Vladimir Putin attended a meeting of the Popular Front in...

Vladimir Putin attended a meeting of the Popular Front in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011. Credit: AP Photo/Alexei Druzhinin

THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen. Riverhead Books, 314 pp., $27.95.

 

More than 300 hostages -- half of them children -- were killed in a Beslan schoolhouse in 2004, following a firefight between their Chechen captors and Russian troops. Ten days later, President Vladimir Putin announced a sweeping overhaul of Russia's political system.

He declared that regional governors as well as the mayor of Moscow would be appointed by the president rather than elected. Members of the lower house of parliament would also be appointed. Political parties would have to reregister, making it all but impossible to get on a ballot without Kremlin approval.

The upshot of the changes was to undermine -- if not obliterate -- the quasifunctioning democracy that had taken root in Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, writes Moscow-based journalist Masha Gessen in her engrossing and insightful book, "The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin." From then on, the president would be the only directly elected federal-level public official.

After consolidating his power through eight years as president and four as prime minister, Putin was returned to the presidency on March 4 with about 64 percent of the vote. Having convinced his fellow lawmakers to increase the length of the presidential term to six years, Putin could head his country until 2024.

Gessen sees Putin as a man driven by control and vengeance, not ideology. The heartbreaking massacre at the Beslan schoolhouse is only one of a series of ghastly and, Gessen argues, suspicious events that enabled Putin to use fear to consolidate his hold on Russian society.

In 1999, just after Putin left the secret police to become prime minister, a series of explosions leveled entire apartment houses in several Russian cities. And in 2002, there was the three-day-long hostage-taking at Moscow's Dubrovka theater, which left 129 dead.

Gessen is not so reckless as to allege that Putin was somehow behind these events. She does charge, however, that "once the hostage-takings occurred, the government task forces acting under Putin's direct supervision did everything to ensure that the crises ended as horrifyingly as possible -- to justify continued warfare in Chechnya and further crackdowns on the media and the opposition in Russia."

Sprinkled through the book are stories of intimidation and murder. Lawmaker Sergei Yushenkov was shot dead in broad daylight while investigating the theater siege, dissident agent Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London by radiation poisoning and Yuri Shchekochikhin, an outspoken politician who had also been investigating the theater siege, died after ingesting an "unknown toxin."

Gessen came of age in the late 1980s as Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost, or openness, spawned groups of "informals" where people would talk about politics and social issues. While Russia was convulsing, Putin was a KGB functionary stationed in East Germany. In January 1990, he watched a crowd storm the Stasi building in Dresden. Putin told his biographer that he phoned the Russian military representatives, only to be told nothing could be done until they heard from Moscow, but that "Moscow is silent."

He felt abandoned, Gessen says. When he returned to Leningrad, the people he "and his colleagues had kept in check and in fear -- the dissidents, the almost-dissidents and the friends of friends of dissidents -- now acted as if they owned the city."

Putin spent much of the 1990s as a rising government official, first in St. Petersburg and later in Moscow, resenting the surge of the new democrats almost as much Russia's loss of world power and prestige.

Recalling the tone Putin set early in his presidency, Gessen observes that "Soviet instincts, it seemed, kicked in all over the country, and the Soviet Union was instantly restored in spirit."

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