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The Man Without a Face is the chilling account of how a low- level, small-minded KGB operative ascended to the Russian presidency and, in an astonishingly short time, destroyed years of progress and made his country once more a threat to her own people and to the world.
Handpicked as a successor by the "family" surrounding an ailing and increasingly unpopular Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin seemed like a perfect choice for the oligarchy to shape according to its own designs. Suddenly the boy who had stood in the shadows, dreaming of ruling the world, was a public figure, and his popularity soared. Russia and an infatuated West were determined to see the progressive leader of their dreams, even as he seized control of media, sent political rivals and critics into exile or to the grave, and smashed the country's fragile electoral system, concentrating power in the hands of his cronies.
As a journalist living in Moscow, Masha Gessen experienced this history firsthand, and for The Man Without a Face she has drawn on information and sources no other writer has tapped. Her account of how a "faceless" man maneuvered his way into absolute-and absolutely corrupt-power has the makings of a classic of narrative nonfiction.
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Masha Gessen is a Russian American journalist and the author, most recently, of the national bestseller The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. Her award-winning work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Moscow, Gessen now lives in New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 nearly impossible task) fell short of measuring such a seemingly ephemeral thing
as culture. Darya Oreshkina introduced the term “special electoral culture”— one in which elections, while formally free, are orchestrated by local authorities trying to curry favor with the federal center.
She identified their statistical symptoms, such as anomalously high voter turnouts and a strikingly high proportion of votes accrued by the leader of the race. She was able to show that over time, the
number of precincts where “special electoral culture” decided the outcome grew steadily, and grew fast. In other words, with every election at every level of government, Russians ceded to the authorities more of their power to decide. “Geography disappeared,” she said later—meaning, the entire country was turning into an undifferentiated managed space.
IN MARCH 2004, when Putin stood for reelection, he had five opponents. They had overcome extreme obstacles to join the race. A law that went into effect just before the campaigns launched required that a notary certify the presence and signature of every person present at a meeting at which a presidential candidate is nominated. Since the law required that a minimum of five hundred people attend such a meeting, the preliminaries took four to five hours; people had to arrive in the middle of the day to certify their presence so that the meeting could commence in the evening. After the meeting the potential candidate had a few weeks to collect two million signatures. The old law had required half as many signatures and allotted twice as much time to collect them; but more important, the new law specified the look of these signatures down to the comma. Hundreds
of thousands of signatures were thrown out by the Central Election Commission because of violations such as the use of “St. Petersburg” instead of “Saint Petersburg” or the failure to write out the words “building” or “apartment” in the address line.
One of Putin’s St. Petersburg city hall colleagues told me years later that during his tenure as Sobchak’s deputy, Putin had received “a powerful inoculation against the democratic process.” He and Sobchak had ultimately fallen victim to the democratic menace in St. Petersburg, and now that Putin was running the country, he was restoring the late-Soviet mechanisms of control: he was building a tyranny of bureaucracy. The Soviet bureaucracy had been so unwieldy, incomprehensible, and forbidding that one could function within it only by engaging in corruption, using either money or personal favors as currency. That made the system infinitely pliant—which is why “special electoral culture” functioned so well.
During the voting itself, international observers and Russian nongovernmental organizations documented a slew of violations, including: the deletion from the rolls of over a million very elderly
people and other unlikely voters (when I went to cast my vote, I was able to see that my eighty-four-year-old grandmother’s name was in fact missing from the list; my voting precinct was also, coincidentally, located next door to an office of the ruling United Russia party); the delivery of prefilled ballots to a psychiatric ward; precinct staff arriving at an elderly voter’s home with a mobile ballot box and leaving hastily when they saw that she was planning to vote for someone other than Putin; and managers and school officials telling staff or students’ parents that contracts or financing depended on their vote. In all likelihood, none of these steps was dictated directly by the Kremlin; rather, following renewed Soviet instincts, individuals did what they could for their president.
During the campaign, opposition candidates constantly encountered refusals to print their campaign material, air their commercials, or even rent them space for campaign events. Yana Dubeykovskaya,
who managed the campaign of nationalist-leftist economist Sergei Glazyev, told me that it took days to find a printing plant willing to accept Glazyev’s money. When the candidate tried to hold a campaign event in Yekaterinburg, the largest city in the Urals, the police suddenly kicked everyone out of the building, claiming there was a bomb threat. In Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s third-largest city, electricity was turned off when Glazyev was getting ready to speak—and every subsequent
campaign event in that city was held outdoors, since no one was willing to rent to the pariah candidate.
Around election time, I interviewed a distant acquaintance, the thirty-one-year-old deputy director of news programming on All-Russia State Television. Eight years earlier, Yevgeniy Revenko had
become the youngest reporter working at a national television channel, Gusinsky’s independent NTV. He had quickly become known as one of the more enterprising and dogged reporters. The way he worked now seemed to be very different. “A country like Russia needs the sort of television that can effectively deliver the government’s message,” he explained. “As the state grows stronger, it needs to convey its message directly, with no interpretations.” He described his channel’s editorial policy as a simple one: “We do show negative stories—we will report a disaster, if it occurs, for example—but we do not go looking for them. Nor do we go looking for positive stories, but we do focus the viewers’ attention on them. We never speculate about the reasons for something—say, an official’s fi ring—even if we happen to know the reason. All our information comes from official government statements. In any case, the logic is simple. We are a state television company. Our state is a presidential republic. That means we do not criticize the president.” Very occasionally, admitted Revenko over a mug of beer at an Irish pub in the center of Moscow, he felt he had to stifle his creative urge. “But I say to myself, ‘This is where I work.’” He grew up in a military family and had some military training himself. That clearly helped.
The late Soviet state had depended on using the many and punishing the few—and the KGB had been in charge of the latter. This system had been more or less restored now. While the vast majority enthusiastically fell in line, those who did not paid the price. Marina Litvinovich, the young woman who had helped create Putin and had urged him to go talk to the families of the Kursk crew, was now managing the campaign of his lone liberal opponent in the race, former parliament member Irina Khakamada, who had herself supported Putin four years earlier. During the campaign, Litvinovich got a phone call telling her, “We know where you live and where your child plays outside.” She hired a bodyguard for her three-year-old. She was also robbed and beaten. Yana Dubeykovskaya, Glazyev’s campaign manager, was also beaten and robbed, and once started driving her car before discovering that the brakes had been cut. A step down on the persecution ladder were apartment burglaries. In the months leading up to the election, opposition journalists and activists of Committee 2008—a group organizing to bring about a more fair election in four
years—had their apartments broken into. Often these burglaries occurred concurrently in different areas of Moscow. My own apartment was burglarized in February. The only things taken were a laptop computer, the hard drive from a desktop computer, and a cell phone.
On election night, Khakamada planned a great defeat party. Her campaign rented a spacious Southwestern-themed restaurant and splurged on a spread of salmon, lobster, artichokes, and an open bar. Popular music groups lined up at the microphone, and the country’s best-known rock journalist emceed. Nobody came. Waiters seemed to outnumber the guests, and the artichokes lingered. Still, the organizers continued to check all comers against a strict name list. Russian liberals were still struggling to come to terms with just how marginal they had become.
Watching the guests, I was thinking it was understandable that it had taken a while. Four years after putting Putin in office, the few liberals who had switched to the opposition still had personal connections to the many former liberals who remained part of the Russian political establishment. In a vacant dining room off the main hall, Marina Litvinovich perched at one end of a long empty oak table next to Andrei Bystritsky, deputy chairman of the Russian state television and radio conglomerate. Bystritsky, a red-bearded bon vivant in his mid-forties, complained about the wine. “The wine is no worse than our election results,” Litvinovich shot back. Bystritsky immediately ordered a hundred-dollar bottle of wine for the table, and then another. It seemed he had come to assuage his guilt. He assured anyone who would listen that he had voted for Khakamada and had even told his two hair-and-makeup people to vote for her. Of course, he had also run the campaign coverage that went out to about forty-five million Russian homes, and told them, over and over again, to vote for Putin. Seventy-one percent of the voters did.
I went to see Bystritsky in his office three days after the election. We had known each other a long time—in the mid-1990s he had been my editor at Itogi—so there was no point in pussyfooting around the main question.
“So tell me,” I said, “how do you conduct the propaganda of Putin’s regime?”
Bystritsky shrugged uncomfortably and busied himself with hospitable preliminaries. He offered me tea, cookies, chocolates, chocolate-covered marshmallows, and finally a CD with the collected speeches, photographs, and video footage of President Putin. The slipcover had five photographs of the president: serious, intense, impassioned, formal smiling, and informal smiling. The serious one had been reproduced widely: on Election Day alone, I came across it on the cover of school notebooks, on preframed portraits for sale at the Moscow Central Post Offi ce (a bargain at $1.50 for a letter-size picture), and on pink, white, and blue balloons for sale in Red Square. The sale of any of these items on voting day was a violation of election law.
“We don’t especially do any propaganda,” Bystritsky said, settling into a leather armchair. “Look at the election, for example.” Russian law left over from the nineties required media outlets to provide all candidates with equal access to viewers and readers. Bystritsky had his numbers ready, and it was funny math: the president, he claimed, had engaged in only one election activity—meeting with his campaign activists—and the twenty-nine-minute meeting was broadcast three times in its entirety during regular newscasts, which had to be extended to accommodate it. On every other day of the campaign, the state television channel also showed Putin during its newscasts—usually as the lead story—but these, Bystritsky explained, were not campaign activities but the stuff of the president’s day job. An exhaustive study conducted by the Russian Union of Journalists, on the other hand, concluded that Putin got about seven times as much news coverage on the state channel as did
either Khakamada or the Communist Party candidate; other candidates fared even worse. Coverage by the other state channel, the one that...
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