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Masha Gessen's Twisted Barbs and the Real Putin

Competing analyses of the charachter and personality of Putin

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Gessen is an "out," proud member of LGBT community, both here and in Russia, being a citizen of both countries, and an in-your-face defender of Pussy Riot's desecration of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow with their live "performance" of their song, "Punk Prayer--Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!" in the very sanctuary of the Cathedral, for which act of "political protest" for the Church perceived "collusion" with Putin (judged a "hate" crime against the Orthodox Church) 2 band members subsequently served 21 months in prison. 

Incensed by the state's severe punishment of Pussy Riot's "artistic freedom" (which she feels should be unbounded), Gessen venomously compared Pussy Riot's suffering in the slammer with the agony of Christ on the Cross in the very title of her blasphemous book: Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.  

Words fail me.  

Gessen may be Jewish.  But she still knows her words won't just break cement.  They're like acid in the face of every Christian.  

Nonetheless Gessen's book won the 2014 Best Book Award from both NPR and The Guardian.

“Remarkable!" wrote The New Yorker: "Masha Gessen [is] one of the most important activists and journalists Russia has known in a generation… disquieting, moving, and closely reported.”

"Simply put, this is the best, most urgent book I've read about art this year," NPR's art reporter stated: "Through rigorous research and furiously fine storytelling, Masha Gessen places the band's founding members unflinchingly into context."

“A compulsively readable book that explains in unflinching terms the tragedy that is modern Russia," said The New York Journal of Books: "An instant classic, destined to take its place with Solzhenitsyn’s writings about the Gulag...”

Really?  Gessen is another Solzhenitsyn?  Putin's prisons are as bad as Stalin's gulag?  

Apparently.  Who knows more about the new Stalin and his Evil Empire Version 2.0 than Gessen?  After all, she's Russian-born.  Russian-raised.  Speaks Russian like a native (because she is one).  And writes like one too.  (Though most of her works are in English because her fame and fortune rest here.)  Plus she keeps an apartment in Moscow while living here.  So who could possibly know more about Putin than Gessen?    

Needless to say, then, her prior, 2013 magnum opus on Putin, entitled, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, was also greeted with thunderous applause by the mightiest members of the British and American press.   

"Engrossing and insightful," wrote Bloomberg.

"Written in English but with a Russian heart," Book Forum wept.

"An illuminating [study]... of the Putin who would eventually emerge and rule Russia with an iron fist," the Columbia Journalism Review weighed in: "An electrifying read from... an incredibly brave writer."

"The Putin who emerges from this brave and important book appears to be a grudge-driven mass murderer and extortionist," snarled The Daily Telegraph

"Fascinating, hard-hitting reading," Foreign Affairs solemnly stated.

"A luminous study... [by] a dogged researcher," The Guardian opined: "[Gessen] has written a brave book, demolishing the numerous myths."

"Masha Gessen steps into the fray with a perceptive account of the new czar," Newsweek declared.  

"A brilliant reconstruction," The New York Times Book Review pontificated: "As a Moscow native...Gessen knows the cultures and pathologies of Russia."  

"In a country where journalists critical of the government have a way of meeting untimely deaths," The Wall Street Journal winked: "Ms. Gessen has shown remarkable courage in researching and writing this unflinching indictment of the most powerful man in Russia."

In short, Gessen succeeded in confirming the West's worst myths and preconceptions of Putin without any Russian official interfering with Gessen's freedom of speech. This ought to be taken as a testament to Russia's adherence to the rule of law.  But it is not.  The whole focus of the Western media is rather on Gessen's "bravery" in the face of imagined threats.  (She should have a chat with Edward Snowden if she wants to get a sense of how the rule of law works over here.)

As for the actual truthfulness (as opposed to the mere "truthiness" ) of her allegations against Putin in these 2 works, I think it enough to examine just one small paragraph in Man Without a Face that offers her deniability for all the distortions and outright falsehoods that follow by claiming that they all come from Putin.  Yes, Gessen claims that Putin wants to blacken his own name--for reasons "too Russian" to explain.  (Maybe it's the Oriental side of him. :-))

The paragraph occurs in a chapter oddly titled, "The Autobiography of a Thug."  As if Gessen is confused as to whether she or Putin is the thug.  

Certainly there is a blurring of boundaries in arguing that:

Because Vladimir Putin was catapulted to power from obscurity, and because he spent his entire adult life within the confines of a secret and secretive institution, he has been able to exercise greater control over what is known about him than almost any other modern politician—certainly more than any modern Western politician. He has created his own mythology. This is a good thing, because, to a far greater extent than is usually possible for any man, Vladimir Putin has communicated to the world directly what he would like to be known about him and how he would like to be seen. What has emerged is very much the mythology of a child of post-siege Leningrad, a mean, hungry, impoverished place that bred mean, hungry, ferocious children. At least, they were the ones who survived.

For openers, I don't know that Putin has significantly more control over what we know about him than, say, Obama--or rather, his white paymasters--let us know about him.  Doesn't it show near total control of the American mainstream media that a corporate shill like Barack Obama should be able to persuade most Americans that he was the second coming of FDR in 2008?  Remember those heady days when Obama was going to break up the Big Banks, end foreclosures, close Guantanamo, stop American wars. and start wind-farms all across the Southwest?  Who in mainstream media ever said: "That ain't Obama!  He follows Wall Streets orders the same as we do!"  Nope!  The Republicans stayed on script and accused him of being a Socialist of all laughable things!  His real masters on Wall Street were never mentioned. That's what it means to live in an inverted totalitarian state.  [The Wikipedia entry here is well worth reading.

But let's concede for the sake of argument that Putin does have greater control of what we know about him than does any Western politician--at least prior to his entry into public life. What has that to do with anything?  

Vladimir Putin may have communicated to the world more directly than any Western politician what he would like to have known about him and how he would like to be seen.  Namely, that he is a man who loves peace.  


A man who loves animals.


A man who loves kids and feels real compassion from those who've been injured--like him.


For in them and through them, he shows his love of God--and God's Love in him for others and for him.


Yes, Putin has communicated these truths about himself as clearly as he can. Yet the American mass media totally ignore these truths.  And so does Gessen.

If we go back to that key paragraph in Gessen's book where she asserts that "Putin has created his own mythology," a careful read will disclose that Gessen never actually says what Putin's own mythology about himself is. (Which would amount to idol worship if he had one.)  Instead, in a slick bait-and-switch, she suddenly changes to the passive voice and declares that "What has emerged..."  What's with "emerged"?  Something has "emerged"?  For whom?  For Gessen? From what?  An in-depth study of Putin's myth-making propaganda?  Like the photos above?  Not likely.  For we never see positive photos of Putin like these, except on a few "subversive" sites like Russia Insider.  And the long knives are out for RI.

So where does Gessen her information from?  She doesn't say.  She simply states that:

"What has emerged [from somewhere for someone] is very much the mythology of a child of post-siege Leningrad, a mean, hungry, impoverished place that bred mean, hungry, ferocious children."

Really?  Is Gessen really suggesting that Putin himself has created this "mythology"? And what an ugly "mythology" it is. That post-siege Leningrad was "a mean, hungry, impoverished place" that "bred mean, hungry, ferocious children"--like rats!  Like himself and his friends, in fact!

Or is it a fact?  In talking about Putin's allegedly emergent "mythology," Gessen leaves us in momentary suspense as to whether this "mythology" has any basis in reality and whether she subscribes to this "mythology" herself or not.      

But Gessen can't resist.  Any woman who would mock Christ's Passion by subtitling a book, "The Passion of Pussy Riot," can't pass up the opportunity to damn an entire generation of Leningrad kids in her mind (and so damn herself for eternity--if you believe in such things) by adding on the quip:

"At least, they were the ones who survived."

Only the mean, hungry, FEROCIOUS kids, that is.  They alone survived.  Gessen states that as a simple fascist fact.  

Hell.  That's why American cops kill so many poor black kids every year.  They're born poor.  So they must be FEROCIOUS!  Right?

Unarmed 12-yr.-old Tamir Rice shot by Cleveland Cop 2 seconds after exiting squad car

But then Gessen could say the same thing of little Jesus and his childhood friends in "in mean, hungry, impoverished" Nazareth after the Romans laid waste to the rebellious Galilee in 4 BC.  Yet Jesus did not turn out FEROCIOUS.  Nor did He preach that the poor should be exterminated, I believe.

It is Gessen and those who applaud her who are the FEROCIOUS ones.  They are the ones who would demonize this good man Putin who has done nothing to them.

What have they "got" on him?  

Just one thing.  And that is in his campaign autobiography for the 2000 Presidential election, First Person, in answer to a reporter's question as to why he had not been inducted into the Young Pioneers until the 6th Grade when most boys get inducted in the 4th Grade, Putin responded that in the 4th Grade:

"I was a hooligan."

When the surprised reporter expressed disbelief, Putin shot back with annoyance    

"Don't insult me.  I was a шпана [in Russian].

Which the English Edition of First Person translates as simply "bad boy."  Whereas Gessen translates the same word as "thug."  And a "thug" he remains for the rest of her hatchet-job book on him.

Never mind that by 6th Grade, Volodya (as he was affectionately called back then) had cleaned up his act; gotten into sports; improved his grades; been inducted into the Young Pioneers; and been made Captain of his Class.

Never mind that he went on to embrace Judo (which means "gentle way" in Japanese) as both a sport and a way of life--founded on a respect for self and others, as when one bows to an opponent before a match begins.

Instead, what professional Putin-haters seize upon is any report of a fight Putin was ever in as an older adolescent: which might "prove" he was still a "thug."  Though virtually all of these reports involve either his being violently attacked or else his defending someone smaller and weaker who's being attacked.  In no verified report is he the attacker.

But lest a word like "thug" conjure up the wrong mental image of Putin as a boy (and who would want that?), here is a picture of Volodya at age 12 between his paternal Granddad and Dad, along with 2 distant cousins, on the left, beside a photo of "Barry" Obama, on the right.


What an amazing, mind-blowing contrast!

If "the child is the father of the man," as the old saying goes--who would you vote for?

Clearly Americans would choose Barry hands-down--despite his being half-black. (We are a racist nation, after all.  But still...)  He's so strong.  So smiling.  So confident!  You can tell he'll be a real slugger someday!  And with Wall Street, he's sure to play ball.  Whereas Putin looks so small.  So weak.  So frail.  So vulnerable.  So beat-up-able.  He's Gessen's FEROCIOUS THUG? [Insert angry emoticon here.]  Gimme a break!  He's anything but.  And she claims that Putin wants to create a whole "mythology" as to how he got to be This FEROCIOUS THIS YOUNG?  It would be ludicrous if it weren't so venomous.

As for Putin's sorrowful expression vs. Obama's radiant smile, we must be mindful of Olga Khazan's illuminating article in The Atlantic (just re-published in Russia-Insider) as to the social psychology of smiling in photos.  Namely, that nations that pathologically deny all levels and causes of human suffering in their own and other populations, as the US does, tend to insist that everyone in all photos smile, except at funerals.  Whereas nations that healthfully accept all levels and causes of human suffering in their own and other populations, as Russia does, tend to frown on people smiling in any photos, regardless of the occasion, as smiling would seem to show a lack of respect and/or awareness of all the pain around them.

Thus we can't tell from Barry's and Volodya's respective expressions what each boy is really feeling inside.  But we can say that both boys conform to what their respective societies expect of them.  That is,  Barry knows he should always smile in the face of human suffering--much of which he will later cause and even institutionalize as President with his Terror Tuesdays.

Volodya, on the other hand, knows that it is wrong for him to smile when there is so much suffering in the world and right there in Russia and especially there in Leningrad--even now--20 years after the siege finally ended on January 27, 1944, a full 872 days after it began on September 8, 1941.  The worst siege in world history.  With the city completely sealed off by the Germans from food, water, and medical supplies, 1.5 million men, women, children, and infants died.  More than all who died at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Nanking, Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin, Moscow, Sevastopol, or Stalingrad.


1.5 million people--dead from disease, dehydration, shelling, starvation, gangrene, and cannibalism.  Yes, cannibalism.  On Hitler's personal orders, not one Slav was to be allowed to surrender.  Not one Slav was to be left alive.  Once the last Slav was exterminated, the City was to be razed; the stones dumped into the sea; and the ground turned into farmland for future generations of German farmers.

Hitler almost succeeded too.  Whenever the Germans would manage to cut off the smuggling routes that brought a tiny trickle of grain into Leningrad, a ravenous hunger would start  gnawing at people's brains.  And then they'd eat anything.  Anything.  Pet dogs.  Pet cats.  Pet song birds.  Work horses.  Wallpaper.  Sawdust from butcher-shop floors.  Mud made into pies.  Excrement.  Even corpses. Then those just killed.  People murdered for their meat.  Mothers even killed their weaker kids, so their stronger kids might survive on the flesh.  

But were these women FEROCIOUS?  Or did they weep as they killed their kids?  "Judge not lest ye be judged," saith the Lord in Matthew 7:1.  Yet Gessen and her whole truly damned crowd do judge easily when it comes to others.  Only not themselves.  Whereas Maria Ivanovna, Putin's mother, was far too Christian a woman to judge anyone.  Not even the German soldiers who surrounded them.  Though she had lost her mother, her only brother, and one little son during the siege (a second son had died in infancy), she still forgave them in her heart--telling Volodya:

"What hatred can we have toward these soldiers? They were simple people and perished in the war too... What could they do? They were just ordinary workers, the same as we. They were forced to go to the war fronts”

Putin's father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, likewise forgave the Germans in his heart.  Though he lost 5 of his 6 brother in the defense of Leningrad--and though he himself lived his whole later life in intense, constant pain from inoperable chunks of shrapnel, next to main arteries, in both legs from a German grenade, he could still see the Nazi troops as his proletarian "brothers," forced to fight for a fascist elite, in a Communist version of the Christian concept of the Brotherhood of Man, as Communism itself is simply a secular offshoot of communal Christianity.

What was surprising to Volodya was that his father should express such (Christian) forgiveness when all of his Soviet textbooks in school taught hatred of the Germans.  Yet there was something in his father--perhaps God's love for him (if you'll forgive my saying so)--that kept him from being tortured by an all-consuming hatred of these thoroughly evil men: which the incessant pain in his legs would seem to demand.  What Volodya clearly saw was that forgiveness lifted that crushing burden of hatred from his Dad such that he had only to endure the physical pain of his inoperable wounds--like the "thorn" in Paul's side.  Witness the fact that for all the incessant pain these chunks of sharp shrapnel in both legs caused him, Putin's father did not become an alcoholic or a morphine addict.  Clearly there was something within him that constantly comforted him--whether he knew what it was or not.

The same is true of Putin.  No matter what twisted barbs a Gessen or a Clinton or even an Obama at times may hurl at him, as when he's called "another Hitler"--Putin never shows a trace of anger--let alone hatred--let alone FEROCIOUS RAGE.  These emotions seem quite alien to him.   Though I'm sure that injustice still disturbs him, I doubt that personal insults can "get" to him for the simple reason he has nothing to hide.  There's nothing he's ashamed of.  The very fact that he can release a photo like the one above of himself as a small shirtless kid with rounded shoulders and matchstick arms shows that he accepts that this is how he once looked--the same way Russia needs to accept how it once looked back in the Yeltsin years--after the Soviet Union collapsed.  It's not an uplifting sight.  And little Volodya looking blankly at the camera with his caved-in chest isn't an uplifting sight.  But that's him.  That's the reality.  Just as the Yeltsin years represent a real moment in the long history of Russia.  But if one faces those realities, one can learn from those realities and go forward from there--confident in the knowledge that one can face anything!

And the Russian people get it.  They do.  They know that showing yourself at your weakest requires great strength.  While those who pride themselves on their superiority are bound to fall, saith the Lord.  As Putin the Judoka (Judo Grandmaster) shows.  That's why the Russian people vote for him in the numbers they do. They know he can stand up to the proud and bring the arrogant low.

Gessen, by contrast, cannot face reality at all.  She speaks in fascist terms of "poverty" (by which she means "poor parents," but is careful not to go too "human" on us) "breeding" ferocious children--who are all destined to become so many Hitlers.  Unless, of course, a strong fascist leader (i.e. another Hitler) comes along and exterminates them all.  Which is exactly what the siege of Leningrad was designed to achieve in one huge city of subhuman Slavs.  But Gessen never mentions that.  She goes on about "post-siege Leningrad as a "mean, hungry, impoverished place."  But she never says a word--not one word!--about the horrific trauma on top of horrific trauma these survivors went through on a daily, nay, hourly basis in order to survive if they did choose to survive.  And there were those who did not.  Like the mothers who were forced to kill their weaker kids that their stronger kids might be fed the flesh.  Many of these mothers then killed themselves once the siege was lifted and their stronger kids were safe, rather than live with the guilt over those beloved kids they had killed.  Gessen never mentions these horrific traumas.  Nor the effects they had on the Putin family.  Because she's out to do a hit piece.  And you can't a hit piece about a child of a holocaust--like the Leningrad Holocaust.  It's that simple.     

In a subsequent article I will take a fresh look at Putin and his childhood from a trauma perspective.

Here I would simply say in closing that the reason our rulers have this Ahab-like hatred of Putin (Hillary being the first among them) is that he is the one world leader whom our rulers see as standing between them and control of the planet.  And as Stephen F. Cohen constantly reminds us on Russia Insider, that might well lead to World War III.  As Shakespeare says in Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Scene 3, lines 122-127:

Then every thing includes itself in power,

Power into will, will into appetite;

And appetite, a universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,        

Must make perforce a universal prey,

And last eat up himself    

And us as well.

But rather than end on such a gloomy note, let me offer one last send-up of Gessen which offers hope for the future as well.  And that's a photo of "post-siege Leningrad children" from 1959 (around the same age as Putin) whom Gessen says alone survived.  


Do they look FEROCIOUS to you?

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