In politics, personal narrative is key. Vladimir Putin has had a unique opportunity to shape his story thanks to his KGB career.

“Possibly the most bizarre fact about Putin’s ascent to power is that the people who lifted him to the throne knew little more about him than you do,” Russian journalist Masha Gessen writes in her new book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

In an excellent promotional Fresh Air interview on National Public Radio (NPR) last week, Gessen explains that Putin exploited that void to spin the story of a young street tough that grew into a temperamental, bellicose man.

“When he spoke to his first and only official biographers in the early 2000s, he mostly concentrated on describing his street fights and on portraying himself as someone who is aggressive, vengeful and has a lot of trouble controlling his temper,” she says.

Though shocking from a western perspective, this choice makes more sense in turn-of-the-century Russia, considering the turmoil of the Yeltsin years and Putin’s chagrin at the Soviet Union’s demise, which he once called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. As the new leader of a foundering post-imperial nation, Putin surely wanted to project strength.

The narrative wasn’t bluster, though – just look at how Putin has ruled Russia since 2000, first as president, then premier. It is chilling today, given the rising opposition to another 12 years of Putin’s rule following his election to a third presidential term Sunday in polls marred by reports of voter fraud.

Many of Gessen’s examples of Putin the narrative translated into Putin the leader are reprehensible. These include attacks on independent media, the systematic manipulation of electoral rules to prohibit new political parties and alternative candidates from seeking the presidency, and plain vulgarity.

A French journalist once asked Putin about Russia’s attitude toward Muslims.

“He responded by saying that Russia was a diverse and tolerant country and, if the man was so sympathetic to Muslims, he may come to Russia and seek a circumcision,” Gessen tells NPR. “And Putin would personally make sure that he was circumcised in such a way that nothing would ever grow there again. This is from the leader of Russia.”

Of course, you might say – tell me something I don’t know. But it’s surprising how many observers remain naïve about Putin, perhaps because he was wildly popular at home during his first two terms as president and only started to slip recently. In any case, the bits and pieces the outside world gets of Putin appear differently, more sinister and alarming, in profile, especially now that he faces a determined opposition that began to build in December amid allegations of electoral fraud by his United Russia party in parliamentary polls.

Some 15,000 people gathered Monday to protest Putin’s reelection. Dozens were arrested and held over night. With Moscow’s permission, opposition leaders are planning a mass demonstration for Saturday of up to 50,000.

Assuming the opposition doesn’t back down, that it fights on, Putin will feel increasingly threatened. Street fighters are dangerous when cornered.

Photo by World Economic Forum/flickr

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email:

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