Excerpted from The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Masha Gessen. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
One: The Accidental President
Imagine you have a country and no one to run it. This was the predicament that Boris Yeltsin and his inner circle thought they faced in 1999.
Yeltsin had been very ill for a long time. He had suffered several heart attacks and had undergone open-heart surgery soon after he was elected for a second term in 1996. Most people believed he drank heavily—a common and easily recognizable Russian affliction, though some of those close to him insisted that Yeltsin’s occasional bouts of disorientation and withdrawal stemmed from his persistent physical ailments and not from drinking. Whatever the reason, Yeltsin had become incoherent or gone missing during several state visits, devastating his supporters and disappointing his voters.
The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
(Riverhead; US: Mar 2012)
By 1999, Yeltsin, his popularity rating dipping into the single digits, was not half the politician he had been. He still used many of the tools that had once made him great, making unexpected political appointments, alternating periods of hands-on and laissez-faire governance, strategically applying his larger-than-life persona—but by now he most resembled a boxer gone blind, flailing in the ring, striking imaginary targets and missing real ones.
In the second half of his second term, Yeltsin reshuffled his administration repeatedly and frantically. He fired a prime minister who had been in office for six years, replacing him with a thirty-six year-old unknown, only to bring the old prime minister back six months later—to replace him again in three weeks. Yeltsin anointed one successor after another, only to grow disenchanted with each of them in a very public manner that had a way of embarrassing both the object of Yeltsin’s displeasure and anyone who witnessed the display of disaffection.
The more erratic the president became, the more enemies he made—and the more his enemies banded together. A year before his second and final term was to expire, Yeltsin found himself at the top of a very fragile pyramid. His many reshufflings had forced out several political generations’ worth of professionals; many ministry and federal agency heads were now young mediocrities who had been sucked into the vacuum at the top. Yeltsin’s trusted allies were now so few and so cloistered that the press called them the “Family”; they included Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana; his chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin; his former chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev, whom Tatyana would later marry; another former chief of staff, the economist and architect of Russian privatization Anatoly Chubais; and the entrepreneur Boris Berezovsky. Of the half-dozen so-called oligarchs—the businessmen who had grown super rich under Yeltsin and had repaid him by orchestrating his reelection campaign—Berezovsky was the only one to remain firmly by the president’s side.
Yeltsin had no legal right to seek a third term, nor was he well enough to try, and he had every reason to fear an unfriendly successor. Yeltsin was not just an unpopular president: he was the first politician whom Russians had ever trusted—and the disappointment his people felt now was every bit as bitter as the support he had once enjoyed had been inspiring.
The country was battered, traumatized, and disappointed. It had experienced hope and unity in the late 1980s, culminating in August 1991, when the people beat back the junta that had threatened Gorbachev’s rule. It had placed its faith in Boris Yeltsin, the only Russian leader in history to have been freely elected. In return, the people of Russia got hyperinflation that swallowed up their life savings in a matter of months; bureaucrats and entrepreneurs who stole from the state and from one another in plain sight; and economic and social inequality on a scale they had never known. Worst of all, many and possibly most Russians lost any sense of certainty in their future—and with it, the sense of unity that had carried them through the 1980s and early 1990s.
The Yeltsin government had made the grave mistake of not addressing the country’s pain and fear. Throughout the decade Yeltsin, who had been a true populist, riding the buses and mounting the tanks—whichever the situation happened to require—increasingly withdrew into an impenetrable and heavily guarded world of black limousines and closed conferences. His first prime minister, the brilliant young economist Yegor Gaidar, who came to epitomize post-Soviet economic reform, made it plain and public that he considered the people too dumb to engage in any discussion about reform. The people of Russia, essentially abandoned by their leaders in their hour of pain, sought solace in nostalgia—not so much in Communist ideology, which had used up its inspirational potential decades earlier, but in a longing to regain Russia’s superpower status. By 1999, there was palpable aggression in the air, and this was a large part of the reason Yeltsin and the Family were rightly terrified.
Hurt and aggression have a way of rendering people blind. So the people of Russia were largely oblivious to the actual accomplishments of the Yeltsin decade. Notwithstanding the many, many wrong turns made along the way, Russia had succeeded in privatizing much enterprise—and the biggest privatized companies had been turned around and made competitive. Despite an increase in inequality, a great majority of Russians had experienced overall improvement in their lives: the number of households with televisions, washing machines, and refrigerators grew; the number of privately owned cars doubled; the number of people traveling abroad as tourists nearly tripled between 1993 and 2000. In August 1998, Russia had defaulted on its debts, and this had caused a short but significant spike in inflation; but since then, the economy had been growing.
The media were flourishing: in an uncannily short period of time, Russians had taught themselves to make sophisticated, beautiful television, and had also created an inordinate number of print outlets and several budding electronic publications. Many though certainly not all of the country’s infrastructure problems had been addressed: intercity trains were once again running on time, the postal service was working, the number of households with telephone landlines was growing. One Russian company, a cellular service provider founded in 1992, had placed its stock on the New York Stock Exchange and done very well.
Yet the government seemed entirely incapable of convincing the people that things were indeed better than they had been a couple of years earlier, and certainly better than a decade earlier. The sense of uncertainty Russians had felt ever since the Soviet Union crumbled under their feet was so great that any losses seemed to confirm their expectation of doom, while any gains were transformed into fears of further loss. Yeltsin had only his populist ways to fall back on: he could not challenge or reshape expectations; he could not lead the country in finding new ideals and a new rhetoric. He could only try to give the people what they wanted.
And what they wanted was decidedly not Yeltsin. Tens of millions of Russians held him personally responsible for every misfortune they had encountered over the previous ten years, for their lost hopes and their shattered dreams—even, it seemed, for their vanished youth—and they hated him passionately. Whoever came to lead the country after Yeltsin could win easy popularity by prosecuting him. What the ailing president feared most was that a political party called Otechestvo—Vsya Rossiya (Fatherland—All Russia; the name, a hybrid of two political titles, sounds as inelegant in Russian as it does in English), headed by a former prime minister and several mayors and governors, would come to power and exact revenge on Yeltsin and the Family—and that he would spend his final days in jail.
That is where Vladimir Putin came in.