The Man Without a Face | Masha Gessen

Summary of: The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
By: Masha Gessen


Dive into the gritty and enigmatic world of Vladimir Putin, as presented in Masha Gessen’s ‘The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin’. From his grim childhood in Leningrad to his steady rise through the KGB ranks, this book summary presents a comprehensive look at Putin’s life. Discover the inner workings of a man who became the defining face of modern Russia, and how his ruthless pursuit of power led to the dismantling of democracy, suppression of dissent, and fostering of corruption on an unprecedented scale. Explore the political landscape of post-Soviet Russia and how Putin molded it to maintain his grip on power and cement his place in history.

Putin’s Life In A Broken Home

Vladimir Putin’s life began in a bombed-out shell of a city in Leningrad following World War II. Living in only a small 20-square-meter room until he was 25, Putin channeled his aggression through his martial arts. His father also had ties with the Soviet intelligence agency, the NKVD, which inspired Putin’s interest in spy work. Despite not being an exemplary student, Putin applied to Leningrad University and was accepted.

Putin’s Early Career in the KGB

After graduating from Leningrad University, Putin fulfilled his dream of working for the secret service. However, his KGB work mostly involved collecting newspaper clippings and writing reports. Putin’s most significant professional accomplishment was purchasing a U.S. Army manual. Despite the communist resistance across Eastern Europe, Putin remained loyal to the KGB and the Soviet Union. When riots and protests signaled the beginning of the collapse of the communist edifice, Putin claims to have talked to protesters himself. However, when protesters approached the Dresden offices where Putin worked, he burned sensitive documents and requested help. Putin returned to his parent’s house in Leningrad, confused and angry at the events following the fall and East Germany’s interference with Soviet businesses.

Putin’s Shifting Allegiances

Putin navigates politics during the fall of the Soviet Union and the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.

Returning to Russia, Putin found himself in a country rapidly transforming under Gorbachev’s reform program, including “glasnost” or openness. Pro-democracy politicians were elected to parliament in 1989, including law professor Anatoly Sobchak, whom Putin served as an advisor while still a member of the KGB. Despite Gorbachev’s Committee for Constitutional Oversight, the KGB continued to spy on pro-democratic politicians. In August 1991, the KGB and a group of politicians launched a coup against Gorbachev, placing him under house arrest. Putin distanced himself from the KGB to protect himself and played both sides of the coup with Sobchak’s apparent approval. Putin and Sobchak hid in a bunker during the coup and emerged only when it was safe two days later. The coup failed, and Putin continued to navigate the shifting political landscape, eventually rising to power as the President of Russia.

Putin and Sobchak: The Rise and Fall of Two Opportunistic Leaders

In the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin and Sobchak took advantage by using their positions to enrich themselves. Putin negotiated an ill-fated trade deal that benefited him with a $34 million kickback, while Sobchak exploited his power to provide his friends and family with cushy apartments. Putin’s fortunes changed when he became head of the FSB and managed to clear Sobchak’s corruption charges. Political rivalry ensued, with Putin eventually becoming president, and Sobchak dying under mysterious circumstances after an apparent reconciliation with Putin.

Putin’s Rise to Power

After the fall of communism in Russia, President Yeltsin’s administration struggled with a grim economic situation and increasing inequality. To protect himself from his political enemies, Yeltsin turned to his political clique, “The Family,” to choose his successor. They selected Vladimir Putin, who was believed to be compliant and safe. Putin became prime minister and the head of a new political party with the help of oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who financed his interests in multiple industries. In 2000, Yeltsin resigned and appointed Putin, who had no political experience, as acting president of Russia. Putin’s rise to power transformed Russia’s politics, constitution, and people.

The Rise of Putin through Terror and War

In 1999, a series of terrorist bombings hit Russia, attributing the blame to native Chechens. However, evidence suggests that the Russian secret service may have been responsible for the attacks to incite fear and war. The crisis continued, with hostage crises in 2002 and 2004, during which Russian forces used illegal methods and caused significant casualties. After the Beslan siege, Putin consolidated his power by appointing governors, lower house of parliament, and mayors while restricting reviews to a chamber of deputies he had appointed.

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