Paperback Review: The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, By Masha Gessen Granta £9.99

How the man of steel rose without trace

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The Independent Culture

Masha Gessen's excoriating biography tells the story of how Vladimir Putin, an undistinguished bureaucrat, became one of the world's most powerful men. Born in 1952, Putin scrapped and brawled on the streets of Leningrad, a "mean, hungry, impoverished place". After university he entered the KGB, but he was never entrusted with any great responsibility, and a posting to East Germany involved only desultory paper pushing. In 1990, he took a job as advisor to politician Anatoly Sobchak, and rose steadily through the ranks.

Gessen, a journalist who still lives in Moscow, argues vigorously that since he became president in 2000 Putin has systematically dismantled the nascent Russian democracy, presiding over a corrupt and murderous regime that resembles a "mafia clan". She charges that he has acted "in concert" with terrorists, and that he has sanctioned the intimidation (and worse) of journalists and political opponents.

This edition features a new afterword in which Gessen relates a recent encounter with the man himself. Summoned to Putin's gloomy Kremlin office, ostensibly to discuss her editorship of a science magazine, Gessen approaches the meeting with trepidation. But as Putin holds forth on the environment and cracks off-colour jokes, it dawns on Gessen that he has no idea that she has attacked him in print, and she escapes without censure. It is a heart-stopping anecdote that lends a note of personal drama to this astonishingly brave and eloquent book.