Granta, £20, 314pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, By Masha Gessen

 

This book is one of a crop of histories and biographies commissioned to appear as Vladimir Putin prepared either to bow out of, or back in to, the Russian presidency, following next month's elections. And Masha Gessen, like most of her fellow authors, was wrong-footed. Not in her judgement of Putin - his decision to stand for the presidency chimes well with her generally negative analysis – but in her assessment of Russia. The negative response of many Russians to Putin's announcement, and the street protests that erupted after parliamentary elections in December, showed that whether Putin returns to the Kremlin or not, the Russia he presides over will be different from the one he led as president between 2000 and 2008, and require him to change, too – if he can.

Gessen copes with this unforeseen change of climate with an epilogue, "A week in December". She recounts events as she lived them, and describes how her own generation of thirty- and forty-somethings – cynical and hitherto mostly apolitical - "found" politics after 12 years of Putinism and almost 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gessen's epilogue is a worthy conclusion to a book that is part-personal memoir, part-political and social history and part-polemic, but whose distinction lies in the strength of her own voice and those of her contemporaries. In relying on their testimony, and her own sensibilities, Gessen conveys the atmosphere - whether of the last months of the Soviet Union, the chaotic years of Yeltsin, the strange transfer of the presidency to Putin or the disappointments of his period - more accurately than any recent chronicler of the period.

As a reporter, she excels: one of very few contemporary writers in English on Russia with a claim to be bicultural. Having left Soviet Russia with her family at the age of 14, she returned as a reporter when the Soviet Union was collapsing – and understood what she was seeing. The unhappy history of 20th-century Russia is her family's history, too.

Well-connected in St Petersburg, she offers a non-Moscow perspective that is a valuable corrective to Moscow-centric reporting. Putin's roots (and his secrets, if he has them) are more likely to be buried in Russia's second city than in the capital.

Gessen is most interesting when she diverges from received wisdom. Her opinion of St Petersburg's perestroika-era mayor, Anatoli Sobchak, widely seen as a beacon of democracy, is deeply unflattering. She sees him as vain, demagogic and compromised, not least in hedging his bets during the 1991 coup. She also offers a view of the murdered investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, that falls short of the hagiographies that abound in some Russian circles.

On the other side, she is more trusting and less critical than many would be of the media oligarchs of the 1990s – including Vladimir Gusinsky, who founded the NTV television channel, and Boris Berezovsky, now in exile in London. This may reflect the professional debt she perhaps feels towards men whose wealth allowed a new generation of Russian journalists to benefit from the relative intellectual freedom of the 1990s. But it also seems to feed into her generally negative view of Putin.

I say generally negative, because her early chapters depict the Russian politician I recognise: the ascetic, incorruptible, buttoned-up Putin, who bears grudges and occasionally erupts in ferocious anger. Her President Putin, in contrast, is an incompetent, heartless, venal and personally acquisitive leader who bears ultimate responsibility for every reversal on his watch, from the Kursk submarine disaster, through the Beslan school tragedy, the Moscow theatre siege and the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London.

Trying to reconcile these two Putins, Gessen resorts to pop psychology, which sits uncomfortably with her down-to-earth approach. While she was unlucky that her central thesis – that Putin took Russians back to Soviet times, with mostly willing acquiescence – looks less convincing in the light of the December protests, this does not negate the great merit of her book. That is not its judgements, but its reporting: her ability to tell history how it was.

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