RUSSIA; the Dapper Thug Who Rules

Article excerpt

Byline: Craig Brown

The Man Without A Face

by Masha Gessen

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This book is full of surprises, but the most surprising words of all are on the dustjacket, at the end of the author's blurb: 'Gessen lives in Moscow.'

Upon reading this, anyone who has finished the book will feel like shouting: 'Run for your life!' They will already know Putin views his opponents as a spider views flies.

'No man, no problem' is the chilling epigram Stalin coined to explain how he dealt with enemies. It might also be an appropriate slogan for Vladimir Putin to have tattooed on his unexpectedly beefy chest.

Although Putin is a dapper, tight-lipped little fellow who favours expensive suits and a flashy wristwatch (a white-gold Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar watch costing [pounds sterling]38,000, apparently), every now and then a tidal wave of murderous fury suddenly bursts from his mouth.

When a reporter from the French newspaper Le Monde asked him a question about the Russian use of heavy artillery against Chechen civilians, Putin replied: 'If you are ready to become a radical adherent of Islam and you are ready to be circumcised, I invite you to come to Moscow ... We have specialists in this. I will recommend that the operation be performed in such a way that nothing will ever grow there again.'

Putin's interpreter considered it judicious not to translate his reply, and the next day's edition of The New York Times somehow managed to relay that last sentence as 'You are welcome and everything and everyone is tolerated in Moscow'.

Even when he tries to rein himself in for the cameras, Putin cannot fail to exhibit a brutal contempt for his opponents.On October 7, 2006, the famous investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the lift of her Moscow apartment block. Later that day, Putin sent birthday greetings to a figure skater but refused to offer any sort of tribute to the murdered journalist.

Three days later, sitting beside Angela Merkel at a press conference in Dresden, he was cornered by journalists into making a statement. It must rank as one of the least gracious tributes to a public figure ever issued by a head of state.

'Her political influence in the country was extremely insignificant... her influence on politics in Russia was minimal,' he said. 'This murder does much more harm to Russia and its current government, and to the current government in Chechnya, than any of her articles.'

What made him so unforthcoming about her murder? All his opponents had their suspicions, but only one of them had spelt it out. 'Anna Politkovskaya was killed by Putin' was the headline of one internet obituary. Its author? Alexander Litvinenko.

Three weeks later, Litvinenko felt ill in London. Fearful he might have been poisoned, he tried to flush it out of his system by drinking four quarts of water. But to no avail: he was soon vomiting violently, and in terrible pain. Doctors took quite some time to identify the poison as polonium, a manufactured substance so radioactive that its release could only be authorised by the president's office.

A few days before he died, Litvinenko dictated a statement addressed to Putin, 'the man responsible for my current situation', whom he described as a 'ruthless barbarian' with 'no respect for human life, liberty or other values of civilisation'. Masha Gessen is equally definite. 'Vladimir Putin ordered Alexander Litvinenko dead,' she writes.

The chain of death resembles a Seventies conspiracy thriller. Litvinenko had uncovered the murderer of Politkovskaya who had herself uncovered evidence of Putin's mysterious involvement in the tragic Moscow theatre siege. And it does not end there: her editor, Yuri Shchekochikhin, had himself been poisoned to death in 2003 just when his investigations into the siege were progressing, perhaps rather too well. …