Putin as Sith Lord: Review of "The Man Without a Face"
Here, or In A Galaxy Far, Far Away?
On sporadic occasions throughout my life, I've been what could be labeled a marginal Star Wars Geek. No, I don't stroll around Comic-con in a Wookie suit, nothing that extreme. Neither do I live completely immersed in some space opera fantasy world, as I still like to crack a history book and learn about events in our local spiraling cluster of stars, not just some pretend galaxy far far away.
All the same, I am prone to draw analogies from characters, events, and concepts in what used to be the George Lucas Universe, until Disney bought it. Just the other day, when a coworker of mine found himself perturbed by our supervisor, I urged him to calm himself down by chanting I am one with the Force, the Force is with me. Yes, that's taking nerdiness to extremes, I'll admit, but I also think that sometimes the Star Wars Universe draws eerie parallels with our own, and I'm pretty sure that was the way that George Lucas, a student of anthropologist Joseph Campbell and his theory of the cross-cultural monomyth, intended it to be. So whether you live here or in a galaxy far, far, away, cultural motifs are going to be constant, only the names changing to protect the innocent, or expose the guilty.
Among some birthday gift card books I ordered recently was one entitled The Man Without a Face - The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen. Gessen is an expatriate Russian journalist who now plies her trade in the United States. She has authored several non-fiction books in English and also contributed to The New York Times, US News and World Report, and other big name publications. Like some famous and other not quite so famous Russian turned American writers I know of, Gessen has completely absorbed English into her being. Whether you think such affections are charming or annoying, you won't hear an accent in Gessen's writing.
What you will get is a strange, twisted tale so utterly out of the ordinary that it reads as some space fantasy that really does take place in a fictional universe. Maybe the acts and deeds that Gessen describes are business as usual in Russia, that nebulous land stretching across the endless Eurasian steppes, but here in the United States we haven't reached the point yet where political assassination is an everyday occurrence, and sham terrorist acts, created for political gain, are pulled off without even a tweak upon the Machiavellian conscience. Or maybe we do experience these events here, but are not yet ready to ascribe them to anything other than half-baked conspiracy theories. Whatever the case, Gessen's book feels like an alien world, an imaginary landscape manufactured in Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic special effects studios.
As I mentioned before, George Lucas was inspired by Joseph Campbell, whose seminal work was The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Gessen, on the other hand, maintains that Vladimir Putin is The Man Without A Face. Could it be, then, that faceless Putin is the anti-hero, the dark Sith Lord who fiercely opposes Russia's journey along the road to democratic enlightenment? Or is the Russian President merely the single face for even more sinister, reactionary forces that have a stake in moving Russia back to the authoritarian style rule imposed by the Soviet Union?
Not Lunchtime Lit
Some of you may have read articles in Mel Carriere's "Lunchtime Lit" book review series. This is not one of those silly Lunchtime Lit reviews. This is a serious, regular review, with all the regular things you expect in serious, regular reviews.
Putin as Phantom Menace?
Reading The Man Without a Face causes the suppressed Star Wars geek in me to resurface and reminisce back to the 1999 film Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. In that particular installment of the series we see Darth Sidious, an amorphous, hooded figure from the dark side of the Force, create an outlaw Trade Federation that commits outrages against the Galactic Republic and stirs up the galaxy into a state of war. In his non-hooded alter ego of war-hawk Senator Palpatine, Sidious uses the crisis to take control of the Galactic Senate, impose martial law, and eventually have himself declared Emperor.
In 1999 the equally obscure, ill-defined Vladimir Putin was similarly unveiled, materializing as if out of nowhere to become Prime Minister of Russia at the height of the Chechnyan separatist crisis. At that time, Putin was serving as the head of the FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service. Gessen rather convincingly asserts that when he was appointed Prime Minister by then President Boris Yeltsin, Putin used his contacts in the FSB to engineer a string of deadly apartment building bombings across Russia, a foul deed for which Chechnyan terrorists were conveniently blamed. Putin took advantage of the resulting fear and public outcry to have himself elected President, then used his growing power to slowly eliminate democracy and become the absolute ruler of Russia.
Once entrenched in power, President Putin regularly availed himself of such terrorist crises to remind the Russian public that he was still the tough guy they needed to eliminate the threat, if only he was allowed to consolidate more power to himself. The most notable of these "terrorist" acts occurred in September, 2004, when 385 people were massacred during a hostage crisis at a school gymnasium in the North Caucasus town of Beslan. Perhaps a peaceful resolution to the crisis would not have produced the level of carnage necessary to convince the Russian people that their safety could not be assured without sacrificing even more freedom, so Putin's security forces stormed the building after only three days of negotiations. This premature rescue operation resulted in hundreds of deaths, including at least 186 children. Gessen and others speculate that some of the hostage takers were either Russian agents, planted by Putin, or known terrorists already in police custody who were released prior to the event. Only one man would seem to benefit from unleashing dangerous killers upon the public. Not surprisingly, the "reforms" passed after Beslan strengthened the power of the hooded SIth Lord at the helm in the Kremlin, one Vladimir Putin.
After taking control of the galactic government, Sith Lord Emperor Palpatine dispatched Darth Vader with an enormous army of clones to annihilate his enemies, the Jedi Knights. In a similar vein, Gessen tells us that Darth Putin has used incarceration and political assassination to permanently silence people critical of his regime, particularly those who threaten to expose his behind the scenes Sith machinations. Although the Russian President is quick to deny complicity in the untimely but convenient death of his rivals, the murders are frequently attached to a calling card that leaves no doubt about the identity of the culprit.
The most famous Putin-engineered assassination was that of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian FSB spy who died in a London hospital on November 23, 2006 after falling foul of the dark Lord in the Kremlin. An autopsy analysis of Litvinenko's urine revealed polonium, a scarce but extremely radioactive substance. Polonium occurs in infinitesimal amounts in nature, but the quantity used to kill Litvinenko could only have been manufactured, a process requiring nuclear reactors. Russia is the only country that manufactures polonium, and who but Putin could have authorized the manufacture and dissemination of the substance to Litvinenko's assassins?
The laundry list of other politicians, businessmen, and journalists who have somehow crossed Vladimir Putin and subsequently have fallen to a bullet or been poisoned seems far too extensive to accept as "coincidence." Furthermore, the litany of victims continues to grow, as Putin thumbs his nose toward the west and remains shameless and unrepentant of his crimes. Just last Thursday, March 23, former Russian lawmaker Denis Voronenkov, who fled to the Ukraine a year ago to escape Putin's wrath, was gunned down on a Kiev sidewalk.
Putin as Puppet?
The thesis of The Man Without a Face, indeed its title, asks the question of how an unknown KGB Lieutenant Colonel rose to the Presidency of the Russian Republic less than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. How could the faceless Vladimir Putin rise from complete obscurity to so quickly and completely become the undisputed autocrat some label the most powerful man in the world?
In her book, Masha Gessen chronicles the manner in which a powerful clique of former KGB officers took control of the government of St. Petersburg after the fall of the Soviet Union, effectively forming a state within a state. Vladimir Putin rose through the apparatus of this machine, learning both the art of political maneuver and how to skim off the public purse, a talent he has now developed to the point that the retirement net worth of this lower level KGB bureaucrat is estimated to be around 40 billion dollars. This is a truly remarkable rags to riches story from a leader whose popularity arises, in part, from being an anti-corruption crusader. Putin drained the Russian swamps indeed, straight into his own bank account.
After a failed 1991 KGB coup seemed to finally signal the triumph of Russian democracy, the defeated state security apparatus retreated, regrouped, and went underground as the St. Petersburg "mafia" that Putin became a key component of. This shadowy organization shook off its former association with the Communist Party, but not its allegiance to authoritarian principles.
When extremely unpopular President Boris Yeltzin needed a new Prime Minister to prop up his single digit approval ratings, the unknown Vladimir Putin seemed like an innocent enough choice. At that time, Putin had risen to the head of the Federal Security Service, but was not on the "short list" of members of the oligarch elite lining up to replace the discredited leader of the Russian Federation, even though he stands just five feet, seven inches. Putin was generally predicted to be just another here today, gone tomorrow Prime Minister who would serve Yeltsin's interests and then be swept out when the changing political climate required another house cleaning.
The conclusion we draw from Gessen's book, however, is that Putin's facelessness derived from the fact that he was simply the front man of a darker, more sinister group of unseen faces slinking about in the shadows, a cabal of wraiths biding time waiting to take back what what was considered their rightful inheritance, control of the mighty Russian Empire. Perhaps at the time he appointed Putin to be Prime Minister, Boris Yeltzin reckoned his appointee to be a malleable puppet. Perhaps at that time Putin was, as yet, a puppet, but Yeltzin was not the one controlling his strings.
In the nearly two decades since Vladimir Putin disposed of Boris Yeltzin and took over as President of Russia, things are being done KGB style all over again, just as in the good old glory days of the Soviet Union. Arbitrary arrests, sham trials, and political assassination are de rigueur once more. Who is ultimately responsible for the election of Putin and the shift back to the Czarist style of Nicholas II and Josef Stalin? A enlightened prophet once said You will know them by their fruits. A tree corrupt and decayed will bear bitter fruit, and the sweet ambrosia of democracy briefly sampled by the Russian people has once again been replaced by insipid autocracy.
I Did Not Vote for These Assholes. I Voted for The Other Assholes. I Demand a Recount."— A sign seen at an anti-Putin protest, quoted by Masha Gessen
May The Farce Be With You
In The Man Without a Face, not once does author Masha Gessen use the terms Sith Lord, light saber, or Dark Side of the Force. Although she very well could be a Star Wars geek like me, I haven't seen any photos of her with hair done up in Princess Leia whorls. No, I believe the Star Wars analogies I drew from her book are unintentional and strictly my own, the product of a psyche that refuses to budge beyond adolescence. So please, those of you in geekdom, kindly refrain from putting this volume on your collector's shelf, in between your model of the Millennium Falcon and the latest Rogue One novel.
We here in the democratic west like to feel smug about the inviolability of our institutions, but the Vladimir Putin fan club is disturbingly popular, even in the so-called free world. The leader of the French far right movement, Marine Le Pen, said "I admire Vladimir Putin," then was accused of accepting money from him. US President Donald Trump says he respects Vladimir Putin even though he's a killer, because there are "lots of killers." Perhaps neither of these politicians read Gessen's book. If they did, either they drew the wrong conclusions from it, or just didn't care about the right conclusions.
I suppose this is not surprising. Even in a packed Star Wars theatre, there are always a handful of oddballs that root for the bad guys. May the farce be with you.