The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin

The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin

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by Masha Gessen

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The Man Without a Face is the chilling account of how a low- level, small-minded KGB operative ascended to the Russian presidency and, in an astonishingly short time, destroyed years of progress and made his country once more a threat to her own people and to the world.

Handpicked as a successor by the "family" surrounding an ailing and increasingly

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The Man Without a Face is the chilling account of how a low- level, small-minded KGB operative ascended to the Russian presidency and, in an astonishingly short time, destroyed years of progress and made his country once more a threat to her own people and to the world.

Handpicked as a successor by the "family" surrounding an ailing and increasingly unpopular Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin seemed like a perfect choice for the oligarchy to shape according to its own designs. Suddenly the boy who had stood in the shadows, dreaming of ruling the world, was a public figure, and his popularity soared. Russia and an infatuated West were determined to see the progressive leader of their dreams, even as he seized control of media, sent political rivals and critics into exile or to the grave, and smashed the country's fragile electoral system, concentrating power in the hands of his cronies.

As a journalist living in Moscow, Masha Gessen experienced this history firsthand, and for The Man Without a Face she has drawn on information and sources no other writer has tapped. Her account of how a "faceless" man maneuvered his way into absolute-and absolutely corrupt-power has the makings of a classic of narrative nonfiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Bill Keller
…part psychological profile, part conspiracy study…Gessen's armchair psychoanalysis of Putin is speculative. But it is clever and sometimes convincing speculation, based on a close reading of Putin's own inadvertently revealing accounts of his life, and on interviews with people who knew Putin before he mattered.
—The New York Times Book Review

There are those who believe — and I am one of them — that Vladimir Putin is the only world leader operating today with a coherent long-term strategic vision for his country. Russian policy has been derided as amoral, wicked, and misguided. But for the last ten years, since the departure of the stroke-addled boozer Boris Yeltsin, Russia has never been called unguided, and its mysterious steersman is unquestionably Putin himself.

Masha Gessen's political history of Putin's times, The Man Without a Face, gives at least a dozen reasons to tremble before her subject. It is a rage- filled indictment of the Russian prime minister, astonishingly brazen in its personal animus and willingness to name Putin as the author of terrible crimes. Among recent profiles of contemporary Russia, there are certainly books that are more sober and more cautious. There are few as furiously accusatory.

Putin comes across as a sort of malevolent and murderous Russian Bismarck, expertly consolidating power after a decade-long anarchic slide. Once in power, Gessen claims, he and his government have spared no effort or life to silence critics and cow the population into acquiescence. Gessen strongly implies that Putin has something akin to a mental defect that compels him not only to triumph over but to rob and destroy his enemies.

As a biography, The Man Without a Face struggles to weave the sparse available details of Putin's life into a coherent narrative. We know certain facts about his childhood: by his admission, Putin grew up a "real thug," a bloody- knuckles neighborhood brawler constitutionally incapable of backing down from a challenge. His father suffered terrible war wounds but survived, and even as a child, Putin aspired to join the KGB. Normal Russian kids from that era, Gessen says, wanted to be Yuri Gagarin. Putin wanted to be the guy who kept tabs on Yuri Gagarin.

He got his wish and joined the KGB as an operative sniffing out internal dissent. Subsequently, as an officer in Dresden, East Germany, he watched the Soviet Bloc unravel around him. When the newly free East Germans rioted and confronted him personally, Putin appealed to Moscow for guidance and was permanently shaken when his superiors responded that they were powerless and left him and his young family at the mercy of uncertain times.

Gessen contends, contra Putin's publicly acknowledged CV, that after the breakup of the Soviet Union he never left the intelligence services, and that nearly from the start of the new Russia he has been insidiously tunneling under Russian democracy and preparing it for the utter collapse that we witness today. When he came to power, as Yeltsin's chosen successor, few knew much about his origins or fitness for the job. He appeared to be "malleable and disciplined," says Gessen, and therefore a good caretaker for the rich Yeltsin-linked incumbents from the first decade of independent Russia. But, she says, "the people who lifted him to the throne knew little more about him than you do," and they were spectacularly wrong.

After sketching this thin biography (the ingredients of a detailed version are presumably locked in a KGB vault somewhere) Gessen describes a long series of crimes, most of them well known, and in almost every case sees Putin as either a silent partner in their execution or as solely responsible. None of the accusations are new — for years journalists and activists have accused the FSB of blowing up apartment buildings, killing hundreds, as false-flag operations designed to boost Putin's support as an anti-terror figure — but arrayed here in series they make Putin's government look insanely sinister. These crimes, needless to say, include the murder and beating of the anti-Putin press. Putin has even menaced foreign journalists. At a public press conference in Brussels, a Frenchman asked an uncomfortable question about Chechnya, and Putin responded by inviting him to come to Russia and have his gonads chopped off.

But the darkest note in Gessen's book is not political but psychological. Putin's need for total dominance of others, personally and politically, reaches levels that — if these stories are true — should spook us all. In 2005, when Putin met Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, he asked to examine the American's ring, a diamond-encrusted monstrosity given to winners of the Super Bowl. "I could kill someone with this," Putin said, creepily, and then placed it in his pocket and left. Putin's fortune is estimated at $40 billion, allegedly the result of skimming a huge share of business deals, so he doesn't need to take such items for money. But Gessen says Putin's nature is to covet, and when he combines pathological covetousness with unrestrained power, the result is the kleptocratic disaster that is contemporary Russia.

Putin's public presence has, of course, been an occasion for some comedy. Bloggers half-jokingly have professed crushes on him, Stephen Colbert called for a "Putin '08" write-in campaign for the White House, and we see a photo gallery every time the Kremlin's releases another album of beefcake publicity photos (showing Putin in varying states of virile undress, performing outdoors activities such as fly-fishing and underwater archaeology).

For those of us safely abroad, where the free press and its gonads are relatively secure, it's easier to appreciate the humor in all this. Even Russians have been known to laugh: when George W. Bush announced that he had looked into Putin's eyes and "was able to get a sense of his soul," Russians thought the quote was a real knee-slapper, since among Russians it is common knowledge that Putin has no soul. But in the context of Gessen's jeremiad, the only humor possible about Putin is of the gallows variety.

Graeme Wood is a staff editor at The Atlantic. His articles and reviews have appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, Good magazine, andThe American.

Reviewer: Graeme Wood

Library Journal
Gessen came to America as a teenager but has since returned to Russia, where she edits the magazine Snob; she's also written a handful of well-received books, mostly on Russian topics. All of which puts her in the perfect position to write rigorously about the rise to power of Vladimir Putin. Despite news reports, Putin doesn't have quite the notoriety he deserves in the West; Gessen should push him to the forefront.

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
A Slate and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2012

"[An] absorbing portrait… Gessen is most illuminating when she details the historical accidents that allowed an unexceptional bureaucrat to rule Russia." –The New Yorker  

“Part psychological profile, part conspiracy study… As a Moscow native who has written perceptively for both Russian and Western publications, Gessen knows the cultures and pathologies of Russia… [and has] a delicious command of the English language… A fiercely independent journalist… Gessen’s armchair psychoanalysis of Putin is speculative. But it is a clever and sometimes convincing speculation, based on a close reading of Putin’s own inadvertently revealing accounts of his life, and on interviews with people who knew Putin before he mattered.” –The New York Times Book Review  

“In a country where journalists critical of the government have a way of meeting untimely deaths, Ms. Gessen has shown remarkable courage in researching and writing this unflinching indictment of the most powerful man in Russia… Although written before the recent protests erupted, the book helps to explain the anger and outrage driving that movement.” –The Wall Street Journal

“Thanks to her fearless reporting and acute psychological insights, Masha Gessen has done the impossible in writing a highly readable, compelling life of Russia's mysterious president-for-life.” –Tina Brown, The Daily Beast 

"Powerful and gracefully written… Gessen's book flows on multiple tracks, tracing Putin's life back to boyhood, the story of his hometown of St. Petersburg, and finally the last quarter-century of Russian history… For all of the ghoulish detail, Gessen's account of Russia is not overwrought… [she] displays impressive control of her prose and her story, painting a portrait of a vile Putin without sounding polemical." –San Francisco Chronicle

“Engrossing and insightful.” –Bloomberg

"Gessen shines a piercing light into every dark corner of Putin's story… Fascinating, hard-hitting reading." –Foreign Affairs

“[An] incisive bildingsroman of Putin and his regime… Alongside an acute apprehension of the post-Soviet dynamics that facilitated Putin’s rise, Gessen balances narratives of Putin-as-bureaucrat and Putin-as-kleptocrat with a wider indictment of the “Mafia clan” that retains him solely as its Godfather.” –The Daily

“Illuminating… Gessen sprinkles telltale signs of the Putin who would eventually emerge and rule Russia with an iron fist…It is with these explosive revelations that Gessen truly excels… [She] presents her case calmly, picking holes in Putin’s character, his policies, and his rule without stooping to hysterical condemnation… an electrifying read from what can only be described as an incredibly brave writer.” –Columbia Journalism Review

“A chilling and brave work of nonfiction… Gessen has succeeded in convincingly portraying the forces that made Putin who he is today.” –Bookpage

"Although Gessen is enough of an outsider to write beautifully clear and eloquent English, she is enough of an insider to convey, accurately, the wild swings of emotions, the atmosphere of mad speculation, the paranoia, and, yes, the hysteria that pervade all political discussion and debate in Moscow today." –The New York Review of Books

“What Gessen sees in Putin is a troubled childhood brawler who became a paper-pushing KGB man and, by improbable twists and turns, rose to the top in Russia… [She] does not attempt to weigh up Putin’s record but rather examines his biography, mind-set and methods… as a thug loyal to the KGB and the empire it served who never had a clue about the Earth-shattering events that blew the Soviet Union apart.” –The Washington Post

“An eye opening story with all the drama and intrigue of a novel.” –Popmatters

“Written in English but with Russian heart, Gessen focuses on the places and institutions that bred the nation's most resolute leader since Stalin… Some might say that Gessen's interpretation is political. Of course it is… but more importantly, it is thorough. She has seen fellow journalists killed, has been harassed herself, and yet continues to write from Russia… Her urgency is felt on nearly every page.” –Bookforum

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The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
PeterRoeper More than 1 year ago
This book does not appear to be objective or even try to be. Nonetheless it paints such a picture that if even halfway true it is alarming that such a man a such a system could be in charge of on of the most powerful countries in the world. The book similarly makes one think twice about how easy or difficult change and particularly political change can be. The author was very brave to write this book given the description she gives. Maybe the notoriety she gets from this book will save her life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Author clearly has an agenda. This should not be considered a bio of Putin. There are snippets of info about him amongst the author's lengthy diatribes but I could not even finish the read
roni7 More than 1 year ago
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen provides a look into the past of one of Russia’s most ruthless and powerful leaders. She sheds light on the circumstances surrounding the way in which he gained power, and even gives insight into Putin’s personality and life before he was in the spotlight. She is successful in humanizing him in a way that has never been attempted before, but that is completely appropriate considering the events occurring when this book was published. It was published in early 2012, right around the time that the Russian revolts were gaining momentum, and this book only added fire to the uprisings. Gessen’s writing is fluid and accessible, and her in depth research is exceedingly evident throughout the text. It was a reasonably fast read, considering the subject matter, and I would highly recommend picking it up.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Who ever left the previous comment below stating "Putin is Love" is clearly drinking the Russian Koolaid.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Does putin hate america? I fear hes going to ty to be lik hitler. He just looks evil like look at his face does he smile a all ugh i hate him.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is a truthful account of the rise of Putin and of what happened since the breakdown of Soviet Union, quite exciting but at the same time, chilling story. With today's news of court verdict sentencing three young women for singing anti-Putin song to a lengthy prison term, quite believable. The author's narrative is easy to read and she has done thorough research on the subject. Surely, people who consider themselves pro-soviet or who are against democracy, would not enjoy. For others, hope will bring changes to Russia.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book was interesting, but the deal breaker for the audiobook was the reader. I had to stop early because I couldn't stand it. She sounds like someone had told her, "OK, squint a little, turn your head so you can look straight out of the corners of your eyes, and sound like you're reading something filled with intrigue." Her Russian accent, used when reading quotes, is even worse. Skip the audiobook; buy the book instead.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Putin is love
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Every one is entitled to THERE OWN OPINION(at least for now that is)so agree or disagree, I'm not conserned about that.What I am conserned about is what"RECOMMENED"-one below4/01/2012(I corrected my mistake for the 01at the beginning)had commented on at the end of her review.The author is VERY COURAGEOUS for even publishing this book.I wonder how many people don't know how much danger they put themselves and their families,friends do they take that sort of risk you might ask.To keep US informed on what is actually happening in this crazy mixed up world in hopes that we would all stand together and fight to get our nation,the good U.S.of A.back!!!THERE IS POWER IN NUMBERS folks!!The goverment has taken SO much away from us,we all know by now just how corrupt they are and very few could really give a damn.It feels like our spirits have been broken.At least that's how I feel.It's like we've become"detatched"from what really matters.Also we've let Obama get by with EVERYTHING!!(Heres where my spelling goes to pot,just so you get it is what matters)Bengazi,I.R.S.,Petraes,holding out for that one vote to change for hours and hours from the Supreme Court Justice to pass Obama Care,releasing five of the most ruthles members of the Talaban from Guantalamo Bay,making Snowden out to be such a God awful traitor but only what I would call a hero for exsposing the corruption of OUR government which we should be privey to,the real reasons for FAST AND FURIOUS and the innocent lives that came out of it etc.etc.All of these isuss that were run into the ground until the people,like it was planned,grew tired of hearing it-so what did we do?We became DETACHED!!! I swear when I started I never dreamed I would get into all of this.l just wanted to state that Obama makes Putin look like MR.ROGERS!!!OBAMA NEEDS TO BE IMPEACHED PEOPLE!!!