Masha Gessen on Vladimir Putin

I spent some time in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2011. I had last been there (when it was Leningrad) in the early 1970s. My, how it had changed. A tired, gray city had become a city of light and seeming prosperity. The book stores and other retail establishments would put most American cities (perhaps, all American cities) to shame. The streets teemed with prosperous-looking, stylish citizens. There were trendy restaurants and coffee shops everywhere. The tourist attractions were in wonderful shape.

What’s to complain? We spoke to a number of locals, and found a wide swath of cynicism and disenchantment with the country’s government, the Putin government. Corruption and rigged elections seemed to be the ongoing problems. And, in spite of what we saw looking around, employment and housing was substandard.

Maybe, none of this was surprising. Maybe what was surprising was the willingness of everyone we met to discuss these problems – openly and freely. The criticism was directed at Putin (Medvedev was viewed only as a Putin toady. But no one was protesting; they we resigned to a long term problem, hoping that their education would enable them to get a good job, and perhaps leave the country.

Things have changed since then, with the appearance of a protest movement, centered in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but active in about one hundred other places. Parliamentary election results were widely deemed to have been falsified in December. And now, similar charges are being levied regarding yesterday’s presidential elections.

Masha Gessen, a Moscow journalist, activist and author, has just published her book “The Man Without a Face: the Unexpected Rise of Vladimir Putin”. She is on a book and media tour, and spoke this evening at Politics and Prose. It was an interesting hour.

Vladimir Putin was head of the Russian security service (the FSB, successor to the KGB, where Putin’s career began. He was not viewed to be a strong FSB leader, according to Gessen, and was hand picked by Boris Yeltsen and others to follow Yeltsen and become the second president of the Russian republic.

Once in this position, however, rather than working to increase the incipient Russian democracy, he has done the opposite, leading his country through specious elections, shutting out opposition political movements, suppressing opposition demonstrations, and getting rich through questionable commercial dealings. Gessen’s book details this background.

Her reading did not focus on the biographical details of the President (for these, you need to read the book) but more on what is going on in Russia today. She is convinced that the elections were rigged, and spoke in some detail as to the facts that have come out about vote counting in December. She reported that, after a protest rally yesterday in Moscow, approximately 500 people were arrested, some of whom have been released, and some not. She does not expect that, with the elections now in the past, anything will change.

She hopes that the protest movement (which she says, the New York Times to the contrary) is not exclusively a middle class Moscow movement, but is country wide, and transcends all economic classes. She does have concerns, however, that the protest movement may not be as deep as she would like – it may taper off for a while, she thinks, although she hopes not.

But there are problems – there are two questions she could not answer. First, if not Putin, who? Second, what are the substantive issues, outside of the procedural problems? Her answer is that if you have a regime that does not allow political opposition to surface, and does not allow political positions to be fully discussed in the media, these questions cannot be answered. First, she says, we need free elections (and presumably election campaigns), and the issues and the candidates will surface. How difficult transition to democracy must be!

While ordinary citizens might not be afraid to have full and open conversations, there are those opposition speakers who have been silenced, and some who have found themselves targeted – their business enterprises destroyed, their freedom of movement curtailed. Some have been jailed, as have been some victims of simple commercial disputes, if their adversaries happen to be better connected. Gessen did discuss a number of individual horror stories, all of which have been reported by the international press.

Journalists have also had their problems, as we know. Some have been killed. While Gessen does not belittle her danger, she also does not dwell on it. This book will obviously not be well received back at home (it is not now being published in Russian), and what will happen when she returns to Moscow is anyone’s guess.

We can only wish her, and her country, the best.


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