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Putin a ruthless despot cloaked in a democratic shroud

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

By Masha Gessen

Riverhead Books 2012

$29.50 Canadian

IN the tragic history of Russian autocrats pillaging their nation's wealth and crushing human rights and democracy, Vladimir Putin is yet another despot who is convinced that the state is him.

Russian journalist Masha Gessen paints a picture of a thug who could be a poster boy for the deadly sins of pride, wrath, greed and envy.

The Moscow-based Gessen is the author of several books, has contributed to Vanity Fair, The New Republic, Slate and Granta, and has written for and edited various Russian publications.

Gessen argues that Putin is no political ideologue. He is, rather, a former KGB agent and later head of the FSB (replacement for the KGB) whose phony act of incorruptibility convinced an idealistic businessman named Boris Berezovsky that Putin could lead Russia to a liberal-democratic future.

Instead, Putin, whose parents were Siege of Leningrad survivors, rose from deputy mayor of St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), to prime minister under then-president Boris Yeltsin, to acting president in January 2000 following Yeltsin's resignation. Putin was elected president the following March and set about solidifying his power.

Gessen portrays Putin as a leader who, while not sympathetic to Russia's communist past, is more than sympathetic to the iron-fisted rule and political symbolism the old system provided leaders. Putin abolished the direct elections of representatives to the lower parliament, replaced elected members of the upper parliament with appointed ones, gave personally appointed "envoys" the job of overseeing the work of elected governors, and began appointing the mayor of Moscow.

By the time Putin was done, only one federal politician was directly elected -- the president himself.

Putin used terror and bloodshed to cement his grip. Gessen presents evidence that apartment bombings in Russia during the late 1990s, blamed then on Chechen terrorists, were likely the work of secret operatives at the behest of Putin, who wanted to frighten the Russian people into feeling the need for his harsh leadership.

Gessen connects Putin, at least peripherally, to the horrifying hostage-taking incidents at a Moscow theatre in October 2002 that resulted in 129 deaths, and at a school in Beslan in September 2004 that resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people, many of them children. If Putin didn't orchestrate these events, he contributed as much bloodshed as possible in ending these horrific incidents in order to present himself as the protector of the people.

Gessen points a finger at Putin for several assassinations, including Anatoly Sobchak, the former mayor St. Petersburg, and former FSB agent and whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko, who died from polonium poisoning in London in November 2006.

Putin is prone to angry outbursts, Gessen writes, and is infamous for his vulgar jokes, undiplomatic language and threatening comments. He uses state power to steal assets to pad both his own bottom line and that of the state. Putin used stolen state wealth to build a billion-dollar "Putin Palace" on the Black Sea and used phony criminal charges to jail oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire behind oil giant Yukos. Yukos' massive assets were later pilfered by the state-owned company Rosneft in a bogus auction.

Gessen ends with a mildly optimistic account of Russian protests during the December 2011 parliamentary elections. She attended some of these protests and suggests that Russians are fed up with Putin's undemocratic, thuggish rule and change is in the air.

The Man Without a Face should be required reading for anyone who wants to know more about Putin and Russia's current predicament. It will frighten the daylights out of anyone who assumes Putin has any true democratic leanings, any regard for human life and any desire to satisfy anything other than his own lust for power.

Greg Lockert is a Free Press copy editor and Faith Page editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 J2

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