Published: March 01, 2012
Media suppression, corruption and the murder of political rivals have marked the regime of Vladimir Putin, who is running for his third term as president in Russia's election next week. Despite mass demonstrations, he's expected to win.
How Putin rose to power is spelled out in Russian journalist Masha Gessen's new book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. She says Putin, a KGB operative with little government experience before he was first elected in 1999, was specifically selected by the elite cohort that surrounded former President Boris Yeltsin.
"One of the very few requirements that Yeltsin's inner circle presented to people was that they had to be personally loyal to Yeltsin, who very much feared he would be prosecuted once he left office," Gessen tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "And one thing about Putin that seems to have been consistent throughout his career is that he does have a great sense of personal loyalty. I think Yeltsin's inner circle sensed this. And this is why Yeltsin picked Putin."
Over the years, Putin has created an image of himself as a "street thug," she says, and has made systematic efforts to dismantle the country's democracy and independent media. In 2004, Vladimir Gusinsky, the head of the largest private media company in Russia, was arrested after a series of raids on his headquarters. Putin's government alleged that Gusinsky had participated in illegal activity involving an obscure television company. Gessen, who was investigating the story, says the attack on Gusinsky was actually in retaliation for reporting information Putin didn't want to get out.
"It was somebody's personal vendetta, and it was clear that charges were switched and charges were created and none of those charges would hold up," she says. "Ultimately I concluded that the person with the vendetta that I had been looking for this entire time was Vladimir Putin."
Gusinsky fled Russia, which is still fighting for his extradition. Gessen, who was reporting on the story, received a threatening call from a prosecutor in the case.
"I went ahead and published the story, but as soon as the story came out, I discovered somebody outside the door of my apartment — 24 hours a day — and I would ask this man what he was doing there, and he would say 'fixing,'" she says. "My phone was cut off, and I was told there was a warrant out for the search of my apartment."
Gessen said she immediately realized that she was being intimidated.
"It was incredibly scary, and it was driving me crazy," she says. "I left the country for a few weeks and when I returned, the repairman was gone."
Other journalists in the country, she says, fared much worse. Several journalists were murdered, including Anna Politkovskaya, who was writing about Chechnya.
"She had run afoul of ... the Putin government and was murdered six years ago on Putin's birthday," Gessen says. "There are conflicting theories as to who murdered her. It certainly didn't have to be on Putin's orders. But what I argue is that Putin has created a system in which people who run afoul of the government know that they are living with a constant threat to their lives. At this point we are living in a situation where physical attacks on critics of the government and even murders are expected."
On changes in democracy after Putin was elected
"They made elected governors fireable by the president. And they introduced presidential envoys to Russia's seven large territories, which subsumed its 87 regions which had elected governors so that elected officials would now report to appointed officials. Putin created these bosses over the seven governors and most of the seven men he elected were actually former KGB officers."
On discontent in Russia
"People began to become more attuned to the problems of living in a state like the state that Putin has built. In some ways, their material wealth made them more sensitive to it. The problem with the Russian government at this point is that any contact an individual has with the state at this point — from getting a driver's license to getting a license for importing something — is unpredictable and humiliating. You're taken for bribes, contracts are broken, there is violence, businesses are taken away. The very wealth that created a long era of contentedness has created this new era of extreme discontent."
On the mass protests in Russia
"I'm one of the active organizers of the protests. I'm by no means an outside observer here. What's going on is a very diverse, very massive movement of people who are fighting for their dignity. The battle cry of the movement is fair elections. But really the main motivator is this humiliation that you feel from dealing with the Russian state. And the elections have become the focus because in a way there's nothing more humiliating than going to vote and having your vote blatantly stolen and essentially being told you don't exist."
On the potential use of force
"Our audience is not Putin. Our audience is everybody else and largely it's the police and the military, who will eventually — maybe it will happen March 5th — maybe it will happen later, but eventually when Putin feels threatened enough, he will consider using force. And my greatest hope is that by that time, neither the police nor the military will be willing to use force against people who are protesting this regime." [Copyright 2013 NPR]
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Russia is holding its presidential election Sunday and Vladimir Putin, who has dominated the country's politics for more than a decade, is expected to win. But large anti-Putin demonstrations have appeared in recent months, and an independent election watchdog says Putin supporters are using a variety of illegal methods to ensure his victory.
Our guest today is Russian journalist Masha Gessen, who has reported on developments in the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a new book, Gessen details government efforts to attack Putin's political rivals and independent journalists and legal changes, which concentrate power in Putin's hands and make it all but impossible for opposition parties to organize and compete in elections.
Masha Gessen was born in the Soviet Union but spent 10 years in the United States. She's written several books and worked for several Russian media organizations. She's also contributed to Vanity Fair, The New Republic and Slate. Her new book is called "The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin."
Well, Masha Gessen, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, Vladimir Putin was not the kind of person you might have thought in his teens and 20s who would be a future politician. Tell us a little bit about him as a young man.
MASHA GESSEN: Putin, I believe, was actually born to be a KGB agent. And I say born because I think that his father was also an agent of the secret police in Russia. It's known that he served in the secret police troops during World War II, and I think he stayed in active reserve.
So I think this is a dream that Putin was very much brought up with. Other than that, there's very little that's at all extraordinary about his youth and childhood, and actually there's very little that's known about it, because unlike most politicians in the world, Putin was never public. He was always part of a secret institution.
So weirdly, and actually fortunately, I think, for me, as somebody who set out to describe him, he got to write his own story when he became a public figure in 1999. And the story he chose to write is the story of a street tough, a thug, somebody who got into a lot of fights. When he spoke to his first and only official biographers in the early 2000, he mostly concentrated on describing his street fights and on portraying himself as somebody who is aggressive, vengeful and has a lot of trouble controlling his temper - which is all probably messages we should have gotten early on.
DAVIES: So he works his way into the KGB, spends most of his career stationed in East Germany. How did he make the transition to politics once the Soviet Union collapsed?
GESSEN: Yes, he served in East Germany. It was not a glorious posting. It was not at all what he had actually hoped for and studied for. And this was, I think, a painful time for somebody like Putin to be a part of the KGB. The KGB was hugely bloated at the time. It was this very dysfunctional, very bureaucratic institution.
And he also watched from a distance as Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the Soviet Union, allowed the system to be taken apart. He was incredibly resentful when he returned to the Soviet Union, when he was forced to return to the Soviet Union because the Berlin Wall had come down. He even claims to have considered leaving the KGB but ultimately decided against it.
He stayed in what's called the active reserve, which is when KGB agents continue to draw a salary from the KGB but get civilian jobs and use those jobs to deliver information to the KGB.
So he got a job at Leningrad State University as a deputy rector of the university dealing with international relations. From there, he transitioned to the Leningrad City Council, to be the assistant to the chairman of the city council. And he stayed in that job for the next seven years, until 1996.
DAVIES: Right, and then at some point during the 1990s, although the Soviet Union had collapsed, and democracy had come to Russia, the economy didn't do well. Yeltsin ran into trouble. And at some point, it seems that the Yeltsin team looked for a successor, and somehow Vladimir Putin gets on their radar.
And what's interesting about this, you know, there's a historical profile of leaders who become tyrants, and one of those profiles is that of a charismatic demagogue, a brilliant speaker, you know, who can seduce voters in a time of hardship or peril. This was not the kind of guy Vladimir Putin was, right?
GESSEN: Certainly not, although I should probably point out that the history of Russian tyrants is not rich with charismatic leaders. In fact, the scariest tyrant of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin, was viewed by his revolutionary comrades as a mediocrity, and almost ended up being the accidental leader of the Soviet Union and stayed the leader of the Soviet Union for nearly 30 years, annihilating millions of people in the process.
It's not a direct parallel, but Putin was also, I think, viewed as a mediocrity and rightly so.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting then, that when Putin, as you say, chose to create a public image for himself, he chose to emphasize the fact that he was a tough guy and a bully. Do you think he was, you know, harkening to memories of Stalin and the kind of strongman he thought people wanted?
GESSEN: I think that was very much in play. I mean, I think the image of Stalin, although he's rarely appealed to him directly, but it has been in the background through the Putin years. and there has been a sort of slow-going whitewashing of the Stalin image, and there have been textbooks published and put into schools where Stalin is described as an effective manager.
And the process of what I would call the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union, which was active in the 1990s, has come to a halt with Putin's coming to power. I think that Putin has great respect for that leader of the Soviet Union.
DAVIES: So in the late 1990s, as the Boris Yeltsin era is coming to an end, somehow people around him seize upon Vladimir Putin, a guy who was, you know, a relatively unknown figure in the Leningrad City Council with a background in the KGB. How does he end up then becoming the leader of Russia in a few years?
GESSEN: Well, that's - it's an amazing story, and there's no simple explanation for how Putin ended up president of Russia, because, frankly, I think it was an accident. By this time, Yeltsin was reshuffling his administration for the 10th or 15th time in the course of a couple of years.
His popularity had hit rock bottom. He had lost a lot of his allies, and he was, sort of, starting to go through second- and third-tier bureaucrats to try to shape his government. So he chose a KGB colonel, which is what Putin was at the time, to run the secret police.
And then it was suggested to him by his inner circle, which by that time was very, very small and very, very cloistered, that Putin may be appointed prime minister and the apparent successor to Yeltsin.
And one of the very few requirements that Yeltsin's inner circle presented to people, was that they had to be personally loyal to Yeltsin - who very much feared that he would be prosecuted once he left office. And one thing about Putin that seems to have been consistent throughout his career is that he does have a great sense of personal loyalty. I think Yeltsin's inner circle sensed this. And this is why Yeltsin picked Putin.
DAVIES: One more thing about Putin's personal leadership characteristics. You know, there's an expression in America that politicians make gaffes sometimes. Some of Putin's public statements were truly extraordinary. I mean, maybe you could give us an example of one of these, I mean, like the one at the news conference in Brussels after the siege of the - involving - in which so many schoolchildren were taken hostage.
GESSEN: Right. Actually, I think it's important to understand that these are not gaffes. These are rather purposeful, and they're very consistent, again, with Putin's self-created image of himself as a street thug. He has continued to use the language of a street thug and the posture of a street thug throughout his political career.
He first became incredibly popular in the fall of 1999, when he said that he was going to hunt down Chechnyan terrorists and rub them out in the outhouse. That's still a phrase that surfaces frequently in the Russian media.
His other hit vulgarisms are his response to a French journalist, who asked him about the Russian attitude toward Muslims. And Putin said that - responded by saying that Russia was a diverse and tolerant country. And if the man was so sympathetic to Muslims, he may come to Russia and seek a circumcision, and Putin would personally make sure that he was circumcised in such a way that nothing would ever grow there again.
DAVIES: Wow. This is from the leader of Russia.
GESSEN: This is from the leader of Russia.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Russian journalist Masha Gessen. Her new book about Vladimir Putin is called "The Man Without A Face." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Russian journalist Masha Gessen. She's written a new book about the career of Vladimir Putin. It's called "The Man Without A Face."
So in 2000, Vladimir Putin comes seemingly from nowhere and is elected the president of Russia. And one of the things that you describe in the book is his systematic dismantling of the independent media in the country. And there's a particular case that I found fascinating involves a man named Vladimir Gusinsky, who had a company called Media-Most, which actually owned the magazine you were working for. What happened to him?
GESSEN: Four days after the inauguration, there was a raid on the corporate headquarters of Media-Most. And five weeks after that, Gusinsky himself was arrested. The media company, as a whole, had been critical of Putin's campaign, and Gusinsky's television company had aired some allegations about secret police involvement in terrorist attacks that had occurred the previous fall.
When the arrest was announced, I saw that he was actually arrested in connection with the case of an obscure television company in St. Petersburg. And it just so happened that I had been reporting on this television company, or actually saving my reporting, I hadn't published anything, for several years. So I was extremely familiar with the case.
And what I knew about it was that there was nothing to it. It was clearly somebody's personal vendetta. I just hadn't been able to figure out whose. But it was clear that charges were switched, and new charges were created, and none of those charges would hold up.
The head of that company had been charged with improperly privatizing the company, and then he was charged with embezzling. Then he was charged with a misappropriation of funds. And all of those charges fell apart. And now Gusinsky was arrested in connection with it. And ultimately as I dug into it, after Gusinsky's arrest, I came to the conclusion that the person with the vendetta that I had been looking for this whole time was actually Vladimir Putin.
DAVIES: And what led you to that conclusion that it was Putin himself?
GESSEN: One of the things that led me to that conclusion was that Putin had - and I had documents showing this - Putin had been involved in setting up the company. He had also worked alongside with the head of that company on the governor of St. Petersburg's election campaign.
And as different versions of who possibly could have put the head of the company in jail sort of fell apart, it became clear that the only person who actually had the power to keep a clearly innocent man in jail was by this point Vladimir Putin.
DAVIES: And Gusinsky was in - his headquarters was raided. He was arrested on charges that didn't seem to hold up. Surely he fought it in the courts. What ultimately happened to him?
GESSEN: Well, Gusinsky left the country, and Russia has fought for his extradition. So Gusinsky is still severely restricted in his travel because anywhere he goes, if the country is an Interpol member, he will first be arrested, and then there will be an extradition hearing, and only then will he be cleared to stay in the country.
There has been one set of extradition hearings in Spain. The Spanish court came to the conclusion that there was no substance to the charges that the Russians wanted to have Gusinsky extradited on.
DAVIES: And what became of his company?
GESSEN: His company has been taken over by the state gas monopoly. The magazine and the radio station and the television station are all still in existence but staffed by a different set of people. And what happened to my magazine in particular, was that the entire editorial staff of 70 people came to work one day in April of 2001 and found themselves locked out of the building.
DAVIES: So through this arrest and series of legal actions, an independent media company that was critical of Putin is dismantled, it's owner is effectively driven out of the country. Now, you were, as you said, deeply into investigating this story. What - you had a chilling conversation with a prosecutor about this, the case, right? Tell us about that.
GESSEN: While I was in the process of writing the story, I actually got a phone call from the prosecutor on the case, an unheard-of incident in Russia, where prosecutors don't usually accept phone calls from journalists, never mind call journalists themselves. The prosecutor called me and said don't publish the story, or you'll be sorry.
DAVIES: And you took that to mean what?
GESSEN: I took that to mean a threat. I was not sure what kind of threat it was and how exactly I was going to be sorry. I did go ahead and publish the story. As soon as the story came out, I discovered a telephone repairman or somebody - somebody who was on a ladder outside of my apartment door 24 hours a day.
I would open the door at any time of day, ask this man who - what he was doing there, and he would say fixing. My phone was cut off, and I was warned by Media-Most's lawyers that there was a warrant out, probably for search of my apartment.
The search never happened, but what I realized at the time was that these were very sort of old-time KGB tactics. This was how they used to intimidate dissidents. It seemed that nothing was happening to me. So there was somebody, you know, standing outside my apartment door. So what? So my phone was turned off. So what?
But the sense of intrusion and the sense of this unremitting threat was incredibly scary, and it was driving me crazy. What I ended up doing was I left the country for a couple of weeks, and actually, when I came back, the so-called repairman was gone.
But these were old-time intimidation tactics that actually, compared to what happened to other journalists and other differently minded people over the course of the next few years, they're almost laughable. There was no physical harm to me. But it was frightening.
DAVIES: Before we leave this episode, I want to come back to the legal case against Vladimir Gusinsky, this guy who owned this media company which had criticized Putin and raised questions about these bombings in 1999.
This is guy, you know, is held in jail, and when they looked at the charges, I mean, they cite statutes that aren't even relevant to the case in any way. And I guess what I wondered about this, is that, you know, in the United States, I mean, people with wealth and authority will at times abuse their power, but there is a legal system which offers some chance of redress.
I mean, you can't just do anything. And I'm wondering why, at this point in Russia's history, the courts didn't offer some relief, I mean couldn't put an end to what was clearly a fabricated prosecution or give those, you know, those charged a chance to bring injustices to light.
GESSEN: That's a great question. I mean, I think that the story of the Russian legal system has yet to be written. But what actually happened was that - you know, in the Soviet Union, there was a judicial system that served entirely at the pleasure of the state. Judges perceived themselves as civil servants who carried out the will of the communist party.
There was a very, very small cadre of defense attorneys who were brave enough to defend dissidents and who often ended up having to leave the country after one or two trials.
In the 1990s, there was a lot of reform, and there was a lot of forward movement on a lot of fronts in Russia. There was fundamental economic reform. There was a new constitution and an electoral system built from scratch. But the judicial system was probably the most difficult to reform. Because, of course, to build a judicial system from scratch, you need to have hundreds of thousands of judges and lawyers who have been educated in a system different than the Soviet system.
So by the late 1990s, all that Russia could boast was a very rudimentary system - judicial system, basically just the beginnings of an independent judiciary. And that was one of the first things that Putin dismantled when he came into office.
DAVIES: So we had this case where a powerful media company that displays independence, investigates a case critical of the government, is in effect attacked in a legal circumstance, taken over, its owner driven from the country.
And you write that this was essentially replicated in numerous other cases, to the extent that - in effect there were no independent media in the country in a while.
GESSEN: Yes, I would say that within a year of coming to power, Putin had completed the state takeover of Russian television. Ninety-eight percent of Russian households have TV sets, and that is by far the most influential medium in Russia.
The print media suffered a little bit less, but there was a lot of - there was pressure on some of the print media, and there was a lot of self-censorship that kicked in.
DAVIES: And then there was the direct intimidation, and in some cases murder, of journalists. Were any of these murders ever tied directly to the government?
GESSEN: There has been a long string of murders of Russian journalists. None of these murders - none of them - have been solved. Of course the best-known murder is the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a very, very brave woman who was a print journalist writing about Chechnya and some other issues.
She had run afoul of any number of Chechnyan warlords, but also first and foremost, of the Putin government. She was murdered six years ago on Putin's birthday, actually. And there are conflicting theories as to who might have murdered her.
It certainly didn't have to be done directly on Putin's orders. But what I argue in the book, is that Putin has created a system in which people who run afoul of the government also fall outside of the protection of the law and know that they are living with a constant threat to their lives.
And we, at this point, are living in a situation where physical attacks on vocal critics of the government and even their murders are expected.
DAVIES: Masha Gessen's book about Vladimir Putin is called "The Man Without A Face." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who is off this week.
Russia's holding its presidential elections Sunday. And we're speaking with Russian journalist Masha Gessen, who has written a new book about Vladimir Putin, who is expected to win a third term as the country's president. Large anti-Putin demonstrations have appeared in Moscow in recent months.
Gessen's book describes the rise of Putin, the former KGB agent, to dominate the country's politics. And she says he systematically concentrated power in his hands and fundamentally undermined Russian democracy. Masha Gessen's book is called "The Man Without a Face."
You described how under Putin independent media were dismantled in many cases. But you also describe how Putin, you know, didn't just use levers of power to persecute his enemies; he made formal changes to the structure and function of Russian government. Would you describe some of those changes?
GESSEN: Those changes have actually been profound. And I find it very instructive to trace the trajectory of the dismantling of Russian democracy, because it's clear just how purposeful and actually well-planned it was.
Four days after being inaugurated - so on the same day that there was a raid of a corporate headquarters of Gusinsky's media company - Putin also introduced his first set of bills and decrees. Those bills and decrees began the reform of Russian democratic structures. One thing that they did was they canceled direct elections to the upper house of parliament, so that members of the upper house of parliament were now appointed by local governors and legislatures.
The other thing they did was they made elected governors fireable by the president. And another thing they did was they introduced presidential envoys to Russia's seven large territories, which subsumed its 89 regions that had elected governors. So that basically, elected officials would now report to appointed officials, right. So Putin created these bosses over the elected governors, and most of the seven men that he appointed were actually former KGB officers.
DAVIES: You say that the president could now fire a governor. This would be the equivalent, I guess here, of President Obama deciding he doesn't like the governor of Texas and giving him a pink slip.
GESSEN: Exactly. Exactly. I mean the Texas prosecutor would have to tell Obama that the Texas governor was suspected of wrongdoing. But there would have to be no court decision and no formal investigation before the president had the power to actually fire the governor.
DAVIES: And then in 2004, there were another series of changes he made, right?
GESSEN: Right. There were actually a number of intermediate changes. There was a new law in political parties, that was passed in 2001, that was incredibly restrictive that basically erected prohibitive barriers to forming political parties. So where Russia had been a country and a very, very large, very diverse country with a lot of tiny little political parties and a few large political parties, well, it was now turned into a country where there could only be a few large political parties, all of which could only be officially registered with the Kremlin's approval.
The next thing that happened was that the same source of barriers were erected toward running for president. Again, the rules are so restrictive that nobody can get on the presidential ballot without the Kremlin's approval. Basically, a candidate has to collect two million signatures from 83 different regions of Russia, no more than 50,000 signatures from any region. In the course effectively, of two weeks the signatures have to be collected. And then the Central Election Commission can use any one of 14 reasons, including expert opinion, to disqualify those signatures. So basically, if the Kremlin wants somebody on the ballot that person will get on the ballot and if the Kremlin doesn't, that person will not get on the ballot.
And then finally in 2004, there was the latest election reform that canceled the gubernatorial elections altogether, so that governors are now directly appointed by the president; and that also canceled direct elections to the lower house of parliament, so that people vote for parties rather than individuals. And then those parties appoint representatives to the lower house of parliament, so that most of Russia's regions are now represented by people who have never lived there, and in many cases, I think, have never been there.
In essence, the system we have now has at least in name, direct elections for one office only, which is the office of president.
DAVIES: You know, I have to ask. You know, you've described this period when Putin kind of essentially dismantled most of the independent media in the country and made changes to the functioning of the Russian state, which concentrated so much formal power in the hands of the presidency and made it virtually impossible for opposition political parties to operate. To what extent was he then relying upon his own popularity? Was he a beloved man?
GESSEN: I think Putin's popularity was genuine when he first came to power. He was seen as a welcome relief from the Yeltsin era. Yeltsin had become an embarrassment and heartache. He was a drunk. He was a disgrace. He made a fool of himself, internationally. And here comes Putin, who is young, who wears well-cut European suits, who speaks foreign languages, and to a lot of people, it seemed like a newer era was beginning.
And the way that his campaign was run, he was being presented as the great new democratic hope for Russia and the man who would modernize Russia, finally and a new kind of modern leader. And then Putin got very, very, very lucky. Oil prices soared and Russia came into unprecedented wealth. And basically, by about 2003, 2004, Russia's economy became completely reliant on oil exports. Domestic production virtually came to a halt. But there's still this incredible amount of oil money that was coming in and that was changing people's lives in tangible ways in very, very short amounts of time.
And I think that even for those of us who were thinking about the democratic institution as being dismantled and about the independent media being destroyed, and about our very profession, journalism, being rendered completely irrelevant to the country; even to us, the cognitive dissonance was almost too much. How can things be so bad when life is so good? When all of a sudden you can afford anything you want and you're eating good food and drinking good wine and your kids are going to decent schools. And you feel worry-free for the first time in your life, probably, and is it really so bad if it's so good?
Now after a while, the economic growth started slowing. But even more than that, people I think began to become even more attuned to the problems of living in a state like the state that Putin has built. And in some ways, their material wealth made them more sensitive to it.
The problem with the Russian state at this point is that any contact that the individual has with the state, from getting a driver's license to getting a license for importing something that you need for a business, is unpredictable and humiliating, and unpredictably humiliating. You are taken for bribes every step of the way, contracts are broken, violence is involved, people's businesses get taken away from them because somebody has better connections to the government, etcetera. And the very wealth that created a very long era of contentedness has now created this new era of extreme discontent.
DAVIES: Masha Gessen's new book is called "The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with a Russian journalist Masha Gessen. Her new book about Vladimir Putin's career is called "The Man Without a Face."
You know, one aspect of Putin's public life, which Americans are maybe not so familiar with, is sort of the extraordinary, I don't know, public image campaign surrounding him - places he's photographed, ways he's presented. Do you want to just describe that a bit?
GESSEN: Right. This is the macho Putin campaign. It's a bizarre story, so I don't, you know, I don't even know where to begin. I mean he has been photographed, from the beginning, doing all sorts of macho things. As he runs out of macho things to do they get more and more absurd.
At the beginning he would be photographed flying a plane, a bomber, or he would be photographed steering an atomic submarine. Then when he ran out of those sorts of things he was photographed fishing and bare-chested and or riding a motorcycle with the Moscow Bike Club. More recently, he has been photographed diving on the Black Sea and coming up with two ancient vases that he supposedly discovered at the bottom of the sea, all perfectly cleaned up and ready for the discovery. His press secretary admitted about a week later that yes, the vases had indeed been planted by archaeologists who were working nearby.
DAVIES: And what made the press secretary admit that the vases had been planted? It would seem if you're going to go to - if you're going to do a stunt that ridiculous, you'd stick to it.
GESSEN: You know, I really have a hard time sort of trying to insert myself into the head of the press secretary...
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GESSEN: ...because to have come up with something that absurd, I mean you have to be kind of incompetent as a press secretary, right? So I think that was probably continuing the incompetence. What he was trying to say, and actually here's an important point here, what he said when he admitted that the vases had been planted, was that it was a perfectly normal photo op. OK, so we planted the vases for the photo op. And I think that this is actually one of those rare moments when the Russian regime sort of shows how warped its view of the world has become.
Right? Sometimes Russian bureaucrats go to, say, international conferences and are asked to participate in panels on say transparency in business. And they start saying things like oh, come on, we all know that everywhere in the world you have to bribe people to get your business licenses. Or, come on, we all know what really goes on. Don't tell us about a transparent tax system. And at those points, you realize how in this warped view of the world they really do believe that everything is corrupt, or at least corruptible. And I think that's what Putin's press secretary was communicating, as well. He deeply believes that politics is that corrupt all over the world and that everything is that disingenuous - that even a picture has to be staged and it has to be staged in an absurd manner.
DAVIES: So let's talk about what's happening now. I mean we are what, days away from a presidential election, right? At which Putin, who is currently the prime minister, is running for president. Is that right?
GESSEN: That's correct.
DAVIES: Right. And...
GESSEN: And he plans to declare victory in the first round.
DAVIES: Right. There would be a runoff if he didn't get a majority? Is that right?
GESSEN: If he didn't get more than 50 percent of the vote there would be a runoff.
DAVIES: Now you said that changes were made which made it very, very difficult - if not impossible - for a true opposition party to organize and campaign. Is that still the situation?
GESSEN: That's still the situation. So, you know, when I am asked which one of the candidates on the ballot is a Kremlin stooge, I have to say they all are - otherwise they wouldn't be on the ballot.
DAVIES: And yet, we've seen mass protests. There were some in December. There were some, more recently. Tell us what's going on.
GESSEN: Well, I have to say, I'm one of the active organizers of the protests. I'm by no means an outside observer here. What's going on is a very diverse, very massive movement of people who are fighting for their dignity. The battle cry of the movement is fair elections. But really, the main motivator is this humiliation that you feel from dealing with the Russian state. And the elections have become the focus, because in a way, there's nothing more humiliating than going to vote and having your vote blatantly stolen and essentially being told you don't exist.
DAVIES: And these demonstrations, I mean there are strict rules on public gatherings. And despite that, some of these demonstrations have been extraordinarily large, right? How many people are we talking about?
GESSEN: The last mass demonstration was February 4th - there was a march. It was a march that occurred in minus 20 weather. And we have a confirmed count of 138,000 people there. That's huge.
DAVIES: And how is the Putin regime responding?
GESSEN: The Putin regime has responded in a couple of ways. One is by mocking the protest movement. Another was by creating an ersatz protest movement of his own. So in February, every time that the opposition held a demonstration, the Putin supporters also held a demonstration. The difference between those kinds of demonstrations is that we have ample documentation that the participants of the pro-Putin demonstrations are either coerced, or paid, or both.
And the third way in which the regime has responded - and this is the most disconcerting way - is that is by making it clear that once the election is over they're not going to allow these public gatherings to continue to go on. So I'm very worried about what's going to happen in Moscow on March 5th. That's the day after the election.
DAVIES: And your concern is what, that there would be heavy police action - arrests, injuries?
GESSEN: My concern is that, at this point, we haven't been able to get a permit to hold a legal protest in Moscow on March 5th. If we don't get a permit, I fear that tens of thousands of people will go out into the streets illegally and the police will be told to use force. Now, in the best-case scenario, the police will not obey that order.
DAVIES: It's hard not to think back to the moment in 1991. And the details I won't recall exactly, but there was an attempted coup. Some people in, you know, some people in the old guard were attempting to stop the process of democratization in Russia, and people turned out in mass numbers and put an end to it. Could you see that happening again here?
GESSEN: I mean, that's my hope, because ultimately what decided the fate of the failed coup in August 1991 was that the armed forces did not obey orders to use force. And I think that that's an important thing to understand about the current protest movement is our audience is not Putin. Our audience is everybody else and largely, of course, it's the police and the military who will eventually - maybe it will happen March 5th, maybe it will happen later.
But eventually, when Putin feels threatened enough, he will consider using force. And my greatest hope is that by that time neither the police nor the military will be willing to use force against people who are protesting this regime. There have been some positive indications.
There was an amazing story that happened a week ago in the town of Lermontov in the south of Russia, where some local politicians who had been denied registration for local elections staged a protest inside of city hall, barricading themselves in and declaring a hunger strike. The police were called in and told to use force to remove the demonstrators and they refused. And then a SWAT team was called in and told to use force and also refused.
DAVIES: You know, there have been so many cases in the last 15 years in Russia that you've written about of politicians and journalists and activists being beaten, bullied, poisoned, shot. I don't know if you're comfortable talking about this, but I'm wondering how this affects the way you conduct what you do, what steps you might take for your own security.
GESSEN: You know, I'm not very comfortable answering that. Not because I don't think about it, but because I feel a little embarrassed. I've never been attacked. And until somebody has been attacked one feels a little silly talking about the risk one faces. A lot of my colleagues have indeed been attacked. Some of them have been killed. Some people I knew well have been killed. I hope I'm not big enough fish to be threatened in the same way.
I take some precautions. You know, I don't walk home alone at night. If I drive into our courtyard after dark, I ask my partner to come outside with the dog to meet me. Those are, you know, basic sort of urban precautions. If somebody wanted to get me, I'm sure I could be gotten.
DAVIES: You know, journalists in the United States who cover politicians don't have to fear for their safety, and they don't have to worry about being arrested on some trumped up charge. They also avoid political activism and you wouldn't see them organizing a demonstration. I mean, it's clear that you have felt moved to take that step. Do you want to just address that and how you square that with your history and obligations as a journalist?
GESSEN: Right. Well, in some ways the timing has been very fortunate for me. I had just finished writing a book about Putin when the protest movement began. So I was, A, able to squeeze an epilogue into the book at the last minute describing the protest movement. And, B, able to throw myself into the protest movement without worrying whether it compromises my ability to write the book.
I am the editor of a magazine and a publishing house that specializes in popular science, so I don't actually do any political journalism in Russia right now, because there's very little political journalism in Russia right now. It's not a very gratifying field to be in and popular science is my other passion. So, that's what I so. So, in that sense, my activism in no way conflicts with my journalism.
All of which, obviously, I mean these are sort of technical responses. Ultimately, do I identify more as a journalist or as an activist? I identify as a citizen. I want there to be change in my country, and that's the most important thing I can think about. And I will certainly contribute anything I can to creating that change.
DAVIES: Well, Masha Gessen, I want to wish you the best and thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.
GESSEN: Thank you.
DAVIES: Masha Gessen's new book about Vladimir Putin is called "The Man Without A Face." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new NBC drama "Awake."
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.