Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, Poisoner of Underpants, Autocrat of Some of the Russias, in Gessen’s reckoning probably the son of a secret policeman, was born in Leningrad in 1952. Like any proper villain — but also like anyone born in that place in that year — he has a tragic backstory. Hitler’s army completed its encirclement of Leningrad on September 8, 1941, and the siege continued for 872 days. More than a million civilians died during the blockade of the city, vast numbers from disease and starvation. Putin’s parents’ first child was one of them; a second son had died in infancy before the war. Putin’s father was seriously wounded and discharged from the army. His mother nearly died of starvation during the siege.
People who grow up in the shadow of great trauma react in many different ways. Putin, even according to authorized biographies, grew up a wild fighter with barely contained anger and a determination never to be humiliated. He didn’t grow out of it. “Putin, it would appear, reacted to the barest provocation by getting into a street brawl—risking his KGB career, which would have been derailed had he been detained for the fight or even so much as noticed by the police. Whether or not the stories are exactly true, it is notable that Putin has painted himself—and allowed himself to be painted by others—as a consistently rash, physically violent man with a barely containable temper.” (p. 51)
Putin grew up in the era of cosmonauts and decided he wanted to be a KGB man. Gessen details why it’s likely that Putin cam from a spy family, and his eventual application of self-discipline to make it into that organization. In the waning years of the Soviet Union, that organization also grew bloated and less effective, with many in its ranks looking for the main chance. Putin was no stranger to this competition, and he finally achieved a prized opportunity: posting abroad. Unfortunately for his ambition, he landed in East Germany, in Dresden. He was still there in 1989 as protests swelled into revolution, with East Germans no longer cowed by the Stasi or their KGB masters. As protesters moved to take over the Stasi offices, Putin made the easy deduction. Geert Mak, a Dutch journalist, writes “Meanwhile, an unknown KGB agent in Dresden, Vladimir Putin, had tried to pile so many documents into a burning stove that the thing exploded.” (In Europe, p. 718)
The freedom that so worried Putin looked different to others. “‘The people of our generation saw only a dead end ahead: if you did not escape, you’d face degradation,’ Yelena Zelinskaya recalled twenty years later. … ‘We could no longer breathe among the lies, the hypocrisy, and the stupidity. There was no fear. And as soon as the first rays of light seemed to break through—as soon as people whose hands had been tied were allowed to move at least a few fingers—people started to move. People weren’t thinking about money, or about improving their standing in life, all anyone thought about was freedom. Freedom to conduct your private life as you wish, freedom to travel and see the world. Freedom from hypocrisy and the freedom not to listen to hypocrisy; freedom from libel, freedom from feeling ashamed for one’s parents, freedom from the vicious lies in which all of us were submerged as if in molasses.'” (pp. 74–75)
Gessen details the heady days as the first rays of light grew stronger — and the efforts of the old system’s defenders to dampen them. Soon after, Gessen tells of how Putin appeared as a deputy to Anatoly Sobchak who was both the first democratically elected mayor of St Petersburg and a man with little patience for democracy itself. Gessen knows many of the players from that era personally, and argues strongly that Sobchak was playing both sides all the while: maintaining democratic appearances but also ensuring that he had sufficient backing from the military (which was particularly strong in the city) and the more shadowy services.
“‘But wasn’t [Sobchak] acting just like some regional party boss?’ I asked [Marina Salye, an early activist and member of Leningrad’s first elected city council]. ‘They were always giving away apartment.’
“‘This was different,’ said Salye. ‘It was different because [Sobchak] talked a good line. He knew he had to present a different exterior, and he succeeded in doing this. He played the democrat when he was really a demagogue.’
“Perhaps because Sobchak was so good at projecting the image of a new kind of politician, Salye and her colleagues seem to have believed he would take action when presented with evidence of Putin’s wrongdoing. But why should he have? Why would he have drawn a line between between his own habits of handing out city property and Putin’s ways of pocketing profits from the sale of public resources? Why should he have listened to the democrats in the city council at all? He could not stand them—and what irked him most was precisely their militant idealism, their absurd insistence on doing things as they should be done rather than as they had always been done. This adherence to an imaginary ethical code invariably got in the way of doing things at all.
“So Sobchak did not get rid of Putin. Instead, he got rid of the city council.” (p. 125)
Marina Salye was one of a kind, but intellectually and morally kin to others who came into their own under late communism in Central and Eastern Europe. She trained and worked as a geologist, and took the opportunities offered by glasnost to live in something closer to truth, and to lead her fellows, citizens for the first time in decades, towards a better common life. Kindred spirits like Vaclav Havel or Arpad Göncz led their countries closer to European ideals. Others, like Vaclav Klaus or Vladimir Meciar traded openness for the temptations of the unbridled market or of nationalist corruption. Still others like Zviad Gamsakhurdia rode crackpot notions to oblivion and nearly took their countries with them. Salye never came close to national power. Vladimir Putin scared her off, scared her right out of politics.
Gessen writes: “It took me two years to get Marina Salye to talk to me. And then it took me about twelve hours of tough driving, including half an hour of nearly impossible driving—my instructions were to ‘drive as far as you can and walk the rest of the way’—to get to Salye’s house.
“Salye was now living in a village, if you can call it that: twenty-six houses and only six people. Like so many Russian villages, this one hundreds of miles from the nearest big city and about twenty miles from the nearest food shop, was an empty nest, forgotten, featureless. Seventy-five-year-old Salye lived there, with the woman she called her sister, because no one could find them there.” (p. 101)
During the time when Sobchak was mayor of St Petersburg, Salye had discovered and documented how Vladimir Putin was stealing from the city on a truly epic scale, even by the standards of the time. As noted above, she went to Sobchak with the evidence, which in Gessen’s retelling was not only clear and damning but also only the tip of the iceberg. Sobchak did nothing to disturb Putin and his schemes.
Gessen continues: “A few months after the  election [that made Putin president], Salye went to see one of the few politicians whom she still believed to be an ally. … Sergei Yushenkov was a career military man who had become a strong convert to liberalism during perestroika and held fast to his beliefs throughout the 1990s. The visit to Yushenkov scared Salye so much that even ten years later she refused to divulge the details.
“‘I got there, and there was a certain person in his office,’ she told me.
“‘What kind of person?’
“‘A certain person. We had a conversation that I wouldn’t call constructive. I went home and told Natasha that I’m going to the country.’
“‘Did he threaten you?’
“‘No one threatened me directly.’
“‘So why did you decide to leave?’
“‘Because I knew this person.’
“‘And what did seeing him mean?’
“‘It meant that I should get as far away as possible.’
“‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand,’ I persisted, feeling I was on the verge of being thrown out of Salye’s hideout.
“‘I knew what this person was capable of. Is that clearer?’
“‘Yes, thank you. But what was he doing in Yushenkov’s office? Did they have something in common?’
“‘No. I did know what he was doing there, and most of all I did not know why Yushenkov did not get rid of him when I came. It means he was unable to get rid of him, even though the conversation Yushenkov and I were about to have was not meant for anyone else’s ears.’
“‘That is all I am going to say.’
“Salye gathered her things and moved to that house, a twelve-hour impossible drive from Moscow, where I found her ten years later.” (pp. 127–28)
Less than three years after the conversation between Yushenkov and Salye, “while [Yushenkov was] walking from his car to his apartment building in northern Moscow, Yushenkov was shot in the chest four times.” (p. 129)
In 2011 Salye came out of hiding and opposed Putin’s return for a third presidential term in 2012. In February 2012, a month before the election, she opened a demonstration in St Petersburg for free elections in the presidential contest. Putin won a third term in early March. Within a month, Salye was dead of a heart attack.
Gessen opens The Man Without a Face with descriptions of the 1999 bombings of apartment buildings across Russia that seemed to be bringing the horrors of the war in Chechnya to the wider country. Putin rode the wave of fear and national sentiment, to which Gessen was not immune at the time, into greater power as prime minister and, at the end of that year, ascended to the presidency when Boris Yeltsin resigned the office. Gradually, though, evidence accumulated that the bombings in which hundreds of ordinary Russians died were not the work of Chechen terrorists but of Russia’s own security services. “On July 3, 2003, a second member of the independent committee investigating the 1999 apartment building bombings died. Yuri Schchekochikhin, an outspoken liberal politician and a muckraking journalist … had been hospitalized two weeks earlier with mysterious symptoms: he had been complaining of a burning sensation all over his body, and he had been vomiting. Within a week he was in a coma, skin all over his body had peeled off, and his hair had fallen out. He died of multiple organ failure caused by an unknown toxin.” (p. 211)
After detailing Litvinenko’s assassination by agents of the Russian state, Gessen summarizes: “It is indeed possible that Anna Politkovskaya [a crusading journalist who had been poisoned on her way to Chechnya before being shot in Moscow] fell victim to the power struggle in Chechnya. It is possible that Yuri Shchekochikhin was killed by some businessman or politician whose dirty laundry he had aired. It is possible that Sergei Yushenkov was, as the police later claimed, killed by a political rival. It is possible that Anatoly Sobchak died of a heart attack. But all of these possibilities, taken separately, seem unlikely, and taken together seem almost absurd. The simple and evident truth is that Putin’s Russia is a country where political rivals and vocal critics are often killed, and at least sometimes the order comes directly from the president’s office.” (p. 226)
Alexei Navalny appears in The Man Without a Face, as a new voice in Russia’s political scene making a mark as an anti-corruption blogger. “By mid-2010, a thirty-four-year-old attorney named Alexey Navalny was drawing tens of thousands of daily hits on his blog, where, by combing government websites to find evidence of excess hidden in plain sight, he monitored the many outrages of an unaccountable bureaucracy. Here was the Voronezh region holding a tender to purchase five gold wristwatches at a cost of $15,000. Here was the city of Krasnodar in southern Russia offering to pay about $400 million for technical documentation on a planned railroad crossing. Here were two beds and two bedside tables plated with 24-karat-gold, which the Ministry of the Interior was purchasing. Navalny dubbed the people in charge of Russia ‘The Party of Crooks and Thieves’—a name that caught on immediately.” (p. 267) Ten years later, in the summer of 2020 with Putin still president, Navalny was poisoned but survived, thanks to quick action by doctors in Omsk and subsequent medical evacuation to Berlin. Earlier this month, one of the doctors who treated Navalny died suddenly at age 55. Navalny is back in Russia, in prison. It remains to be seen whether his fate will be that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky—at one time Russia’s richest man, whose arrest and trials Gessen vividly recounts—or that of Sergei Magnitsky—who was also arrested on politically motivated charges and who died in prison at the age of 37.
There is much more in The Man Without a Face, much of it equally harrowing. Sections on the school siege in Beslan or the storming of a theater in Moscow draw on Gessen’s own journalistic work at the time. There is an early description of Putin’s palace on the Black Sea that became an international sensation thanks to a striking video put together by Navalny’s team. There is even a recounting of Gessen’s own personal interview with Putin, and decision to flee Russia.
Many volumes will be written about Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, even if “Россия без Путина” (Russia without Putin)—the graffiti I saw around Moscow in the spring and summer of 2012——somehow comes to pass sooner than later. All of them will have to reckon with the facts that Gessen marshals and the portrait Gessen draws of a thug and thief in chief.