More Memorable Passages From "The Man Without A Face"
During the glastnost days near the fall of the Soviet Union, activists set up “Hyde Park”, named for the famous London location - an event where people would speak freely in public about their opinions. The authorities disbanded them, but they came back, and:
Rather than chase them away again, city authorities apparently decided to drown them out with sound. One Saturday, “Hyde Park” participants showed up [at their usual spot] in front of the cathedral only to find a brass band playing in front of it. The band came complete with its own audience, whose members shouted at the debators: “Look, the band is here so the people can relax, this is no time for your speeches”. During a break in the music, [activist] Ivan Soshnikov tried to chat up the conductor, who immediately volunteered that the band had been stationed in front of the cathedral by some kind of authority.
Ekaterina Podoltseva, a brilliant forty-year old mathematician who had become one of the city’s most visible - and most eccentric - pro-democracy activists, produced a recipe for fighting the brass band. She asked all the regular “Hyde Park” participants to bring lemons with them the following Saturday. As soon as the band began playing, all the activists were to start eating their lemons, or to imitate the process of eating if they found the reality of it too bitter. Podoltseva had read or heard somewhere that when people see someone eating a lemon, they begin, empathetically, producing copious amounts of saliva - which happens to be incompatible with playing a wind instrument. It worked: the music stopped, and the speeches continued.
A rare honest Leningrad official recalls an unusual economic mission to Germany:
In May 1991, Salye, in her capacity as chairwoman of the Leningrad City Council’s committee on food supplies, traveled to Berlin to sign contracts for the importing of several trainloads of meat and potatoes in Leningrad. Negotiations had more or less been completed: Salye and a trusted colleague from the city administration were really there to sign the papers.
“And we get there,” Salye told me years later, still outraged, “and this Frau Rudolf with whom we were supposed to meet, she tells us she can’t see us because she is involved in urgent negotiations with the City of Leningrad on the subject of meat imports. Our eyes are popping out. Because we are the City of Leningrad, and we are there on the subject of meat imports!
The corrupt officials, led by Vladimir Putin, had gotten there before her; the meat was sent to Moscow as part of preparation for the failed ‘91 coup.
US politicians like to have cute stories about their personal lives to humanize them. Here’s the Russian equivalent:
Putin cultivated an impervious, emotionless exterior. The woman who worked as his secretary later recalled having to deliver a piece of upsetting personal news to her boss: “The Putins had a dog, a Caucasian shepherd named Malysh [Baby]. He lived at their dacha and was always digging holes under the fence, trying to get out. One time he did get out, and got run over by a car [and died]. I went into [Putin’s] office and said ‘You know, there is a situation. Malysh is dead.’ I looked - and there was no emotion in his face, none. I was so surprised at his lack of reaction that I could not keep from asking, ‘Did someone already tell you?’ And he said calmly, ‘No, you are the first person to tell me.’ That’s when I knew I had said the wrong thing.’”
On the Russian national anthem:
The [new post-Soviet Russian] national anthem posed an even more implacable challenge. In 1991, the Soviet anthem had been scrapped in favor of “The Patriotic Song”, a lively tune by the 19th-century composer Mikhail Glinka. But this anthem had no lyrics; moreover, lyrics proved impossible to write: the rhythmic line dictated by the music was so short that any attempt to set words to it - and Russian words tend to be long - lent it a definite air of absurdity. A number of media outlets ran contests to choose the lyrics to go with the Glinka, but the entries, invariably, were suitable only for the entertainment of the editorial staff, and little by little chipped away at the legitimacy of the anthem.
The Soviet national anthem that had been scrapped in favor of the Glinka had a complicated history. The music, written by Alexander Alexandrov, appeared in 1943, with lyrics supplied by a children’s poet named Sergei Mikhalkov. The anthem’s refrain praised “the Party of Lenin, the Party of Stalin / Leading us to the triumph of Communism.” After Stalin died and, in 1956, his successor Nikita Khruschev denounced “the cult of personality,” the refrain could no longer be performed, so the anthem lost its lyrics. The instrumental version would be performed for twenty-one years while the Soviet Union sought the poet and the words to express its post-Stalinist identity. In 1977, when I was in the fourth grade, the anthem suddenly acquired lyrics, which we schoolchildren had to learn as soon as possible. For this purpose, every school notebook manufactured in the Soviet Union that year bore the new lyrics to the old national anthem on the back cover, where multiplication tables or verb exceptions had once resided. The new lyrics had been written by the same children’s poet, who was, by now, sixty-four years old. The refrain now lauded “the Party of Lenin, the force of the people.”
In the fall of 2000, a group of Russian Olympic athletes met with Putin and complained that the lack of a singable anthem demoralized them in competition and made their victories feel hollow. The old Soviet anthem had been so much better this way, they said. So the once recycled Stalinist anthem was again taken out of storage. The children’s poet, now eighty-seven, wrote new lyrics to replace the old lyrics. The refrain now praised “the wisdom of centuries, born by the people.” Putin introduced a bill in parliament and the new old anthem was handily approved.
On the challenges of campaigning against Putin:
During the campaign, opposition candidates constantly encountered refusals to print their campaign material, air their commercials, or even rent them space for campaign events. Yana Dubeykovskaya, who managed the campaign of nationalist-leftist economist Sergei Glayev, told me that it took days to find a printing plant willing to accept Glazyev’s money. When the candidate tried to hold a campaign event in Yekaterinburg, the largest city in the Urals, the police suddenly kicked everyone out of the building, claiming there was a bomb threat. In Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s third-largest city, electricity was turned off when Glazyev was getting ready to speak - and every subsequent campaign event in that city was held outdoors, since no one was willing to rent the pariah candidate.
On Garry Kasparov’s anti-Putin campaign:
Kasparov was not just agitating for his point of view; he was also attempting to gather and spread information, turning himself inyo a one-man substitute for the hijacked news media. He grilled local sympathizers about the situation in their region, then passed this information on. His chess player’s memory was invaluable: according to one of his assistants, he had never kept a phone book, because he could not help remembering every phone number he heard. Now he was constantly aggregating and averaging in his mind. He kept a running tally of the percentage of local taxes each region was allowed to keep, the problems opposition activists faced, and details of speech and behavior he found telling. Now that local and national media existed only to spread the government’s message, information had to be gathered in this piecemeal manner.
In Rostov, where Kasparov spoke in front of the public library - he had been scheduled to speak in the library itself, but it had been shut down, under the pretense of a burst pipe - a young man approached his assistant, gave her his business card, and said he wanted to participate as a local organizer. When I asked his name, he said “That’s impossible, I’ll get fired immediately.” As I later learned from Kasparov’s assistant, the man was an instructor at a state college.
Kasparov had flown a chartered plane to the south of Russia, and the plan had been to use it to go from city to city. But after spending most of the day grounded because no airport in the region would give permission to land, the group of thirteen people - Kasparov, his staff, and two journalists - had to switch to cars. When we arrived in Stavropol, it turned out our hotel reservations had been canceled. Standing in the lobby of the hotel, Kasparov’s manager called around to every other hotel in the sleepy city; all claimed to be fully booked. This was when the manager of the hotel showed up.
“I am sorry,” he said, clearly starstruck. “But you must understand the position I am in. But can I take a picture with you?”
“I am sorry,” responded Kasparov. “But you must understand the position I am in.”
The hotel manager turned beet-red. Now he was as embarrassed as he had been scared.
“The hell with it,” he said. “We’ll give you rooms.”
Too long for me to quote in full, but there is a postscript for this second edition with the story of the one time Masha Gessen met Vladimir Putin. Putin shut down the pro-democracy paper Gessen was working at, so Gessen got a new job editing Vokrug Sveta - if you’re American, think National Geographic: a nice, apolitical magazine with pretty pictures of wildlife. One of Putin’s lieutenants, Dmitry Peskov, thought it would be nice for the regime to patronize it and make it the official geographical magazine of the Russian government.
Suddenly I seemed to be able to walk through walls: as a representative of RGS-affiliated Vokrug Sveta I was invited to state television and radio, where I had been blacklisted for years. I never went, but one of our editors used a live state-radio broadcast to speak up for Pussy Riot - and no one said a word to me. Did anyone even know? I put out feelers and soon found out that Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who was working on the RGS/Volkov Sveta project most closely, had not known I was the magazine’s editor at the time the partnership was announced - by Putin himself. Peskov found out from a mutual acquaintance of ours several weeks later.
What would he do now? I wondered. Would he go to Putin and tell him they had an issue with the magazine the president himself had praised so highly? How would he define the issue> Did Putin even know I existed - let alone that I had written this book, which had received extensive press in the West? I had begun to suspect strongly that he did not. For him to know, someone would have had to tell him - to be the bearer of bad news. And now the news was doubly bad: Peskov would have had to tell Putin both that he had not done his homework on Volkrug Sveta, and that I had written this book. I had a feeling he had not and would not.
Nobody told Putin. The issue only came to a head months later, when Putin wanted a photo op with rare Siberian cranes and told Volkrug Sveta to provide it. Gessen refused and was fired. They posted on Twitter that they were leaving, and that it was Putin’s fault.
Someone apparently told Putin about this, and he called Gessen, said he liked the magazine and didn’t understand why they’d been fired and why they were blaming him. He asked to meet and discuss it. Gessen agreed, went to the Kremlin, and met Putin. Putin didn’t realize Gessen was a famous anti-regime critic. Instead, he tried to convince them that the crane photo-op was a useful state event and there was no reason to be unhappy about it. Gessen stayed unhappy, Putin couldn’t figure out why, and he ended the meeting confused but still polite.
What had I learned? That the person I had described in this book - shallow, self-involved, not terribly perceptive, and apparently very poorly informed - was indeed the person running Russia, to the extent Russia was being run.
Pretty boring climax. I wonder how it played out in other timelines:
I had wanted to bring my own book [Man Without A Face, the biography I’m reviewing here] as a gift to Putin, but my friends and family begged me not to; a midnight text-message plea from a colleague finally convinced me not to do it.