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What does Putin want out of Russia?

Kai Ryssdal Mar 8, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Vladimir Putin was much in the news earlier this week. The once and future president of Russia was reelected Sunday. By the Kremlin’s count, he won close to 64 percent of the vote. By the count of election monitors and opposition parties, it was something a good deal less than that — amid widespread voter fraud.

By the end of this coming term, he’ll have been at or near the top of Russian government for the better part of 20 years. Masha Gessen has just written a new biography of Vladimir Putin. It’s called “The Man Without a Face.” Welcome to the program.

Masha Gessen: Good to be here.

Ryssdal: I wanted to start with a picture that ran above a commentary you had on the New York Times website. A lot of people have probably seen it. Vladimir Putin crying and I guess the prospect of his reelection.

Gessen: The joy of his reelection. It’s actually a heartbreaking picture for a lot of Russians because we remember that this is the president who did not cry after the Kursk submarine sank or 130 people died after the theater siege in Moscow. He cried now because he felt that his battle with the protest movement is over, that he has won. And that’s actually a relief for him.

Ryssdal: We should say that you are not an objective observer here. You are opposed to Mr. Putin and you helped lead some protests?

Gessen: I have. I should say that I finished my book about Putin, “The Man Without a Face,” before I started working on the organizing of the protests. That was just good timing for me.

Ryssdal: You know, the straight-ahead question is to ask what the Russian people want out of Vladimir Putin. But let me turn it on its head a little bit and ask it this way: What does Putin want out of Russia?

Gessen: I think he rules very much by instinct. He doesn’t have a long-range plan. He thinks that the Soviet Union was the greatest country ever. And the great thing that it produced was the KGB. And he’s really done everything he can to make Russia institutionally resemble the KGB. It’s a closed system, a very paranoid system, a system that thrives on fear, and a corrupt system. And that’s what he’s recreated in Russia.

Ryssdal: What does that mean, then, for the average person, who certainly in the old Soviet Union and in the early days of the chaos of Russia knew their share of hard times?

Gessen: Well Putin has been very lucky economically. He’s ridden the oil boom and certainly there has been a lot of wealth in Russia. But that growth has slowed. And also, after a while, people realize that they want something other than material comfort and what they want is dignity.

Ryssdal: Is the frustration of daily life, then, that classic Russian vision of bureaucracy that we in the West know so well — if only by reputation — or is it corruption or some kind of combination of both?

Gessen: Those are inextricably linked. The bureaucracy is huge and corrupt and those are its two distinguishing features. So you can’t really take a step without coming into contact with the state, and then the state hits you up for bribes and humiliates you in the process.

Ryssdal: Give me some examples.

Gessen: Say you have a restaurant in Moscow. You are forbidden by law from cash transactions. You can’t buy supplies for your restaurant for cash. In practice, this is virtually impossible. You can’t shop at a farmer’s market, so you create a back office that is engaged entirely in falsifying contracts to cover for your cash transactions, which you have to do in order to actually get food for your restaurant.

Ryssdal: And so the corruption becomes habit, right?

Gessen: The corruption becomes habit. And the corruption becomes essential to the existence of any business or the bureaucrats that watch over this business.

Ryssdal: Masha Gessen, her book about Vladimir Putin is called “The Man Without a Face.” Masha, thanks a lot.

Gessen: Thank you so much.

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