Review: Masha Gessen’s “The Man Without a Face”

I am back from New York, where I met all my goals for the weekend (eating delicious things, walking a lot, sleeping a ton, chilling with my Juanbro, finishing this book, deciding to skip the Frick). Except for a foray to the MoMA (God, Cindy Sherman's art from the 90s is so creepy), I barely left Brooklyn, and you know what? It was glorious. At this point, I have seen New York, so when I visit, I kind of just like to wander aimlessly and take in some big city energy while stopping to eat brunch as many times as humanly possible (WHY CAN'T CHARLOTTE GET BRUNCH LIKE THAT? I had these potatoes at one point, and Juan asked me how they were, and I turned to him with what I can only assume was an expression of shock and awe and said "f***ing amazing". And I meant it, dudes! Juan laughed at me. I don't even like potatoes that much!). The weather was ridiculously good. I krumped at bars. I introduced Juan to Archer (you are welcome).

The man wo a faceAs to the book: Gessen's book is an important one, and a brave one given the fates of the various reporters who've previously taken on Putin. If you're looking for a detailed account of the last twenty years of Russia's history, you're better off looking elsewhere (the history here is neither linear nor inclusive), but as a study of Putin's character and motivations and how they've been shaped by and have shaped Russia's politics, it is superb. Putin is like one of those miraculous creatures–walking fish, for example–that are so adapted to the environment that produced them that in any other context they look totally absurd. Putin's personal history is one of mediocrity. He isn't particularly charismatic or intelligent; instead, his great gift is the ability to reflect back on those around him exactly what they expect of him. That's what Gessen means by "without a face"; Putin is someone onto whom others can project whatever they want. I can't even express to you how bizarre his rise to power in Yeltsin's final months was, or how Cold-War-crazy his response the Chechen situation has been, or how blatant his repeated property and power-grabs have been. I mean, he maybe possibly engineered some terrorist attacks to consolidate his power? He possibly stole a billion dollars by putting entrepreneurs in jail? Putin is basically a conspiracy theorist's dream. And the incompetence of these conspiracies! I mean, the arrogance implied by the carelessness with which some of these alleged FSB operations were carried out is unbelievable. Do you remember Alexander Litvinenko?!

Gessen's book is cautiously hopeful: since the Duma elections in December, Russians have risen up in protest against Putin and his cronies. The problem with Russia is that these uprisings don't necessarily mean much. With elections rigged and the judicial and legislative branches of the government totally in thrall to the executive, there's no system of redress for an increasingly disgruntled opposition and no checks and balances. So, what happens next? Gessen says all such regimes–insulated, out of touch, despised–must come to an end, but when is a much more uncertain matter. 

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