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Q+A: Vladimir Putin biographer interview

Published: 1:41PM Sunday May 19, 2013 Source: Q+A



Masha Gessen has written an unofficial and highly critical biography charting Vladimir Putin’s breath-taking rise to absolute power. Despite the risks, Masha still lives in Moscow, and she is with us this morning. A very good morning to you.

MASHA GESSEN - Putin Biographer

                        Hello. Good to be here.

SUSAN          How would you describe the man’s personality?

MASHA          The man’s personality? Well, he has actually said a lot about himself, if you listen to him. And he portrays himself as a thug. His only official biography, his only series of official interviews that came out when he was first rising to power is actually a series of stories about fights that he got into as a school child, as a student, as a KGB officer.

SUSAN          Because as a student, it was fascinating, wasn’t it? He was a young man who dreamed of becoming a KGB agent. Most young boys would have been dreaming of being cosmonauts, and he’s dreaming of being a KGB agent, which says a lot about him, I think.

MASHA          Absolutely. From what I can tell, his father was a KGB agent. I mean, we know he served in the precursor to the KGB for a short time, but he seems to have never left. And I think Vladimir Putin was quite literally born into the KGB and born for the KGB.

SUSAN          And that is something he has taken and taken forward in his whole political career, hasn’t he? That way of operating.

MASHA          Absolutely. He thinks that the KGB, especially the late KGB, of the late Soviet Union was the best institution that was ever created, and he has done everything to turn Russia into as much of the KGB as he can.

SUSAN          Can you give me a couple of specific examples of things he has done the really reflect that?

MASHA          Well, he is turning it into a secretive, closed, highly vertically controlled - or at least aspiring to high vertical control - institution that’s become very dysfunctional. Very much like the late KGB.

SUSAN          He’s very rich too. How’s he managed to amass a $40 billion fortune? It’s enormous, isn’t it?

MASHA          Right. Well, we don’t know whether the $40 billion number is right or wrong. In fact, I don’t think anybody, including Putin, knows how much money he has.

SUSAN          That is because it’s so large?

MASHA          Because it’s large and because the ownership structure is complex, to say the least. Most of his assets are parked with oligarchs, rich Russians who are dependent on him and have to keep these assets safe. And some of the assets are in bearer shares of Swiss companies. So it’s a question of physical position of the papers that document the companies. And we don’t actually know how much of that he would be able to keep if he were ever to lose power, and he clearly worries, but not much.

SUSAN          We saw last year, we saw riots - well, certainly demonstrations - against Putin. Yet, he manages to hold onto power, and he’s managed to change the whole structure, that he just seems to jump between the two most powerful jobs, doesn’t he

MASHA          It’s not particularly original. I mean, dictators have used that sort of tactic for generations. Both the jumping from office to office business and the crackdown that Putin has instituted since coming back into office officially in May of last year. So it’s been for a year we’ve been living through an extreme crackdown.

SUSAN          We also see his critics killed when we saw a very, very high profile case of the poisoning in the UK.

MASHA          Polonium.

SUSAN          Yeah. Yeah, I mean, where does that- how high does that start? Where do those orders begin, in your belief?

MASHA          I believe that he has created a system in which a whole category of people is outside the law, is unprotected, it’s open season on critics, on our position, on journalists, on activists. I don’t think that Putin personally orders most of those killings. He personally behaves in a way that makes it clear that those killings are all right.

SUSAN          Are you concerned for your own safety, having written such a critical book on Vladimir Putin?

MASHA          I would be crazy not to be concerned about my own safety. But I think I have less reason to be concerned than many other people. I have a high profile. I have a lot of publicity in the West. Some earlier murders have taught them that bad publicity in the West is uncomfortable. And I know people who have been attacked, who have been beaten and who have been killed, and so I think part of the reason that this was possible was because they didn’t have the kind of publicity that I have.

SUSAN          So you think your public persona gives you some protection, actually, because you have been spied on, haven’t you, that you’re aware of.

MASHA          Well, that’s normal. That’s sort of standard fare for anybody in our position.

SUSAN          To be spied on?

MASHA          To have your phone bugged, to have somebody hang out outside your door, to have people follow you. That’s standard. We live with that.

SUSAN          How unnerving is that?

MASHA          It can be extremely unnerving. The first time it happened to me, when someone was standing outside my apartment door for several days on end, I found it incredibly intrusive and it made me very, very nervous and paranoid, and I had to leave the country for a little bit to just sort of air out. I’ve learned not to notice it.

SUSAN          So it’s just become normal?

MASHA          It’s just something that exists parallel to my life. I don’t feel like it affects it.

SUSAN          How much of a threat is Putin to the Western world, to the rest of us?

MASHA          Well, think about it. It’s one-sixth of the Earth’s landmass, it has more nuclear warheads than any other country except for the United States and it is in possession of a large part of the world’s supply of oil and gas. And it is run by a ruthless dictator who openly shows and tells that he is temperamental and he has trouble controlling his temper.

SUSAN          How long will he stay in power? I mean, you’re talking about a man who will stop at nothing to keep it, really, aren’t you?

MASHA          I think he is in the last stages of his regime. Those last stages, those agonising and miserable last stages can last a while. But this is the final act. He no longer has popular support. He has had to resort to a crackdown to keep power. Now it’s a question of how stable oil prices remain and whether there’s an economic crisis that causes the whole thing to boil over. That could happen in a year, it could happen in five years.

SUSAN          Yeah, so hard to predict, but you would be predicting a violent, some sort of violence to the end of Vladimir Putin?

MASHA          Well, the more and the tighter he puts on the screws, the more pressure there is on people and the less of the probability of a peaceful outcome.

SUSAN          Now, in the past week or so, we’ve seen Russia expelling an American diplomat. Quite a bizarre case. The blonde wig and all of that. What is your take on that particular expulsion?

MASHA          I think somebody has been watching The Americans, which is a wonderful-

SUSAN          Oh, the television show. (LAUGHS) Yes, it did actually resonate with that, didn’t it? What’s the feeling in Russia, and there’s a lot of publicity in the West about Pussy Riot. What is the feeling in there about that?

MASHA          It’s a very important case, first of all because it sort of signalled the beginning of the crackdown. Because these women went to jail for two years for staging a 40 second peaceful protest in the form of a song, and they got two years of jail for that. It also was the beginning of this culture war that is part of the crackdown. Basically, what Putin has been doing it he’s been trying to appeal to his shrinking base of Russian nationalists and conservatives by showing everyone else to be foreign, to be different. So Pussy Riot, which has been portrayed as an enemy of the Russian Orthodox Church, which it’s not, has been very much a pawn in that particular game. And it’s a signal case.

SUSAN          You met Putin once.

MASHA          I did.

SUSAN          What did you think in person?

MASHA          Um, well, it was amazing because I had written the book by the time I met him, which he didn’t know.

SUSAN          He hadn’t read the book.

MASHA          He hadn’t read the book and clearly hadn’t been briefed on the fact that I’d written the book, which just actually goes to show how dysfunctional the Russian government is right now. But, you know, I felt like I was going to meet a character I’d made up. And I’d spent years poring over every speech he’d ever given and watching every video interview that he’d ever given, so I had a very clear image of him. But I was kind of hoping to be surprised. I was hoping to feel something, because the book I wrote and the character than emerged is very two-dimensional. He is very flat. He is uninteresting. And, um, he was very flat, he was uninteresting. He was bad at the meeting. He had not been briefed. He pitched it all wrong. He thought he was charming me, but he was making thuggish jokes, as he usually does.

SUSAN          Very good to talk to you. Fascinating. Masha Gessen, thank you so much for your time this morning.

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