Friday, April 25, 2014

Masha Gessen

When I left for my two-week Fulbright visit to Russia, I thought that I'd have a lot to write about.  However, my trip came in the midst of mounting tensions related to Russia's seizure of the Crimea and ethnic tensions in the rest of the Ukraine.  The diplomatic crisis in the Ukraine overwhelmed me and utterly overshadowed my trip.  Where was Russia heading?  Why were U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations seemingly worse than they had been than at many points during the Cold War?  Although I have always been primarily interested in Russia's early Bolshevik history, my work in Russia, coupled with the Ukrainian situation, pulled me into the present.  Who was the man behind the portraits which pervaded Russian academia, and dominated the global headlines?

Upon my return from Russia, I turned toward Masha Gessen's The Man Without a Face:  The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.  To be honest, I don't know enough about the Russian present to be sure that Gessen is the most objective analysis of Putin's legacy.  Although Gessen's journalistic credentials are impeccable, she hardly seems to credit Putin for any sort of political legitimacy.  Upon leaving his job, the editor of The Moscow Times excoriated Putin's undemocratic legacy but acknowledged that the autocrat's Moscow was becoming safer, richer, more culturally vibrant, and perhaps more liveable.  Even so, Gessen's biography of Putin is a good place to start if one wants to examine the worst aspects of Putin's rise to power. She has done her homework on the man who has helped to eliminate a variety of democratic practices and institutions in order to promote a more stable or at least more powerful Russia.  Gessen's Putin is a crude if also wiley man.  While it seems unfair grant too much significance to the fact that Putin spent his early years fighting neighborhood toughs in the streets, Gessen provides a great deal of evidence to suggest that Putin's meteoric rise to power was made possible by his status as an active, or at least reserve, KGB officer.

Gessen's overall critique of Putin in power is that he is a ruthless, Soviet-style, autocrat, obsessed with recovering Russia's lost glory and prestige.  On the issue of corruptness, Gessen acknowledges that Putin had once made a name for himself by refusing bribes, but then proceeds to say that Putin may now be one of Russia's richest citizens, building a $1 billion vacation house on the Black Sea.  Gessen admits that she cannot conclusively prove many of the darkest allegations against Putin, but she seems to several politically-motivated murders, in addition to two incidents of mass terror, either directly or indirectly at Putin's feet. Clearly, Gessen's virulently anti-Putin biography cannot be the last word on either Putin the man or the nation he leads. For many of Gessen's strongest attacks against Russia's strongman aren't contextualized either by Russia's disappointing experience with liberalism, or by the West's imperfect record of respecting the prerogatives of a great power.  Even so, in an undemocratic society, an undemocratically elected regime as the burden of proof when it comes to establishing a record for respecting human rights.

In any event, my own travels made me agree with Vladimir Sorokin's recent article on the matter.  My strongest impression in Russia came when I went to see the Lubyanka symbol of so much Soviet terror. How could this monument to the secret police's criminal past remain in operation under the auspices of the FSB?  In Hungary, the main site of detention and torture is now a museum, appropriately titled The House of Terror.  Not so in Russia.  Sorokin remembers how the anti-Soviet mob brought down the state of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet Union's secret police.  When a few brave members of the crowd scaled the statue to topple the statue of one of the Bolshevik's most repulsive representatives, they were asked to wait patiently for a truck to cart the statue away.  The fear was that a falling statue would damage some wiring under the pavement below it.  Sorokin recalls how he knew the Russia's emerging revolution was in real trouble.  If the Russian people didn't have enough willpower or anger to clarity of historical memory to destroy even this symbol of terror, how would they overthrow the mentality it represented?

Sorokin's perspective corresponds to my own thoughts on the matter.  Soviet symbols are everywhere in Russia today, and the cult of personality surrounding Putin closely resembles that of the Soviet apparatchiks who ruled the country for seventy years.  Perhaps Russia still awaits the revolution that was promised in 1991 but never really occurred.

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