During December's parliamentary elections in Russia, Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia, suffered severe losses, while protesters took to the streets in response to perceived corruption. Putin jokingly referred to the symbolic white ribbons worn by many of the demonstrators as condoms. By mocking the protests, he attempted to downplay their importance. It is a tactic that has served him well in the past but may yet be his undoing.
Masha Gessen, a Moscow-based journalist and author, underlines Putin's propensity for crude humour throughout her courageous, enlightening account of his rise to power. It is part of the thuggish image that Putin has himself helped to create, she claims. His response to the 1999 terrorist bombings in Moscow and other cities was to promise brutal retribution: "We will hunt them down ... we will destroy them ... we will rub them out in the outhouse." This sort of rhetoric, "Putin's signature oratorical device", Gessen suggests, contributed to his initial popularity.
Putin was born in Leningrad in 1952, "a city of hunger, poverty, destruction, aggression and death". The Putins shared a makeshift kitchen and toilet with three other families. As a teenager, Putin's dream was to join the KGB but it wasn't until his fourth year of University that he achieved his ambition. After a few years in Dresden spent pushing papers, Putin returned to Leningrad.
Shortly afterwards, he was appointed a deputy under Anatoly Sobchak, a law professor and then chairman of Leningrad's city council, where he gained the necessary leverage to launch his own political career. President Boris Yeltsin made Putin deputy chief of presidential staff in 1997, and he swiftly gained prominence to become one of three deputy prime ministers in 1999.
Much of this biographical detail is already well known, but Gessen uses it as a springboard to explore early signs of Putin's ruthlessness. This began to reveal itself when he was working with Sobchak. Gessen's book claims that Putin's department had entered into a dozen lucrative contracts involving the export of natural resources in return for foodstuffs. But the food never arrived. Marina Salye, who took part in an investigation commissioned by the city legislative council, concluded that profits from the sale of public resources were being pocketed. No action was taken against Putin, and Salye, evidently terrified, fled to a remote village where she lives today. It took Gessen two years to persuade her to talk.
Several key events come under scrutiny in the book, including the 1999 series of bombings that abruptly stopped after explosives were found in an apartment block in Ryazan. When the FSB put out a story suggesting that the explosives had been part of a training exercise, journalists such as Gessen began to question whether the FSB had been behind the previous explosions, "intended to unite Russians in fear and in a desperate desire for a new ... aggressive leader who would spare no enemy".
As well as Putin's mishandling of the Kursk submarine disaster, in particular his lack of empathy for the victim's families, Gessen criticises the authorities' response to the 2002 Moscow Theatre hostage crisis. Special Forces had filled the theatre with gas, allowing them to enter the building where they summarily executed the terrorists. Despite declaring it a victory against terrorism, 129 people died – many choking on their own vomit. It later emerged that one of the terrorists, Khanpash Terkibaev, had escaped. The journalist Anna Politkovskaya (who was murdered in October 2006) met him, and he claimed to have been working for Moscow. Politkovskaya's editor, Yuri Shchekochikhin, uncovered more damning evidence: some of the women terrorists were convicted felons whose release could only have been secured by those with extra-legal powers. But before he could publish his story in 2003, Shchekochikhin died of organ failure caused by an unknown toxin.
Better known is the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who died in November 2006. He had also been investigating the FSB's involvement in the 1999 bombings and Moscow Theatre siege, and had accused Putin of ordering the murder of Polit-kovskaya. According to Gessen, "no other killing in the long line of murders of journalists and politicians has quite so clear-cut and obvious a story".
Building on these investigations, Gessen provides compelling evidence to support theories that during the Beslan Massacre and the theatre siege, "Russian troops acted in ways that maximised bloodshed; they actually aimed to multiply the fear and horror."
Few doubt that Putin will win the presidential election on 4 March but, as recent demonstrations suggest, Russians are significantly less in thrall to his authoritarian regime. Despite the suppression of the media and the murder of critics and political rivals, brave voices like Gessen's, and those before her, have helped shed some much needed light on Putin's "criminal tyranny".Reuse content