Prolific Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen has released her latest book, The Man without a Face, a biography of Vladimir Putin. She is in the United States on a promotion tour and spoke recently to Charlie Rose and Fresh Air on WHYY.
Her more lengthy interviews have turned away from how Putin rose to what Putin has wrought in Russia and some of her most interesting and perceptive comments have been what Putin — and “putinism,” if such a term can be coined — has done to Russian politics.
“What we are seeing is the consequence of 12 years of the destruction of public space, political institutions, and the media,” she says bluntly talking to Rose. “So we have no politics.” She talks about the nascent opposition movement (of which she is a part) taking to the streets to protest for “public debate” and “institutions” and even for, she implies, real “politicians” (unthinkable in a Western country!).
What’s interesting to watch in this interview — at around the nine minute mark — is how even someone as thoughtful and well-informed as Charlie Rose fails to understand how successful Vladimir Putin has been at dismantling the public space inside Russia. What Gessen is talking about is civil society institutions — press, media, non-governmental organizations, public watchdog groups, churches — all the manifestations of public conscience that the Putin regime has systematically destroyed, undermined and driven to ground.
Rose responds to her line of discussion by talking about “civic institutions, rule of law” — that is, government bodies and the judiciary. She assents, but it’s not entirely clear she understands he has misunderstood her. He is talking about official (or quasi-official) bodies, completely coopted by the Kremlin, that possess the monopoly of force, but not necessarily the monopoly of democratic legitimacy as the recent presidential election suggests.
But the distinction is enormous. Gessen is right that the Putin regime has destroyed the public political space in Russia, modeling the country’s politics after the Communist era he seems particularly nostalgic for. The growing opposition movement is creating that space sui generis — erecting a pole of moral and political legitimacy opposite the government and drawing open the political space that had been closed.
To understand more practically and prosaically what it means to live in an apolitical or unpolitical society, you can listen to her interview on WHYY. Aside from books, Gessen rarely writes about Russian politics per se because as a journalist she sees very little to write about in the common Western sense. This may be what she means when she says there is no politics, but more deeply it gives you a sense of how much control the Kremlin maintains over the political space in the country. Not only is debate squelched and political candidates pre-screened, but journalists are threatened and murdered, media outlets are shut down or coopted and independent organizations are harassed.
This offends our Western sensibilities but it may also blind us to the real consequences for political life in Russia. Fortunately the courageous acts of average Russians are changing that. As one protester’s sign read on the street: “Putin: I am not paid to be here. I dislike you for free!”