Q[&]A with Masha Gessen, Pushkin House Russian Book Prizeshortlisted author of 'Man Without a Face'.
There are other books on Putin. Why did you decide to write a book about him?
I don’t like to talk about other people's work. I had already been writing about Putin for a decade before I started on my book. It began as a piece in Vanity Fair and I realised it could be expanded.
What’s the central message?
It’s the ordinariness of him. He is not particularly knowledgeable or hard working. He doesn’t have a grand plan for instituting dictatorship in Russia. He rules without thinking, evidence or special education, and without realising that running a country is a complicated matter that requires involving the advice of experts.
What was your impression when you met him?
It was like meeting someone I had made up. I had pored over every speech he had made, watched videos, read about him. I had made up a character. There were early reports of people who met him being charmed, so I was hoping to feel something. But he was utterly predictable, with stock turns of phrase. I could see how dysfunctional the administration had become. The meeting was set up with him personally. He didn’t know who I was. No-one had bothered to brief him.
What was the most surprising aspect you discovered during your research?
The amount of stuff he had actually revealed about himself. He told us exactly what he was early on. He said, repeatedly, in the stories he told and in the jokes, that he was a thug. No-one paid attention.
What has been the reaction to the book in Russia?
It was written in English for an American audience and has been translated into 21 languages, but I never thought it would be published in Russia. There was a discussion but no publisher in Russia would be willing to take it on. There have not been any problems for me since publication. There was a greater risk during the research, but hardly anyone knew what I was doing then. I have had worst problems on other stories. Once when I came back to Moscow after interviewing Berezovsky in London for the book, my computer was stolen. I stopped for a meeting for 15 minutes and when I came back to my car, it was still locked with my bag and wallet in place but the computer was missing.
What plans do you have for another book?
I am now working on a book about the Tsarnaevs [the Boston Marathon bombers]. I have a very clear hypothesis, but I have just started to work on it. It won’t be about terrorism or conspiracies. It will be about the human side. It’s a story of dislocation.