Sunday, March 27, 2022

Non-Fiction: Review of The Man Without a Face by Masha Gessen

Like many people, I watched the Russian army line up around Ukrainian borders in 2021 and into 2022. They are not going to attack, I said. Putin is posturing. There is no way he will take on the West. He doesn't have the economy to drive this. He has shown himself to be more of a businessman, right? And isn't Russia part of the West? And hasn't the West, as of the beginning of the 21st century, figured out that massive wars are not good for economy? I was wrong, badly wrong. And every bomb or missile that lands in Ukraine, killing people, reminds me. Where did I go wrong? Seeing an honest, realistic interview with Masha Gessen, I looked a little deeper into her background, and found what I may have been looking for: a Putin biography, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (2012).

The publication date of The Man Without A Face is important. 2012 is after Russia's war in Georgia, i.e. the brutal crushing of Georgian people by Russian military means. It was written after the start of the Syrian Civil War, an event that Russia played an active and vehement role in (razing civilian areas, chemical weapons, and the list goes on). And 2012 is, of course, before Russia's current involvement in Ukraine, starting with the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The Man Without a Face is jaded biography. This is not a criticism of the book, rather a baseline for would-be readers. Gessen occupies a journalist's shoes, but is clearly embedded in the situation personally. This is also not to say Gessen's effort lacks facts or objectivity, nor is this a way of defending Putin, which seems impossible. It's only to say Gessen's tenor and the events of Putin's life she chooses to highlight are all by design, that is, rather than maintaining a cool distance.

To dig deeper into the style of the book, Gessen presents most if not all the selected events and conflicts as being per the direction of Putin, up to and including his first election. While many of the terrible stories and events have been corroborated as indeed orchestrated by Putin, up to and including false flag events which killed Russians, there are also events the world will likely never know the full truth of—Putin's first election among them. This is a long way of saying the jaded nature/mood detracts slightly from the veracity of the presentation, lending it more of an emotional drive.

Does The Man Without a Face answer the questions this war has raised in my head—the questions outlined in the intro? Does it explain how such a leader could defy logic and murder thousands of people? Does the reader come to understand better how a sociopath in broad daylight can have the support of millions? To some degree, yes. The track record of decisions and events leading to today are there, making it easy for the reader to connect the dots. That being said, Gessen spends little time looking at Putin's ideological concerns, leaving the reader to assume everything is the result of ego.

Gessen must be complimented for her diction. Word for word, the text is a sharp, glassy read. Moreover, the narrative is made more interesting than the standard birth-childhood-teen-young adult-adult transition of many biographies. Loosely—very loosely—the text flows from Putin's past to present. But Gessen takes a more pointed approach, and the points she would like to make take precedence over the timeline in most cases. Linear biographies can be informative, but in some ways Gessen's approach is more so. Free to move backward and forward in time to pick up and lay out facts and details relevant to that moment in the text, the result is a very layered book that smoothly interchanges between Russian history and Putin's biography.

Whether I knew it or not, The Man Without a Face, despite being published a decade ago, floods the current situation (and Putin's guilt in it) with light. The cold, emotionless personality we see in the media is peeled back—as far as may be possible given it seems Putin himself has never delved too deep. And thus while emotion and hope play a stronger role than perhaps such a book warrants, it nevertheless helps the reader channel Sun Tzu: 'know your enemy'. I assume there are more comprehensive, lengthier biographies on the market, and thus would look to The Man Without a Face as complementary.

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