Why Is Masha Gessen’s Piece On Putin So Good?

Vladimir Putin (Photo credit: Ricardo Stuckert)

Vladimir Putin (Photo credit: Ricardo Stuckert)

Masha Gessen is, to me, the vital voice on Russian affairs for The New York Times. In addition to her regular column, which dissects Russian news in an insightful and personal way, she wrote a highly publicized, very critical biography of Vladimir Putin that came out last year. All of her writing is extremely well researched and written in a dark, compelling style. But out of all of her work, a comparatively short, autobiographical piece called “A Call From The Kremlin” published last September sticks out as one of her most interesting stories.

As a journalist who has made a bit of a career out of studying and critiquing Putin, Gessen begins her story by pointing out the assumed, but strange fact that she has never met him:

Secretly I had felt that I had made Vladimir Putin up. I had spent years studying his interviews, his speeches and his ad-libbed statements, and he had come out flat and gray. Some people claimed he had a secret dimension, others said he possessed charm — I saw no evidence of it. But then, I had never talked to the man.

This is a fascinating point that gets at the heart of what it means to convey people through journalism. What is more important in defining a person? Is it what they say and do, or what they are like face-to-face? And when she explains that the column is meant to tell the story of her first meeting with Putin, it puts her story in a sort of different dimension than her other work. Whereas a journalist usually assumes the power of analyzing a story, deciding what is important, and how to talk about it, here Gessen is bringing the reader along with her do something for the first time. And it makes the piece ten times more compelling that that something is Vladimir Putin, one of the few world leaders still maintaining a bizarre, comic book mystique in our media-saturated culture.

When Gessen arrives to her meeting with Putin in the article, she smartly lets her and Putin’s actual dialogue speak for itself and drive the narrative:

‘‘I like kitties and puppies and little animals,’’ Putin informed me at the start of our conversation.

In addition to allowing Putin’s speech, in all its strangeness, to be analyzed by the reader, Gessen adds in little behavioral detail that gives a probably unique look into Putin’s personality outside of politics. Which is also hilarious.

“But one more thing,’’ I said, when Putin turned back to me. ‘‘You said a magazine should be run like an army. It should not.’’

‘‘Depends on the army,’’ Putin winked. He likes winking.

At the end, in classic Gessen style, she concludes with a sharp, rapid, dismantling of Putin’s character and leadership.

What had I learned? That the person I had described in my book — shallow, self-involved, not terribly perceptive, and apparently very poorly informed — is indeed the person running Russia, to the extent that Russia is being run.

This is both an amusing and frightening note to end on. Gessen is reminding the reader that when it comes to people who are controlling what happens in our world, all interpersonal style and quirks are secondary. At Putin’s level, incompetency ceases to be that funny.

–Ben Stone

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