The President (and sometime Prime Minister) Putin about whom Gessen writes is a rather limited apparatchik who seized on the opportunity created by the collapse of the Soviet Union to grasp power and wealth for himself. He's not a man of ideas or beliefs.
Insofar as this thuggish character has objectives beyond collecting the most toys in good capitalist fashion, they apparently consist of restoring the Russian empire's lost glories.
Gessen believes -- and adds to -- the evidence that shows that the Russian secret police were responsible for a series of awful bombings of apartment blocks in 1999. These bombings scared Russians into supporting Putin in his first election. The terror unleashed by the explosions
The bombings created support for reinvigorating the project that Gorbachev and Yeltsin had wound down of suppressing Russia's restive Chechen Muslim minority, a task Putin has brutally pursued. Gessen is not willing to say Putin's secret service carried out the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis or the 2004 Beslan school occupation and massacre. Much as I never thought Dick Cheney had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, she thinks Putin merely used Chechen attacks for his own ends. That is, she's not a "truther," she's a "delighter." Terror served these rulers' purposes of social control.
The terror threat has legitimized the ongoing rule of the “Party of Crooks and Thieves” as some Russians call Putin's ruling group.
Gessen has lived the painful trajectory of the Russian state for the last 25 years and her book contains fascinating glimpses of the feelings those changes unleashed. During the brief democratic "spring" in the early '90s, those who had once been dissident outsiders experienced an ecstasy of new liberty. She quotes Yelena Zelinskaya, a purveyor of samizdat under Gorbachev and later the vice-president of the Media Union, on the changes.
With Putin's ascent to power, the sparks were gradually extinguished:
Nonetheless, popular protest against the sense of stifled life of civil society keeps breaking out. She describes a demonstration of thousands in 2011:
Any of us who've struggled to drag our own countries in a more just and peaceful direction know that feeling.
The Man without a Face is a fascinating, both inspiriting and depressing, window on contemporary Russia -- perhaps not a total picture, but a necessary glimpse.