Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book 151: The Man Without A Face

"Putin loved the Soviet Union, and he loved its KGB, and when he had power of his own, effectively running the financial system of the country's second-largest city, he wanted to build a system just like them. It would be a closed system, a system built on total control—especially control over the flow of information and the flow of money. It would be a system that aimed to exclude dissent and would crush it if it appeared."

Dates read: June 9-14, 2017

Rating: 7/10

There are two kinds of people, in my experience working in politics, who decide to run: people who genuinely care about people and want to be a part of the solution in helping the community run better, and people who like power. These aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but there's generally one that seems to be predominant. Thankfully, most of the people I've worked with are in the former rather than the latter category. As hard as it seems to believe in our currently climate of partisan enmity, the solid majority of politicians on both sides are in it because they're trying to do good for their communities, states, and country.

It's the other ones, the ones who are focused on power, who are hard to deal with at best and dangerous at worst. Perhaps the world's most prominent power-oriented politician is President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and The Man Without A Face is Russian writer Masha Gessen's look at how he rose and how he's managed to stay on top.  Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election has been and continues to be a very hot topic, so this book got bumped up on my reading list because I wanted some context for what's going on in the world right now. It proved a very timely, very enlightening read.

Those looking for a straightforward biography of Putin will be disappointed. Although the details of Putin's life, such that they are available, are discussed at significant length, the book is just as focused on explaining the Russia in which he came to power and how he's worked to concentrate and hold that power ever since. The relative comfort in which Putin grew up, the disappointment of a boring posting to East Germany while with the KGB, his good fortune in finding himself attached to then-Mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, the way in which he was plucked from obscurity to succeed Boris Yeltsin by political handlers overconfident that he would be moldable clay...and his utter ruthlessness in completely destroying potential foes before they were able to gain any real momentum. All of that's there, but Gessen provides important details about Russia's political history to help understand how it was all able to be executed so effectively.

Speaking of executed...Gessen's book doesn't directly accuse Putin of having them carried out, but she draws damning connections between dissident activity that angered him and then sudden, untimely deaths due to very unlikely causes, like radioactive element poisoning. Documentary proof of this and other clandestine, illegal activity very likely doesn't exist or is deeply buried, so she can't present it to her readers. This is not surprising, but I didn't get the sense that she was scare-mongering or making molehills into mountains. It seemed to me like she picked examples of politically motivated scare tactics/violence where the logical chain was clear, and I have to imagine that for every situation she presents, there are several sketchier ones that required larger conclusory leaps that were left untold. If you're interested in Putin, or Russia, or autocrats, I'd definitely recommend this book. It's worth your time.

Tell me, blog you think politicians are mostly good, or mostly bad?

One year ago, I was reading: Player Piano

Two years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Three years ago, I was reading: Gilded

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