“Courageous” and “chilling” are adjectives often applied to Russian journalist Masha Gessen’s biography The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.
Gessen got a much warmer reception in conversation with Geraint Martin (and an audience of around 800) at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival this morning.
Martin’s first question to Gessen was to describe Putin’s character. “He’s a thug,” was succinct, but also a thug who managed to become head of state with next to no public record. The Man Without a Face goes a long way to fill in the gaps, but there’s one line of questioning that seems to perturb Gessen.
When asked about the personal costs and risks of being a high-profile critic of Putin in the West, her response is somewhat surprising and endearing.
“That’s my least favourite question, because I can’t know. When I was working on the book, I kept it secret. My partner knew, my editor, no one else knew I was working on it. When the book came out to a great deal of publicity throughout the West, I think it gave me some kind of protection. It sounds horrible, but the death of Anna Politkovskaya taught the Kremlin that the cost of killing high-profile critics in the West is extremely high … There are journalists and actors in much greater danger than I am precisely because the eyes of the world aren’t on them. [The members of Pussy Riot] are serving two years - excessive for a 40-second peaceful protest. But it’s still two years, not the six or eight of the 26 people I mentioned earlier. Because nobody knows their names.”
In the last two minutes, someone closed out on a nice easy question. “Would you prognosticate on Putin’s demise?”
She believes the Putin regime is in its “long, agonising death throes. The difficulty is they can take an awful long time.”