With Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin again about to assume Russia's presidency (for the next six, and possibly 12, years), Masha Gessen's new biography is especially timely.
But, contrary to the publicity surrounding the book, it is not full of startling new revelations. And the author, a Russian journalist who emigrated to the United States as an adolescent and then returned to her homeland in 1991, places herself so much in the narrative (she hears important political news when driving her kids to school) that it detracts from the authoritative tone one might expect on such a serious topic.
As the title suggests, Gessen's portrait of Putin is far from flattering. In addition to describing him as "a small and vengeful man" and a "thug," she accuses him point-blank of ordering the 2006 killing of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London of polonium poisoning.
She also claims that the FSB, the state security agency controlled tightly by Putin, was behind the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia that killed more than 300 people, and that in the two infamous and tragic hostage situations – Moscow in 2002 and Beslan in 2004 – "Putin and the terrorists acted in concert" to maximize bloodshed.
Gessen is voicing suspicions that many observers within and outside Russia (myself included) have expressed about these events. But because she provides no new documentation, her accusations, however tempting to agree with, remain in the realm of speculation.
Gessen provides a colourful account of Putin's early life and career (he was a schoolyard bully from Leningrad who had a hard time controlling his temper, and was an undistinguished student), but much of the detail has been available for a long time. She draws extensively on First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President, which appeared in Russian and was translated into English shortly after he first became president in 2000, as well as on a well-known Russian biography by Oleg Blotsky, published 10 years ago.
In fairness to Gessen, Putin and his handlers keep his past and his private life deeply secret. We do not know, for example, why his wife, Lyudmila, suddenly disappeared from public view a year and a half ago. (When a foreign reporter asked Putin about her absence a couple of days before the presidential elections, he responded defensively that his family should be "left in peace." Then, on voting day, March 4, Mrs. Putin unexpectedly showed up with her husband at the polling station, appearing less than enthusiastic.)
Gessen mentions that in 1996, Putin (already working under Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin) defended a doctoral dissertation on the economics of natural resources "at St. Petersburg's little-known Mountain Institute rather than the university." In fact, the institute in question is the prestigious St. Petersburg State Mining Institute and Technical University, founded in 1773.
Although Gessen notes, rightly, that significant chunks of Putin's dissertation were plagiarized, she fails to add that his sponsor for the dissertation, Vladimir Litvinenko, became rector of the Mining Institute in 2005 and recently headed Putin's re-election campaign in St. Petersburg. Significantly, Litvinenko now owns $260-million (U.S.) worth of shares in a phosphate mine in the Arctic that used to belong partly to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos company owner imprisoned by the Kremlin in 2003 (all part of a picture of the huge kleptocracy that has emerged under Putin).
As with his private life, Putin's personal finances are shrouded in mystery, although he is reputed to be worth billions. Gessen explains his corrupt financial dealings when he worked under St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the 1990s. She also discusses the palatial Black Sea mansion reportedly built for Putin by his wealthy friends, citing an interview last June that she had with a former St. Petersburg businessman, Sergey Kolesnikov, who fled Russia in 2009. (In fact, the story of "Putin's Palace" has been known publicly ever since Kolesnikov wrote an open letter to President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, describing the construction and the secret funding of the palace.) Kolesnikov was part of a group of Putin's acquaintances, relatives and former colleagues from St. Petersburg who have become billionaires since he came to power.
Gessen takes us over the well-known milestones of Putin's first presidential term, beginning with the tragic sinking in 2000 of the submarine Kursk, to which his response was cynical and uncaring. But she devotes little attention to events of later years or to the relationship between Putin and Medvedev, who have been a leadership team since early 2008.
She also fails to mention a key figure in Kremlin politics over the past decade, Alexei Kudrin, who worked with Putin in St. Petersburg and was responsible for getting Putin his Kremlin job in 1996. Kudrin, who became Putin's influential finance minister in 2001, is highly respected in both Russia and the West and thought of as a liberal. He abruptly resigned last September, creating an embarrassing political scandal for the Kremlin, after Putin's announcement that he would run for president, and has emerged as a quasi-Kremlin critic.
As Gessen makes clear, Vladimir Putin is corrupt and ruthless, and determined to stay in power for as long as possible by whatever means necessary. What we need to understand better is the attitude of the Kremlin elite (elements of which see the need for democratic change) and the general public toward Putin. How much longer will Russians put up with the "Man Without a Face?"
Amy Knight, whose most recent book is How The Cold War Began: The Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies, writes a blog on Russia for the New York Review of Books.