In the spring of 2016 I was sitting in a coffee shop on Vancouver’s West Fourth Avenue, an office that I rented for two double espressos every day. A friend stopped at my table — I will call her Daria. “What are you working on these days?” she asked.
I told her that I'd been hired by a local production company to co-direct a one-hour documentary. The subject: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Putin!” she said with enthusiasm. “We need someone like him, don't we?”
I was taken aback. Daria was intelligent, sophisticated, well read. I would never have pegged her as a member of that particular fan club. And yet on some level I understood. There were, and are, people everywhere who felt drawn to the former KGB agent who now ruled the land of the czars. A strongman always exerts a certain appeal. In a city where (to cite a more recent example) council spends five hours debating a 25-cent disposable cup fee, the cult of the all-powerful, decisive leader will always find followers. About six months after my encounter with Daria one of Putin's most devoted acolytes would win the race for the White House, braying, “I alone can fix it.”
But I had an advantage on Daria. I had just been given the opportunity to fly around the U.S. and Europe, from New York to California, to London, Germany, Stockholm and Kyiv, interviewing an astonishing array of people. Some, like former U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates and former CIA director Leon Panetta, had dealt with Putin from across the strategic chessboard. Others like Masha Gessen and the BBC's John Simpson, had crossed his path while chronicling his career. And still others, like Marina Litvinenko and Zhanna Nemtsova, had suffered devastating personal losses almost certainly instigated by Putin himself. I heard their stories and their pain. What could I learn about Putin’s motivations and mindset? And has the Putin I was told about in 2016 changed in the six years since?
‘He is entirely sealed from the outside world’
Imagine this: You are a Russian journalist. You have just published a biography of Russian President Vladimir Putin that chronicles with unflinching gaze his crimes and corruption. Your name is on a government blacklist. And then one day, you get a phone call from Putin himself. He asks you to meet him at the Kremlin.
What do you do?
Masha Gessen went, and willingly. “No,” Gessen told me, “I was not terrified. It’s not like I’m crazy. Living in Moscow at the time, especially when I was working on the book but also after the book was published, was dangerous. But going to the Kremlin was not dangerous. Going to the Kremlin was just a huge opportunity.”
By the time I met them, Gessen was living in New York. Gessen's book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, had become my bible as I prepared for interviews. Ours was set for a Manhattan location, not far from Central Park. Gessen arrived on a bicycle. We sat together in a large, wood-panelled library room, surrounded by a film crew. Gessen talked extensively about the rise and career of Vladimir Putin. But I was particularly curious about that Kremlin meeting in September 2012.
Why hadn't Gessen been afraid? “These people are not confronters,” Gessen told me. “Putin would not crucify me in his working office. If anything, he would have me knocked off in a back alley. So going to the Kremlin to meet him was pure joy. It was exciting, it was a journalistic coup. It was my everyday life that could be a little scary.”
Gessen waited outside his office for two hours. “Very important guests wait for two hours, so waiting for two hours was like being the Queen of England,” Gessen recalled. “There’s a lot of gilt — not the emotion but the gold kind — and very ornate curtains. But it smells of borscht. And when you walk in there’s a Soviet bureaucratic ritual. To assert his power he continues to sit at his desk. The bureaucrat is only supposed to get up when you’re halfway to the desk. So when I was exactly halfway to the desk, he got up, he walked around the desk and he shook my hand.” (Marina Litvinenko would later tell me that, according to their late husband Alexander, Putin has a surprisingly limp handshake.)
As it turned out, the summons was not about the book at all, but about a controversy surrounding a sports magazine Gessen had edited called Vokrug Sveta. Gessen had refused to cover a staged event involving Putin and a Siberian prince, and had subsequently been fired. Putin apparently wanted to smooth things over. But in the process of the interview it became clear Putin had no idea who Gessen was. “He didn’t know that I had been an opposition journalist for many years. He didn’t know that his people had blacklisted me. He didn’t know that I’d written a book about him that had been translated into 20 languages and become a bestseller in many of them.”
Many have asked this month how Putin could have been so misguided about the prospects for his Ukraine invasion and the world reaction. The answers may lie in Gessen's explanation of just how a man who once headed the feared Russian security service had no idea he was sitting across from one of his most prominent critics.
“First of all,” Gessen said, “someone has to tell him that I’ve written a book, which is already bad news. So nobody wants to deliver that news unless it’s absolutely necessary, right? Now once he called to schedule a meeting with me it became even more problematic because it would mean that someone who had written a critical book was allowed to become editor of a major magazine. How had his aides let this happen? They hadn’t done their jobs. So they didn’t tell him.”
“Now, it’s scary to contemplate that Putin is that dependent on a couple of people to either deliver information to him or shield him from information, but that’s exactly how it works. He doesn’t use the internet; he doesn’t actually have a computer that he uses for work. He reads things on paper. The briefings are delivered to him. He is entirely sealed from the outside world, unless he accidentally breaks that seal. His phone call to me was a sort of classic case of breaking that seal, and then they didn’t know what to do about it. They had to scramble, and part of the scrambling was directed toward shielding him from knowing who I was because they feared for their jobs.”
The recent scene of Putin berating his own spy chief Sergey Naryshkin for giving an insufficiently servile answer underscores the dynamic Gessen described to me. Those who punish truth-tellers rarely get the truth.
Gessen had been excited to meet the man they had written about. By all accounts Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin had been the kind of person who could electrify any room he was in. Was it also true of Putin? “I wondered what part of it was just the mystique of the office, the seduction of power, and how much of it was his personality,” Gessen said.
Pulling back the curtain proved disappointing. “There was nothing there. He was just as two-dimensional as this guy I’d written a book about.”
'His favourite song was “Yesterday”'
So how is Putin described by others who have come face to face with him? Mesmerizing. Charismatic. Colourless. Dull. Forgettable.
“I first saw him in the office of a man called Anatoly Sobchak, who was the mayor of St. Petersburg,” BBC journalist John Simpson told me. “When I went to see [Sobchak], sitting at a desk just beside his was this smallish, slightly weasely character with bare hair, looking very modest and keeping his head down. It was indeed Vladimir Putin. I didn’t speak to him. Why would I? He wasn’t of any importance.”
Referring to those ‘90s St. Petersburg days, Gessen said: “Most people who met Putin don’t remember meeting Putin.”
After Boris Yeltsin made Putin his prime minister in 1999, Simpson interviewed an American who had worked with him. “Let’s put it this way,” the American told Simpson. “If I had to make a list of the hundred people most likely to be prime minister of Russia, Putin's name wouldn’t have been on the list.'”
“He doesn’t have what I would call a sense of humour,” former U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates told me. “The things that he says that he thinks are amusing — and that sometimes are — are sarcastic comments, not stories or anecdotes or bon mots. He’s a very serious person. But he’s always polite.”
The Putin I was hearing about did not exactly seem like a charismatic dynamo. Where was the hypnotic personality that had transformed Donald Trump into his simpering stooge and had caused even sophisticated people like Daria to sing his praises? An unfazed observer like Gessen may be able to see through Putin's formidable reputation. But it's not always easy. Power generates its own aura.
Take the experience of the photographer known as Platon. Hired to make Putin's portrait for Time magazine's 2007 Man of the Year cover (a photo that has subsequently appeared on countless posters and protest signs) he was picked up in a dark sedan and driven into the woods. He was then escorted into a remote dacha past a stone wall lined with snipers and left alone in a room. Putin's entry surrounded by bodyguards was, Platon said, “pretty intimidating.”
But he says he disarmed Putin by mentioning the Beatles — “Putin said, 'I love the Beatles,'” Platon recalled. “His favourite song was ‘Yesterday.’”
The entourage was then sent out of the room so the session could begin. The resulting photo depicts Putin staring implacably into the camera from inches away, a portrait of power and menace.
This was the Putin who dazzled Trump and appears to hold much of the Republican party in his thrall. Trump and Putin have revealed the powerful current of authoritarianism in American politics. Russians know all about that. They have known for centuries.
‘His dream was to be a sort of James Bond character’
Russians have always told the best — and darkest — jokes about themselves. An example: Stalin appears to Putin in a dream. “I have two pieces of advice for you,” Stalin says. “First, kill all of your opponents. Second, paint the Kremlin blue.” Putin says, “Why should I paint the Kremlin blue?” “Yeah,” Stalin replies, “I figured you'd complain about that one.”
Whatever else he might be, Putin is a killer.
In November 2006 Marina Litvinenko was in a London hospital room watching her husband die. Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent, was suffering from what would prove to be polonium-210 poisoning. Alexander and Marina had fled Russia for their own safety. But once in London, Alexander had agreed to a meeting with a Russian agent named Andrey Lugovoy where he was served a cup of cold and bitter tea. Hours later he became seriously ill. His hair had come out, one doctor noted, like a cancer patient undergoing radiation therapy.
Now as her husband lay emaciated in his hospital bed, his wife was asked if she wanted to take a photo of him to show the world. “My first reaction was no,” Marina told me. “But then I realized it was very important. I don’t like this word, but people say it’s become an iconic picture of what happened to Sasha.”
Only a month earlier Litvinenko had been reminded what Putin was capable of. “Anna Politkovskaya was a very good friend of Sasha,” Marina said. “Sasha tried to help Anna with her work in Chechnya.”
Politkovskaya, a reporter and author, had reported extensively on Putin's brutal Chechen war and other excesses. She was threatened, arrested, held hostage, poisoned and finally on Oct. 7, 2006, murdered in her apartment block.
Meanwhile Litvinenko had been working to uncover the crime that might be called Vladimir Putin's original sin.
Shortly after Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin prime minister in 1999, there were horrible explosions at apartment blocks in Moscow and elsewhere. Over 300 were killed and over 1,000 injured. Chechen terrorists, Putin declared, and he promised to hunt them without mercy. Attacks on Chechnya were launched, and Putin's popularity soared. Litvinenko, a former agent of the FSB (successor to the KGB), later charged that the apartment bombings had in fact been the work of the FSB, whose director until recently had been Vladimir Putin.
“Putin never wanted to be president,” Gessen told me. “He was born to be a KGB agent. His dream, his ultimate ambition, was to be a sort of James Bond character.”
Putin had attempted to join the KGB when he was only 16, eventually becoming an agent stationed in Dresden. “He returned home after the Eastern Bloc collapsed, full of bitterness,” Gessen said, “because he felt that he had gone to East Germany to represent the Soviet Union, to protect the empire, and Gorbachev had just allowed the whole thing to fizzle.”
Putin ended up in St. Petersburg working for the mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. When Sobchak faced jail time for rampant corruption Putin managed to sneak him out of the country to safety. That loyalty attracted the attention of President Yeltsin. Seeking an exit strategy, Yeltsin needed a successor who would not seek to prosecute a retired leader. Putin's future was thus secured.
As prime minister, Putin positioned himself as protector of the people, and on the last day of the dying century succeeded Yeltsin as president. But by now key people were asking questions about the apartment bombings. “Two of them were parliament members,” Gessen said. “One was named Yuri Shchekochikhin. He died of a very strange full-body allergic reaction, in terrible agony in a Moscow hospital. The other was Sergei Yushenkov. He was shot dead in front of his apartment building in Moscow. A third was Anna Politkovskaya. The fourth was Alexander Litvinenko.”
Marina's eyes were wet as she retold the story of her husband's final hours. “Sasha tried to show how all this organized crime and this security service work together,” she said. “And he tried to help people understand how it might be dangerous one day not only for Russia, but for all the world.”
‘Five bullets into his back’
I met Zhanna Nemtsova in a small town in Germany, not far from where she worked as a broadcast journalist. Nemtsova is the daughter of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. Just a year before our meeting her father had been murdered within a stone's throw of the Kremlin walls. “My father was for evolution, not revolution,” she told me. “Or a peaceful revolution at least.”
On the night of Feb. 27, 2015 Nemtsov was walking across the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge when, as a distant closed circuit video showed, a snow plow slowed beside him, and behind the snow plow, a car. A figure then appears to run to the car, which drives off. “He got five bullets into his back,” his daughter said.
Nemtsova and her mother were asleep when her mother was awakened by her phone. “She started to cry, to yell, and I woke up. I thought some robbers were in our flat. When she told me I didn’t believe her. I took my phone and went online to check websites.”
“We took a taxi to the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky. But by the time we arrived at the scene of the murder they had put my father’s body in the ambulance.”
Exactly who killed Nemtsov is unclear — even his daughter is reluctant to say for sure. But Bill Browder, author of the book Red Notice, argues Putin had to be involved. “The only way anyone could have conducted an assassination in front of the Kremlin in those circumstances,” he told me, “against the most beloved Russian opposition politician, would be with the formal blessing and instructions from Vladimir Putin.”
“We can add dozens of names to the list of people who disappeared for the last 10-15 years,” former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko told me in Kyiv. “The killer is the Russian regime.”
In the wrap-up tomorrow, Browder and Yushchenko will describe what happens when Putin’s political maneuverings become all too personal.
Read the second half of this feature, 'Vlad Intentions.'
Read more: Politics
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