journalist... Gessen's armchair psychoanalysis of Putin is speculative. But it is a clever and sometimes convincing speculation, based on a close reading of Putin's own inadvertently revealing accounts of his life, and on interviews with people who knew Putin before he mattered." - The New York Times Book Review "In a country where journalists critical of the government have a way of meeting untimely deaths, Ms. Gessen has shown remarkable courage in researching and writing this unflinching indictment of the most powerful man in Russia... Although written before the recent protests erupted, the book helps to explain the anger and outrage driving that movement." - The Wall Street Journal"Thanks to her fearless reporting and acute psychological insights, Masha Gessen has done the impossible in writing a highly readable, compelling life of Russia's mysterious president-for-life." - Tina Brown, The Daily Beast "Powerful and gracefully written... Gessen's book flows on multiple tracks, tracing Putin's life back to boyhood, the story of his hometown of St. Petersburg, and finally the last quarter-century of Russian history... For all of the ghoulish detail, Gessen's account of Russia is not overwrought... [she] displays impressive control of her prose and her story, painting a portrait of a vile Putin without sounding polemical." - San Francisco Chronicle"Engrossing and insightful." - Bloomberg"Gessen shines a piercing light into every dark corner of Putin's story... Fascinating, hard-hitting reading." - Foreign Affairs"[An] incisive bildingsroman of Putin and his regime... Alongside an acute apprehension of the post-Soviet dynamics that facilitated Putin's rise, Gessen balances narratives of Putin-as-bureaucrat and Putin-as-kleptocrat with a wider indictment of the "Mafia clan" that retains him solely as its Godfather." - The Daily"Illuminating... Gessen sprinkles telltale signs of the Putin who would eventually emerge and rule Russia with an iron fist...It is with these explosive revelations that Gessen truly excels... [She] presents her case calmly, picking holes in Putin's character, his policies, and his rule without stooping to hysterical condemnation... an electrifying read from what can only be described as an incredibly brave writer." - Columbia Journalism Review"A chilling and brave work of nonfiction... Gessen has succeeded in convincingly portraying the forces that made Putin who he is today." - Bookpage"Although Gessen is enough of an outsider to write beautifully clear and eloquent English, she is enough of an insider to convey, accurately, the wild swings of emotions, the atmosphere of mad speculation, the paranoia, and, yes, the hysteria that pervade all political discussion and debate in Moscow today." - The New York Review of Books"What Gessen sees in Putin is a troubled childhood brawler who became a paper-pushing KGB man and, by improbable twists and turns, rose to the top in Russia... [She] does not attempt to weigh up Putin's record but rather examines his biography, mind-set and methods... as a thug loyal to the KGB and the empire it served who never had a clue about the Earth-shattering events that blew the Soviet Union apart." - The Washington Post"An eye opening story with all the drama and intrigue of a novel." - Popmatters"Written in English but with Russian heart, Gessen focuses on the places and institutions that bred the nation's most resolute leader since Stalin... Some mi
ON MAY 13, 2000, six days after he was inaugurated, Putin signed his first decree and proposed a set of bills, all of them aimed, as he stated, at "strengthening vertical power." They served as the beginning of a profound restructuring of Russia's federal composition, or, put another way, as the beginning of the dismantling of the country's democratic structures. One of the bills replaced elected members of the upper house of the parliament with appointed ones: two from each of Russia's
eighty-nine regions, one appointed by the governor of the region and one by the legislature. Another bill allowed elected governors to be removed from office on mere suspicion of wrongdoing, without a
court decision. The decree established seven presidential envoys to seven large territories of the country, each comprising about a dozen regions, each of which had its elected legislature and governor. The envoys, appointed by the president, would supervise the work of
The problem Putin was trying to address with these measures was real. In 1998, when Russia defaulted on its foreign debt and plummeted into a profound economic crisis, Moscow had given the
regions wide latitude in managing their budgets, collecting taxes, setting tariffs, and creating economic policies. For this and other reasons, the Russian Federation had become as loose as a structure can be while remaining, at least nominally, a single state. Because the problem was real, Russia's liberal politicians-who still believed Putin to be one of them-did not criticize his solution to it, even though it clearly contradicted the spirit and possibly also the letter of the 1993 constitution.
Putin appointed the seven envoys. Only two of them were civilians-and one of these very much appeared to have the biography of an undercover KGB agent. Two were KGB officers from Leningrad, one was a police general, and two more were army generals who had commanded the troops in Chechnya. So Putin appointed generals to watch over popularly elected governors-who could also now be removed by the federal government.
The lone voice against these new laws belonged to Boris Berezovsky, or, rather, to my old acquaintance Alex Goldfarb, the émigré former dissident who just a year earlier had been willing to be charmed by Putin. He authored a brilliant critique of the decree and the bills that was published under Berezovsky's byline in Kommersant , the popular daily newspaper Berezovsky owned. "I assert that the most important outcome of the Yeltsin presidency has been the change in mentality of millions of people: those who used to be slaves fully dependent on the will of their boss or the state became free people who depend only on themselves," he wrote. "In a democratic society, laws exist to protect individual freedom. . . . The legislation you have proposed will place severe limitations on the independence and civil freedoms of tens of thousands of top-level Russian politicians, forcing
them to take their bearings from a single person and follow his will. But we have been through this!"
No one took notice.
The bills sailed through the parliament. The installation of the envoys drew no protest. What happened next was exactly what Berezovsky's letter had predicted, and it went far beyond the legal
measures introduced by Putin. Something shifted, instantly and perceptibly, as though the sounds of the new/old Soviet/Russian national anthem had signaled the dawn of a new era for everyone. Soviet instincts, it seemed, kicked in all over the country, and the Soviet Union was instantly restored in spirit.
You could not quite measure the change. One brilliant Ph.D. student at Moscow University noticed that traditional ways of critiquing election practices, such as tallying up violations (these were on the increase-things like open voting and group voting became routine) or trying to document falsifications (
A chilling and unflinching portrait of one of the most fearsome figures in world politics. Boris Yeltsin and his cronies thought they could mold Vladimir Putin in their own image. But Putin, with ruthless efficiency, dismantled the country's media, wrested control and wealth from the business class, and destroyed the fragile mechanisms of democracy.