Yesterday, May 7, 2012, marked the third inauguration of Vladimir Putin as President of the Federal Republic of Russia. Despite the pomp of the red carpet, a reportedly half-million dollar celebratory reception, and the attention of six Russian television channels – which all broadcasted the ceremony live – the inauguration amounted to little more than the passing of a baton at a rigged race. A formality to keep up pretenses. Whether holding the title of President or that of Prime Minister, the foreign media, and some of the local independent press, are clear on who has been running the country these past twelve years. And who is set to run it for the next four at least. The signing of over a dozen decrees in the first hours of his newest presidency, as reported by The Moscow Times, is just more proof of how Putin never left the helm when Dmitry Medvedev stepped in four years ago.
This time around, however, the inauguration ceremony was marred by anti-Putin protests, with demonstrators once more crowding Bolotnaya Square since December’s parliamentary election resulted in Putin’s United Russia winning a widely disputed 50% of the vote. What hasn’t changed is the regime’s stance towards dissidents; which Putin’s spokesman, Dmitiri Peskov, confirmed by declaring “the police reaction was too gentle,” in Sunday and Monday’s brutal clashes between Moscow police and activists.
Masha Gessen, editor in chief of Russian magazine Vokrug Sveta and a contributing writer to the New York Times, Slate and Vanity Fair, is very much aware of how Putin’s various administrations have treated dissidents and journalists, like herself, in particular. In the past 12 years, with Putin shifting between the roles of President and Prime Minister, a total of 32 journalists have been killed. It is, therefore, both surprising and heartening that Gessen chose to publish a book deriding Putin’s rise to Russia’s highest office, and castigating the man himself, three days before the March 4 presidential elections. The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Riverhead Books, 2012) chronicles how a middle-ranked KGB officer suddenly found himself appointed Boris Yeltsin’s successor and the great lengths he has since taken to retain his rank as Russia’s second post-Soviet ruler.
Gessen’s account offers more than an answer to the question, “Who is Vladimir Putin?” It provides readers with a refreshing look into the most captivating Russian events of the 2000s – the Beslan hostage crisis and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko among them. And, perhaps answering why Gessen decided to join the ranks of other writers in peril, describes just how the Russian media not only came to be suppressed, but was harnessed to prevent any of Putin’s opponents from adding their name to the ballot.