Masha Gessen is almost over-qualified to write this biography.
In fact, as a journalist, she must’ve been upset to know that the book was nearly off to the printers during the December protests, which have been hurriedly tacked on as an epilogue. It’s an incisive epilogue – which brings the story up-to-date – but it’s hardly what the highly-capable reporter would’ve wanted, having chronicled every detail of post-Soviet Russia for such big names as the New York Times and Vanity Fair.
But the biggest name in Gessen’s roster is the St. Petersburgian hard-man Vladimir Putin. Once an anonymous bureaucrat, he was plucked from a series of desk jobs by Boris Yeltsin’s dwindling circle of kingmakers known as ‘The Family’. Putin was reinvented as a credible president, with backstory and personality cult all sewn up – largely thanks to Boris Berezovsky’s ownership of Channel One taking care of all the media coverage needed.
However, the ex-KGB spy had huge influence in Russia’s second city (‘a state within a state’) and it wasn’t long before Putin’s decisive traits consolidated all the power that could be gained following an ousting of Yeltsin.
Gessen’s novelistic approach – although gripping – probably reveals she’s been a little bit too close to the action to pass equal judgement. Exiled oligarchs get a reprieve for daring to be different, while Vladimir himself can never set a foot right. Speculations on poisonings and childhood parallels aside, this is a thrilling account of what sadly was, with the door left open at the last minute for what might be.