• “A Small, Vengeful Man:” How Vladimir Putin Began His Iron-Fisted Reign

    Masha Gessen Chronicles the Early Days of Putinism in Russia

    Featured Image: PBS FRONTLINE

    When Putin was inaugurated, I was in Chechnya again: in the face of what now passed for politics and political journalism, I badly needed to feel I was doing something meaningful. With the country’s political system crumbling before my eyes, I felt particularly lucky to be able to research and publish the stories I felt were important. This time I had been traveling with military officers and self-organized volunteers who were looking for Russian soldiers missing in action in Chechnya; they numbered about a thousand at the time, half of them missing since the last war.

    I returned from Chechnya the weekend of the inauguration. My second day back in the office, which also happened to be Vladimir Putin’s second day officially in the office of the president, police special forces descended on the corporate headquarters of Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most, the company to which my magazine belonged. Scores of men in camouflage, wearing black knit masks with slits for their eyes and armed with short-barrel automatic rifles, pushed their way into offices of the newly renovated building in the very center of Moscow, about a mile from the Kremlin, roughed up some of the staff, and threw piles of paper into cardboard boxes that they then loaded onto small trucks. The prosecutor’s office, the presidential administration, and the tax police later made confused and confusing public statements explaining the raid: they said they suspected tax irregularities; they said they suspected misconduct on the part of Media-Most’s internal security service; they even said they suspected the media company was spying on its own journalists. The nature of the raid was in fact familiar to anyone who had been involved in business or had even observed business in Russia in the 1990s: the raid was a threat. These kinds of raids were usually staged by organized-crime groups to show who was boss—and who had greater influence with the police. This raid was unusual, though, in several respects: its scale (scores of officers, several truckloads full of documents); its location (central Moscow); its timing (broad day- light); and its target (one of the country’s seven most influential entrepreneurs). It was also unusual in its alleged initiator, whom Media-Most’s outlets identified as Vladimir Putin. He himself claimed no knowledge of the event; during the raid he was in the Kremlin, meeting with Ted Turner, reminiscing about the Goodwill Games held in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, and discussing the future of media.

    Many Russian legal cases would come to look just like this one: slapped together, full of contradictions.

    The months that followed the raid on the Media-Most headquarters are the sort of period that is always difficult to recall and describe: the time between the diagnosis and the inevitable outcome, between the day when you learn how the story will end and the day it actually ends. I think it is fair to say that the roughly seventy people who worked at my magazine and the hundreds of people who worked at Gusinsky’s daily newspaper and his television channel, NTV—the same channel that had aired the investigative piece on the apartment-block explosions—all knew on the day of the raid that this was the beginning of the end of Russia’s largest private media company. Yet we continued to work almost as though nothing had happened, as though the story of the company’s troubles were yet another story to cover.

    I do not remember learning of Vladimir Gusinsky’s arrest on June 13. I may have heard about it on the car radio, though this seems unlikely: the summer of 2000 was my second summer of bicycling in Moscow, which was then a novel form of transport in the city; I was even working on a story on city biking that June. I may have heard about the arrest from a colleague. I may have gotten a phone call from a friend telling me about it. However I got the news, the most important thing I heard was not even that one of the country’s most influential men, who happened to pay my salary, had been arrested, but that he was arrested on charges stemming from the privatization of a company called Russkoye Video. This was my story to write.


    Russkoye Video was a television production company that had belonged to Dmitry Rozhdestvensky, the St. Petersburg man who had been in prison for two years by now. His was a story I had followed for some time without understanding it, starting back when I went to St. Petersburg to write about Galina Starovoitova’s murder.

    My sources there—including Starovoitova’s aide, who had survived the shooting—insisted on taking me to see an elderly couple living in a spacious, well-appointed apartment on the Griboyedov Channel. Over the course of several meetings spread over a few months, they told me the story of their son, Dmitry Rozhdestvensky, a well-educated forty-four-year-old television producer who had done fairly well for himself under Sobchak (whose reelection campaign he had helped run) and who was now in prison.

    It seemed someone had set out to get Rozhdestvensky. First, in March 1997, he had been subjected to a tax audit. Then in May he received a letter from the local secret-police office informing him that the transmitter used by the television station of which he was part owner represented a threat to state security. Then Rozhdestvensky was interrogated repeatedly in connection with Sobchak’s case. “They suspected Dmitry of laundering Sobchak’s money,” his mother told me. “But Dmitry was lucky: Sobchak never paid his company even the money they were owed for producing and airing his election ads.” In March 1998, Dmitry Rozhdestvensky was finally charged with tax evasion. One night that month, the special prosecutor’s team searched the apartments of forty-one people connected with Rozhdestvensky’s company, including freelancers.

    “That’s when they really started in on him,” the old woman told me. Her son was called in for questioning almost every day; his apartment, office, and dacha were searched repeatedly. In August 1998, Dmitry’s wife had a stroke. “We were at the dacha then,” said his mother. “He was going in for questioning daily and we were never sure whether he was coming back. I could handle that sort of thing—my own father was imprisoned three times under Stalin—but [Dmitry’s wife] Natasha turned out to be the weaker one.”

    In September 1998, Dmitry Rozhdestvensky was charged with embezzlement and placed under arrest. I first met his parents two months later. Over the following twenty months, I visited the Rozhdestvenskys several times and they updated me on their son’s case.

    Dmitry was being moved from jail to jail, landing in Moscow and, later, at a secret-police prison outside St. Petersburg. Charges against him were shuffled: first he was accused of embezzling a car, then of embezzling advertising contract money, then of misappropriating funds to build a retreat. From what I could tell, his business and family affairs were so tightly and messily intertwined that the prosecutors could probably keep finding ways to keep him behind bars as long as they wanted. What I could not figure out was why someone wanted Rozhdestvensky in jail.

    His parents told me it was Vladimir Yakovlev, the man who had replaced Sobchak, exacting his revenge for Rozhdestvensky’s involvement in Sobchak’s reelection campaign. But other people had supported Sobchak too. Was Rozhdestvensky being made the scapegoat because others, like Putin, were now too powerful to reach? Possibly. Or was it not Yakovlev at all who was after revenge, but one of Rozhdestvensky’s former business partners, who included Putin and several other influential St. Petersburg men who had apparently founded a television production company linked to the city’s casinos? Also possible. Or was it, as Starovoitova’s aide thought, a macabre case of blackmail on the part of an entrepreneur who had unsuccessfully tried to pressure Rozhdestvensky into selling his company? Possible, too.

    I kept going back to see the Rozhdestvenskys because I could not figure out how to write the story of their son. The more it developed, the less I understood. The entrepreneur who had been said to blackmail Rozhdestvensky was eventually arrested and charged with a number of contract killings, including one of a deputy mayor in charge of real estate development: he had been gunned down on Nevsky Prospekt in broad daylight in 1997. One thing was clear: Whatever was going on with Rozhdestvensky had little or nothing to do with the legal case against him and everything to do with the way business and politics were done in St. Petersburg.

    Now this case and this company most Russians had never heard of had somehow landed Vladimir Gusinsky in prison. I sat down and started sorting through the half a file drawer’s worth of papers I had collected on the case—mostly legal complaints and supporting documents—as I had done several times over the preceding two years. For the first time they started to make sense to me, even though I still could see no case there—just as the high-powered lawyers at Media-Most could not. “There are no charges,” a smart middle-aged female corporate lawyer was telling me, genuinely confused. “I can’t even understand what the crime is supposed to be. I can’t figure out where they got the figures they cite here. Here they say the very company was created illegally, but they reference a law that contains nothing pertinent. And even if the company was created in violation of the law, Media-Most had nothing to do with it.” The bigger company had bought Russkoye Video, along with dozens of other regional production and broadcasting companies, when it was forming a nationwide entertainment network. The St. Petersburg company was not even one of the larger advertising vehicles in the network: it was bought primarily for its huge library of B movies that the network could use to fill the airways while it worked to set up its own production.

    “This would be funny if it weren’t so sad,” the lawyer said. “I wish Russian crime were really like this,” meaning made up of borderline illegalities.

    The case against Gusinsky was, just like the case against Rozhdestvensky, a case of personal vendetta.

    Russian crime did not look like that, but many Russian legal cases would come to look just like this one: slapped together, full of contradictions. I realized that my original theory about Dmitry Rozhdestvensky’s case was correct: this was indeed someone’s personal vendetta. But the culprit was neither the current governor of St. Petersburg, as some people maintained, nor a jailed mafia boss, as others believed.

    Something, it seems, had gone terribly wrong between Dmitry Rozhdestvensky and Vladimir Putin, with whom he had worked on Sobchak’s failed reelection campaign. This explained why, after I had followed the case for nearly two years, the prosecutor in the case threatened me the last time I called him, on February 29, 2000. “Leave it alone,” he said. “Believe me, Masha, you don’t want to get any deeper into this. Or you’ll be sorry.” I had been writing about court cases in Russia for years, and no one—not even accused criminals and their often unsavory associates—had ever spoken to me in this manner. What was so important and frightening about this case? Only the fact that it was being pursued on behalf of the man who was now acting president of Russia. The prosecutor, Yuri Vanyushin, was a classmate of Putin’s from the law faculty. He had gone to work for the prosecutor’s office right out of university, just as Putin had gone to the KGB, but when Putin returned to Leningrad and went to work for Sobchak, Vanyushin joined him in city hall. When Putin left for Moscow six years later, Vanyushin returned to the prosecutor’s office, becoming an investigator who specialized in “very important cases,” an actual legal category. Rozhdestvensky’s case did not meet the formal criteria for being a “very important case,” but it was clearly very important to a very important person.

    Another close associate of Putin’s, Viktor Cherkesov, who had been appointed head of the St. Petersburg chapter of the FSB after much lobbying by Putin and much protest from former dissidents, had stepped in when the case against Rozhdestvensky seemed to be slow getting off the ground. After a tax audit failed to provide grounds for a criminal case, Cherkesov sent Rozhdestvensky a letter informing him that the transmitter Russkoye Video was using was a threat to national security. After Russkoye Video stopped using it, another television company took it over: it had apparently stopped being a threat. A year later, Cherkesov joined Putin in Moscow, becoming his first deputy at the FSB.

    Rozhdestvensky’s parents hoped their son would be released from prison once his old friend Vladimir Putin became head of the secret police, then head of government, and, finally, head of state. Instead, Vanyushin kept the case alive even as charges kept falling apart and away; he just kept raking in other, similarly shaky premises for keeping him in jail. At the end of the summer of 2000, a court would finally take Rozhdestvensky’s failing health into account and release him pending trial. Rozhdestvensky died in June 2002 at the age of forty-eight.

    What I was now learning, as I went through the documents that I had kept for nearly two years, was the same thing Natalya Gevorkyan learned when she confronted Putin about the journalist Andrei Babitsky: “He is a small, vengeful man,” was how she put it. The case against Gusinsky was, just like the case against Rozhdestvensky, a case of personal vendetta. Gusinsky had not supported Putin in the election. He was friendly and had significant business dealings with Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who was a leader of the anti-Family opposition coalition. It was Gusinsky’s television channel that had aired the program about apartment building explosions two days before the election.

    Gusinsky’s arrest had no real connection to Russkoye Video; it just so happened that the man behind the arrest had detailed knowledge of the Russkoye Video case—which was as good as any other when all that was required was to get one of Russia’s most powerful men behind bars. If there were any irregularities in the company’s founding documents, Putin knew of those too: sifting through my files, I found a document authorizing the formation of the company, signed by Vladimir Putin.

    Vladimir Gusinsky spent just three days in jail. As soon as he was released on his own recognizance, he left the country, becoming the first political refugee from Putin’s regime—only five weeks after the inauguration.


    In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, Lit Hub is revisiting shortlisted books from the Prizes’ past.


    Excerpted from The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen. Copyright © 2012. Available from Granta Books. Published by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by Masha Gessen

    Masha Gessen
    Masha Gessen
    Masha Gessen is the author of eleven other books, including the National Book Award-winning The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. A staff writer at The New Yorker and the recipient of numerous awards, including Guggenheim and Carnegie fellowships, Gessen teaches at Bard College and lives in New York City.

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