Masha Gessen: Russian revolutionary
Masha Gessen is a strong presence: passionate, deeply knowledgeable and slightly impatient, in that way of people everywhere who are committed – body and soul – to a cause. She is impatient to return to her native Russia, where she lives and works; where a revolution of sorts is brewing.
‘I’m going to get right back into it when I fly home tomorrow,’ she told the Wheeler Centre audience on Tuesday night.
The new revolution
Last December, tens of thousands of Russians gathered in mass protests against Putin’s government. They were angry at the conspicuously rigged elections his party had just won, calling for an end to the country’s endemic corruption.
‘The protest movement happened very suddenly,’ said Gessen. ‘It surprised all of us who took part in it – we looked at each other in the streets, like, Oh, you’re here too.’
Journalist Gessen is the author of The Man Without a Face, a damning biography of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the man she labels a dictator and describes as an ‘accidental’ leader. An epilogue diarising her involvement in last year’s protests was rushed into the book at the last minute before publication.
‘I feel so fortunate I was able to get that in,’ she said. ‘It would have been a very different book without it.’
Rise of the grey faceless man
Back in 1999, the previous Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, once hugely popular, had become erratic. He was ill, alcoholic, and had become an embarrassment. And he was presiding over a country in crisis, experiencing ‘economic and social inequality on a scale [its citizens] had never known’.
Yeltsin had alienated all those he had been close to over the years, except a very close group nicknamed ‘the Family’, who took it upon themselves to find a successor whose number one job would be not to prosecute Yeltsin once they took office.
One of the ‘unremarkable … grey faceless men’ they auditioned was Putin, the head of the secret police.
Early on, Putin was set forth – and welcomed – as ‘the embodiment of everybody’s best hope’. Because he had spent his life working with the secret police, nothing about him was on the public record. He was a blank slate.
The west welcomed Putin as someone they could do business with, a democratic reformer. This view persisted in the western media long after it was obvious that he was the opposite of democratic: he’d sent the quasi independent media into exile, reversed judicial reforms and dismantled the Russian electoral system.
Western press ‘held captive by conventional wisdom’
‘The western press are held captive by conventional wisdom,’ Gessen said. ‘It often takes a long time to catch up.’
After 9/11, foreign coverage completely shifted to Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘Moscow became a waystation for reporters on their way to Kabul,’ said Gessen.
She said that the idea for The Man Without a Face came to her when she wrote a broad-ranging portrait of Putin for Vanity Fair in 2008. ‘I had gotten sick of writing about him – for a long time, I felt I had to dumb it down when I was writing about him in English. But I found myself really enjoying it.’ By the time she finished the 10,000 word piece, she had pitched the book to a publisher.
Her writing philosophy? ‘As a writer, you just try to see what’s in front of you with fresh eyes.’ She gives the advice, ‘pretend you’ve just fallen off the moon when you’re writing’.
Marina Salye: Woman in hiding
One of Gessen’s favourite stories in her book is that of Marina Salye, ‘an incredible woman’ and ‘the most popular politician in St Petersberg in the early 80s and 90s’; a member of its city council.
She ran an investigation of the period when Putin was deputy mayor of the great city, largely running its economy and found evidence that he had embezzled between ten million and 100 million dollars, ‘an unbelievable amount of money in Russia at that time’.
Her investigation, which concluded in 1993, recommended that the mayor should prosecute and dismiss Putin. Instead, the mayor dismissed the city council.
A week before the election that saw Putin installed as president, Salye published an article warning that Putin ‘would be the president of a corrupt oligarchy’. A few months later, she was threatened and fled to a semi-abandoned village in the woods near the Russian-Latvian border, where she stayed in hiding.
Gessen spent two years ‘putting out feelers’ to Salye. As soon as she agreed to talk to her, Gessen ‘jumped in the car and drove 12 hours through the night’.
Gessen is confident that we are seeing the last days of Putin’s reign; she says his numbers have ‘never been so low’. It took him weeks to form a new government after last year’s election, as politicians declined to join his cabinet. ‘No one wants to be part of this government.’
The Man Without a Face is not available in Russian, though an English language edition is on limited sale in two Moscow locations: a total of ‘about 100 copies’.
’The risk is out there’
Gessen says that she has a Russian publisher who likes the book, but has told her she can’t take the risk of publishing it. ‘Lots of foreign publishers want to publish it in Russian and smuggle it into Russia, but I’m not interested in that,’ she said. She wants to wait until a local publisher feels able to publish it.
‘From what I can tell, Putin doesn’t know about the book. For him to know about it, someone has to tell him about it. It’s an amazing symptom of the situation in Russia that no one will tell him about it.’
At question time, an audience member told Gessen he was concerned for her safety when she returns to Russia. She both acknowledged and dismissed the concern.
‘I have friends who’ve been attacked and killed, the risk is out there,’ she said. ‘But I’m somewhat protected by my connections with the west and my US passport, which I hold alongside my Russian one.’
‘I’m a lot safer than many of my colleagues.’
Masha Gessen and Chinese novelist Sheng Keyi appeared together in an event at the Wheeler Centre, chaired by Jenny Niven, on Tuesday 22 May. Watch it in the player below.