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Standing Up to Putin

The Man Without a Face, Masha Gessen’s biography of the Russian leader, reminds us why U.S. Jews must put pressure on a repressive foreign regime

Liel Leibovitz
April 19, 2012
Masha Gessen confronts Vladimir Putin.(Steve Brodner)
Masha Gessen confronts Vladimir Putin.(Steve Brodner)

Forget Lisbeth Salander: If you want to read about a girl who really kicked a hornet’s nest, read Masha Gessen.

Her recent book, The Man Without a Face, is as smart and evocative a thriller as any, except Gessen’s book also happens to be true. Its subtitle is The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, and it documents the Russian leader’s rise from schoolyard hooligan to steely and unscrupulous emperor. It’s a life heavy with cloaks and daggers, and it would be unfair to Gessen’s meticulous reporting to give away the best bits. Still, fans of detective novels should be advised that most of the crimes that propel the plot forward—politicians, journalists, businessmen, and spies all meet with strange and untimely deaths—go unsolved.

Interviewing both those who worked with Putin and those who suffered his wrath, Gessen portrays a ruthless and petty man who had efficiently defanged all of the institutions and individuals who might have opposed his quest for unchecked power. And Putin is not alone. Behind the man without a face is a cabal without a heart and with vast power, a regime that arms some of the world’s most destructive brutes, plunders some of the planet’s most valuable resources, and endangers the overall well-being of all but its small circle of cronies.

But while the malignant mechanics behind this violence remain hidden from view—just like in good thrillers, the bad guys are pros and leave behind little by way of evidence—the identity of the story’s real culprit is clear. That would be Putin. And his nemesis is clear, too: That would be Gessen.

Such talk of heroes and villains, I realize, is easy to dismiss as a case of hyperventilation or a spot of hysteria. Gessen runs into a similar problem in her book. The reality she so painstakingly describes sounds unreal. She looks at contemporary Russia and sees conspiracy theories everywhere, the sort of stuff that, outside of a Stieg Larsson page-turner, strikes all but the most impressionable minds as improbable and irresponsible. And yet, it’s the truth, and telling it—a deadly proposition for anyone who, like Gessen, still lives in Russia—requires more than mere journalistic skill. It requires the capacity for outrage, the bravery to act on it, and the faith that such actions can bring about real change. In short, it requires leadership. And Gessen delivers it. But in so doing, she demands of us not the bemused passivity that writers habitually require of their readers, but the type of active engagement that the best leaders ask of their followers. Gessen’s book shouldn’t be received as just a gripping read. It should be read as a call to arms. Although the book’s concerns are mainly domestic, its drama unfurls on the world stage.


Consider this: In the past decade, Bashar Assad’s regime had purchased more than $1.5 billion worth of armaments from Russia, making Damascus Moscow’s seventh-largest client. When the U.N.’s Security Council, in February of this year, sought to take action against Assad, it was stymied by a Russian veto. Three days later, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, landed in Damascus. Assad’s massacre continues uninterrupted.

Russia’s relations with Assad’s other benefactor, Iran, are just as cozy. In 2007, Putin became the first Russian leader since Stalin to visit Tehran, the occasion being a conference of the Caspian states. “All our states,” Putin stated in a press conference then, “have the right to develop their peaceful nuclear programs without any restrictions.” He also boasted about being among the sole supporters of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Closer to home, Putin expressed his desire to hang Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili “by the balls,” threatened the Lithuanians, strong-armed the Poles, and devastated the Estonians with a vicious cyber-attack. Seasoning all these acts of belligerence is a deep resentment toward the West that has led several observers to conclude that an armed conflict with Russia may be more a matter of when than if.

“The notion of Western friendship with Russia is a dead letter,” wrote the renowned historian Max Hastings in 2007. “The best we can look for is grudging accommodation. The bear has shown its claws once more, as so often in its bloody history, and its people enjoy the sensation. We may hope that in the 21st century we shall not be obliged to fight Russia. But it would be foolish to suppose that we shall be able to lie beside this dangerous, emotional beast in safety or tranquility.”

What, then, to do with the belligerent bear? After much reporting on Putin’s seemingly unstoppable brutalities, Gessen, incredibly, ends her book on an optimistic note, with tales of demonstrations and elections and a principled opposition shaking off its fears and exercising its civic duties. She recalls, for example, attending a dinner party with her partner in which regime-orchestrated voting fraud is discussed. “None of this is news to me or Darya,” she writes. “What is new is the fact that we are talking about all this at a party, late into the night. And that we all voted. And something else, too: the election observers tell us that their fellow observers included a schoolteacher, a businessman’s wife who arrived in a Range Rover, and other people who are … not like us. Something has shifted, and not only for us media junkies glued to our Facebook pages.”

It is time something shifted for those of us outside of Russia, as well. Decades ago, the American Jewish community embarked on an impressive and successful campaign, pressuring the Soviet government to set the Jewish refuseniks free. It’s time we again raised our voices at Moscow. Even those of us who bitterly disagree about everything else are likely to find common ground in opposing the predatory politics of the Putinites. The old Soviet Jewry Movement playbook is dusty, and many of its pages are doubtless no longer relevant, but some are. Let us demand, for example, a modern take on the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which denied certain trading privileges to countries that place restrictions on free emigration, and insist that all commerce with Russia slow to a trickle until Putin et al., stop their campaign against Russian civil society. Let us do as we had done decades ago and picket Russian cultural emissaries, raising awareness to the perniciousness of their patrons. Let us demand the sort of leadership on this issue that thinks not in terms of profit and loss but in terms of right versus wrong.

If we do, we might get not only better results but better leaders, the sort that do more than merely go on missions or bloviate about tikkun olam, the sort truly interested in the world that lies outside Israel, Iran, and a host of other select celebrated causes. We might even get leaders who are truly interested in America, and who are as committed to fixing their nation as Gessen is to mending hers.

In Gessen, we have a chronicler and a role model—but it’s our turn now.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.