In an interview more than two decades ago, Vladimir V. Putin described his younger self, with a hint of complacency, as “a hooligan.” When the interviewer asked him if he was exaggerating his tendency to fight as a schoolboy, Putin took offense.
“You are trying to insult me,” he said. “I was a real thug.”
Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and Moscow native, recounts this exchange in a 2012 biography, “The Faceless Man: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” which was hailed as “part psychological profile, part conspiracy study” in The New York Times Book Review. For Gessen, Putin’s brazen description of himself as “a thug” was key to his self-image: someone who couldn’t be intimidated, who would unpredictably lash out if he felt slighted, and who savored the violence.
Understanding Putin and the forces that shaped him has become an urgent global concern, as leaders around the world try to determine his motivations for launching an unprovoked and disastrous invasion of Ukraine, how best to engage with him. and how the conflict might evolve.
So far, the military onslaught appears to be a catastrophic misstep, which has resulted in crippling economic sanctions and heavy military casualties for Russia, as well as massive civilian casualties and destruction in the very Ukrainian towns that Putin claims he wants. “to free”.
To all of this, Putin has repeatedly said in public comments that the war is going “according to plan.”
As the conflict escalates, the question of what motivates Putin has become increasingly perplexing, with no obvious answers, but with enormous consequences: the war will end, some experts say, when the Russian president will allow to terminate.
Gessen sought to understand the Russian leader’s state of mind more than a decade ago, first in an article for Vanity Fair and then in ‘The Faceless Man’. Tracing Putin’s rise from a petulant, unruly schoolboy to a KGB agent who ascended to the Russian presidency, Gessen examined the post-Soviet political, cultural and economic forces that enabled Putin’s rise, and the how he vilified the West to solidify his grip on power.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Gessen wrote a postscript summarizing Putin’s increasingly aggressive stance toward Western democracies, and his evolution from “a bureaucrat who had accidentally taken on ‘a huge country into a megalomaniac dictator who thought he was on a civilizational mission’.
In a recent phone interview, Gessen discussed several books that offer insight into Putin’s psychology, as well as titles that illuminate the cultural and geopolitical context that helped shape Putin’s Russia.
Below are Gessen’s recommendations, which have been slightly edited for clarity.
“Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.” By Garry Kasparov. Public Affairs, 2015.
Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster, is a longtime critic of Putin.
“Kasparov sees life as a game of chess. And he sees this as a series of plays. He doesn’t look so much at Putin’s psychology as he looks at the logic of his actions and says, “OK, well, that’s how we get away with it.” And it’s not uplifting. I mean, the book is not recent, and then he was quite sure that Putin was at war with the West at that time.
It’s funny, because you didn’t really have to insist on seeing that, you just had to be careful and not be beholden to the conventional wisdom that says, “but it’s not possible, it’s crazy, it don’t really think so.” We’re going to look at this period between 2012 and 2022 as a time when a lot is going on, when the war was slowly escalating in plain sight and most of the world was in denial.
“First person: a surprisingly candid self-portrait of the Russian president.” By Vladimir Putin. Public Affairs, 2000.
A compilation of interviews with Putin published in the United States in 2000.
“I found it incredibly enlightening because, if you read it as a document of what this man wants to say to the world about himself, you will learn a lot. It’s not a very long book and it doesn’t there’s not much variety but he recounts three different fights he had one was when he was a kid and he felt abused by a teacher if I remember correctly one was when he was a student and the other when he was a young officer. And in all three cases, he goes on a rampage. He basically loses his temper, then he shuts up for a bit, then he strikes again.
That’s what he communicates: that he’s someone who has no desire to control his temper. He sees himself as someone who will go wild, someone who is vengeful. Someone who likes to knock unexpectedly, but also – and this is what worries me the most now – he’ll be quiet for a while and then he’ll knock again. It is in fact an MO that is important for his self-conception.
‘Nature’s Evil: A Cultural History of Natural Resources.’ By Alexander Etkind. Politics, 2021.
This book examines how civilization and politics have been shaped by resources such as coal, oil, and grain.
“I recommend anything from Alexander Etkind, who is a cultural historian of Russia. His latest book is called “Nature’s Evil” and it is a cultural history of natural resources. It’s not entirely limited to Russia, but I think it actually explains very well how Russia works.
“The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes”. By Balint Magyar and Balint Madlovics. CEU Press, 2020.
Magyar, a social scientist and former politician, examines how post-communist regimes gave rise to autocrats who suppressed media and political dissent.
“Anything from Balint Magyar. He’s a Hungarian social scientist and he has this tome, it’s this huge book called “The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes”. It’s a bit technical, but it’s incredibly enlightening. I think my favorite book is called “The Post-Communist Mafia State”, which claims to be about Hungary, but it’s the best book for understanding post-Communist Russia and how the regime works.”