Byline: Tina Brown
Yes men and fuhrers. in Russia and on Fleet Street.
Unless you're a student of their personal histories, the smooth public images of fully formed world leaders can be lethally deceptive. George W. Bush gazed into Vladimir Putin's pale, expedient eyes and declared he could get a sense of his soul. Pity he hadn't talked to Masha Gessen. As a reporter in St. Petersburg when Putin was deputy mayor, Gessen got a preview of the paranoid, ruthless, KGB-controlled system that Russia would become under him. She herself became the target of classic KGB tactics, "intended to make me feel I was never safe or alone." She was blacklisted as soon as he became president, but continued, undaunted, to dig into the ruthless origins of his power.
Putin is a conniving thug, raised in secrets that offered material rewards. In post-siege Leningrad--a "mean, hungry, impoverished place that bred mean, hungry, ferocious children"--the mysterious privileges the Putin family enjoyed derived, Gessen learned, from Putin Sr.'s snitching on his neighbors to the KGB. At a time when kids dreamed of being cosmonauts, his son's idea of soaring high was to join the KGB. He did so, and flourished. When the Berlin Wall fell, and he saw everything he'd worked for swept away, Putin was driven to recreate the world he loved and understood, that of the Soviet Union and the KGB.
Despots don't always have to give executive orders to accomplish what they desire. Over time, a culture of yes men develops a system of predicting and fulfilling the boss's practical and psychic needs. Ian Kershaw, the historian of the Third Reich, has brilliantly described this syndrome as "working towards the Fuhrer." In Nazi …