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Putin as Sith Lord: Review of "The Man Without a Face"


Here, or In A Galaxy Far, Far Away?

On sporadic occasions throughout my life, I've been what could be labeled a marginal Star Wars Geek. No, I don't stroll around Comic-con in a Wookie suit, nothing that extreme. Neither do I live completely immersed in some space opera fantasy world, as I still like to crack a history book and learn about events in our local spiraling cluster of stars, not just some pretend galaxy far far away.

All the same, I am prone to draw analogies from characters, events, and concepts in what used to be the George Lucas Universe, until Disney bought it. Just the other day, when a coworker of mine found himself perturbed by our supervisor, I urged him to calm himself down by chanting I am one with the Force, the Force is with me. Yes, that's taking nerdiness to extremes, I'll admit, but I also think that sometimes the Star Wars Universe draws eerie parallels with our own, and I'm pretty sure that was the way that George Lucas, a student of anthropologist Joseph Campbell and his theory of the cross-cultural monomyth, intended it to be. So whether you live here or in a galaxy far, far, away, cultural motifs are going to be constant, only the names changing to protect the innocent, or expose the guilty.

Among some birthday gift card books I ordered recently was one entitled The Man Without a Face - The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen. Gessen is an expatriate Russian journalist who now plies her trade in the United States. She has authored several non-fiction books in English and also contributed to The New York Times, US News and World Report, and other big name publications. Like some famous and other not quite so famous Russian turned American writers I know of, Gessen has completely absorbed English into her being. Whether you think such affections are charming or annoying, you won't hear an accent in Gessen's writing.

What you will get is a strange, twisted tale so utterly out of the ordinary that it reads as some space fantasy that really does take place in a fictional universe. Maybe the acts and deeds that Gessen describes are business as usual in Russia, that nebulous land stretching across the endless Eurasian steppes, but here in the United States we haven't reached the point yet where political assassination is an everyday occurrence, and sham terrorist acts, created for political gain, are pulled off without even a tweak upon the Machiavellian conscience. Or maybe we do experience these events here, but are not yet ready to ascribe them to anything other than half-baked conspiracy theories. Whatever the case, Gessen's book feels like an alien world, an imaginary landscape manufactured in Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic special effects studios.

As I mentioned before, George Lucas was inspired by Joseph Campbell, whose seminal work was The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Gessen, on the other hand, maintains that Vladimir Putin is The Man Without A Face. Could it be, then, that faceless Putin is the anti-hero, the dark Sith Lord who fiercely opposes Russia's journey along the road to democratic enlightenment? Or is the Russian President merely the single face for even more sinister, reactionary forces that have a stake in moving Russia back to the authoritarian style rule imposed by the Soviet Union?

Not Lunchtime Lit

Some of you may have read articles in Mel Carriere's "Lunchtime Lit" book review series. This is not one of those silly Lunchtime Lit reviews. This is a serious, regular review, with all the regular things you expect in serious, regular reviews.

You can't tell a Russian Premier from a hooded Sith lord without a scorecard these days.

You can't tell a Russian Premier from a hooded Sith lord without a scorecard these days.

Putin as Phantom Menace?

Reading The Man Without a Face causes the suppressed Star Wars geek in me to resurface and reminisce back to the 1999 film Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. In that particular installment of the series we see Darth Sidious, an amorphous, hooded figure from the dark side of the Force, create an outlaw Trade Federation that commits outrages against the Galactic Republic and stirs up the galaxy into a state of war. In his non-hooded alter ego of war-hawk Senator Palpatine, Sidious uses the crisis to take control of the Galactic Senate, impose martial law, and eventually have himself declared Emperor.

In 1999 the equally obscure, ill-defined Vladimir Putin was similarly unveiled, materializing as if out of nowhere to become Prime Minister of Russia at the height of the Chechnyan separatist crisis. At that time, Putin was serving as the head of the FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service. Gessen rather convincingly asserts that when he was appointed Prime Minister by then President Boris Yeltsin, Putin used his contacts in the FSB to engineer a string of deadly apartment building bombings across Russia, a foul deed for which Chechnyan terrorists were conveniently blamed. Putin took advantage of the resulting fear and public outcry to have himself elected President, then used his growing power to slowly eliminate democracy and become the absolute ruler of Russia.

Once entrenched in power, President Putin regularly availed himself of such terrorist crises to remind the Russian public that he was still the tough guy they needed to eliminate the threat, if only he was allowed to consolidate more power to himself. The most notable of these "terrorist" acts occurred in September, 2004, when 385 people were massacred during a hostage crisis at a school gymnasium in the North Caucasus town of Beslan. Perhaps a peaceful resolution to the crisis would not have produced the level of carnage necessary to convince the Russian people that their safety could not be assured without sacrificing even more freedom, so Putin's security forces stormed the building after only three days of negotiations. This premature rescue operation resulted in hundreds of deaths, including at least 186 children. Gessen and others speculate that some of the hostage takers were either Russian agents, planted by Putin, or known terrorists already in police custody who were released prior to the event. Only one man would seem to benefit from unleashing dangerous killers upon the public. Not surprisingly, the "reforms" passed after Beslan strengthened the power of the hooded SIth Lord at the helm in the Kremlin, one Vladimir Putin.

After taking control of the galactic government, Sith Lord Emperor Palpatine dispatched Darth Vader with an enormous army of clones to annihilate his enemies, the Jedi Knights. In a similar vein, Gessen tells us that Darth Putin has used incarceration and political assassination to permanently silence people critical of his regime, particularly those who threaten to expose his behind the scenes Sith machinations. Although the Russian President is quick to deny complicity in the untimely but convenient death of his rivals, the murders are frequently attached to a calling card that leaves no doubt about the identity of the culprit.

The most famous Putin-engineered assassination was that of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian FSB spy who died in a London hospital on November 23, 2006 after falling foul of the dark Lord in the Kremlin. An autopsy analysis of Litvinenko's urine revealed polonium, a scarce but extremely radioactive substance. Polonium occurs in infinitesimal amounts in nature, but the quantity used to kill Litvinenko could only have been manufactured, a process requiring nuclear reactors. Russia is the only country that manufactures polonium, and who but Putin could have authorized the manufacture and dissemination of the substance to Litvinenko's assassins?

The laundry list of other politicians, businessmen, and journalists who have somehow crossed Vladimir Putin and subsequently have fallen to a bullet or been poisoned seems far too extensive to accept as "coincidence." Furthermore, the litany of victims continues to grow, as Putin thumbs his nose toward the west and remains shameless and unrepentant of his crimes. Just last Thursday, March 23, former Russian lawmaker Denis Voronenkov, who fled to the Ukraine a year ago to escape Putin's wrath, was gunned down on a Kiev sidewalk.

The burned and bloody aftermath of the Beslan school siege.

The burned and bloody aftermath of the Beslan school siege.

Putin as Puppet?

The thesis of The Man Without a Face, indeed its title, asks the question of how an unknown KGB Lieutenant Colonel rose to the Presidency of the Russian Republic less than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. How could the faceless Vladimir Putin rise from complete obscurity to so quickly and completely become the undisputed autocrat some label the most powerful man in the world?

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In her book, Masha Gessen chronicles the manner in which a powerful clique of former KGB officers took control of the government of St. Petersburg after the fall of the Soviet Union, effectively forming a state within a state. Vladimir Putin rose through the apparatus of this machine, learning both the art of political maneuver and how to skim off the public purse, a talent he has now developed to the point that the retirement net worth of this lower level KGB bureaucrat is estimated to be around 40 billion dollars. This is a truly remarkable rags to riches story from a leader whose popularity arises, in part, from being an anti-corruption crusader. Putin drained the Russian swamps indeed, straight into his own bank account.

After a failed 1991 KGB coup seemed to finally signal the triumph of Russian democracy, the defeated state security apparatus retreated, regrouped, and went underground as the St. Petersburg "mafia" that Putin became a key component of. This shadowy organization shook off its former association with the Communist Party, but not its allegiance to authoritarian principles.

When extremely unpopular President Boris Yeltzin needed a new Prime Minister to prop up his single digit approval ratings, the unknown Vladimir Putin seemed like an innocent enough choice. At that time, Putin had risen to the head of the Federal Security Service, but was not on the "short list" of members of the oligarch elite lining up to replace the discredited leader of the Russian Federation, even though he stands just five feet, seven inches. Putin was generally predicted to be just another here today, gone tomorrow Prime Minister who would serve Yeltsin's interests and then be swept out when the changing political climate required another house cleaning.

The conclusion we draw from Gessen's book, however, is that Putin's facelessness derived from the fact that he was simply the front man of a darker, more sinister group of unseen faces slinking about in the shadows, a cabal of wraiths biding time waiting to take back what what was considered their rightful inheritance, control of the mighty Russian Empire. Perhaps at the time he appointed Putin to be Prime Minister, Boris Yeltzin reckoned his appointee to be a malleable puppet. Perhaps at that time Putin was, as yet, a puppet, but Yeltzin was not the one controlling his strings.

In the nearly two decades since Vladimir Putin disposed of Boris Yeltzin and took over as President of Russia, things are being done KGB style all over again, just as in the good old glory days of the Soviet Union. Arbitrary arrests, sham trials, and political assassination are de rigueur once more. Who is ultimately responsible for the election of Putin and the shift back to the Czarist style of Nicholas II and Josef Stalin? A enlightened prophet once said You will know them by their fruits. A tree corrupt and decayed will bear bitter fruit, and the sweet ambrosia of democracy briefly sampled by the Russian people has once again been replaced by insipid autocracy.

Ukraine detectives alledgedly investigate the death of Denis Voronenkov.  Male detectives secretly play Criminal Case on their cell phones while the lady with the clipboard does the real work.

Ukraine detectives alledgedly investigate the death of Denis Voronenkov. Male detectives secretly play Criminal Case on their cell phones while the lady with the clipboard does the real work.

Russian Cynicism in Action

I Did Not Vote for These Assholes. I Voted for The Other Assholes. I Demand a Recount."

— A sign seen at an anti-Putin protest, quoted by Masha Gessen

May The Farce Be With You

In The Man Without a Face, not once does author Masha Gessen use the terms Sith Lord, light saber, or Dark Side of the Force. Although she very well could be a Star Wars geek like me, I haven't seen any photos of her with hair done up in Princess Leia whorls. No, I believe the Star Wars analogies I drew from her book are unintentional and strictly my own, the product of a psyche that refuses to budge beyond adolescence. So please, those of you in geekdom, kindly refrain from putting this volume on your collector's shelf, in between your model of the Millennium Falcon and the latest Rogue One novel.

We here in the democratic west like to feel smug about the inviolability of our institutions, but the Vladimir Putin fan club is disturbingly popular, even in the so-called free world. The leader of the French far right movement, Marine Le Pen, said "I admire Vladimir Putin," then was accused of accepting money from him. US President Donald Trump says he respects Vladimir Putin even though he's a killer, because there are "lots of killers." Perhaps neither of these politicians read Gessen's book. If they did, either they drew the wrong conclusions from it, or just didn't care about the right conclusions.

I suppose this is not surprising. Even in a packed Star Wars theatre, there are always a handful of oddballs that root for the bad guys. May the farce be with you.

No Princess Leia hair whorls for Man Without a Face author Masha Gessen.

No Princess Leia hair whorls for Man Without a Face author Masha Gessen.

Questions & Answers

Question: Do you think the Russian people will ever attempt and succeed in extracting Putin from power?

Answer: I am not sure the Russians want to extract him from power, at this point. I believe they perceive Putin to be a return to the glory days of the Russian empire. The only thing that will topple him is economic collapse.


Lawrence Hebb on April 27, 2017:


Adolescent psyches are great! I've got one in a lot of ways!

You know, people admired Hitler before WW2. Look how that ended up!

About a year ago I was watching a travel program on TV about Siberia, in it they talked to one of the 'lesser' ogilarchs' and asked him if he'd ever considered politics.

His reply was very short. "No, I want to live!" He then explained, any one who goes into politics gets 'marked' by the FSB and doesn't live very long.

Apparently in Russia, it's well known!

Though I've never heard Putin being called 'The Sith Lord's before!

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on April 21, 2017:

Larry, whether in Hollywood or real life, creating a fake enemy as a catalyst for taking away other people's liberty seems to be a common theme. Thanks for dropping by.

Larry Slawson from North Carolina on April 21, 2017:

Really interesting Hub! I read this book when it first came out a few years ago. Really fascinating stuff. Before reading it, I had no idea how crazy the political environment in Russia actually was.

Great review, by the way! I really enjoyed how you made connections between Star Wars and Putin haha.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on April 08, 2017:

Thank you rebelogilbert. I wish I had the answer to your questions. This week we've seen a Tomahawk missile strike on Putin's interests in Syria, so we're going to see how much of his aggression is bite and how much is bluff. I believe the time to put pressure on him is now, however, before he brings Russia back to the troop levels they had in the 70s and 80s. Thanks for reading.

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on April 08, 2017:

Mel, I enjoyed your article. I'd like to read the book sometime. This article comes at a good time. I think Russian assassinations are intriguing especially if Vladimir Putin had anything to do with them like many people suggest. I'm referring to a couple of shows I've seen on CNN and your book review. Will the Trump administration decide to knock the Syria dictator out of his high chair? How will Vladimir Putin react to extreme international coalition aggression?

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on April 04, 2017:


I would write you a poem about Sith

But nothing rhymes with it save "with"

I'd use "width" but that is repeating

And like a Sith I'd be guilty of cheating

So from this galaxy far far away

I'll just wish mega blessings this day

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on April 04, 2017:

Eric I don't think it's fair that your kids are so talented and creative while all of my children are either in jail or pending sentencing. Hey, at least they got great Healthcare in prison.

I'll check out that video once I get these stupid taxes done.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 02, 2017:

This is very interesting and very scary, Mel. Thanks for a thought provoking book review.

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on April 02, 2017:

Wow Mel, I have never heard the word 'sith' before and I love words. Sith: They followed a code that encouraged the strong to destroy the weak...we have a few of those, including more than half the republicans and trump.

Maybe this is a prophesy of Donald trump, by Masha Gessen.

A great read.

Blessings my friend

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 02, 2017:

Yes Mel that singer and harmonica boy is my blood relations.

We just might meet as they cruise through town for:

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on April 01, 2017:

Wow your son is in that band? Is he the one singing? The singer has a really unique style. I liked the harmonica work too. Johnny Cash meets the Dead Kennedys.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 01, 2017:

Well Mel, that surf punk leader of the band knew Jack MacPherson. I know because I introduced him to him in Leucadia about '90 near Bobby Beathards house at Beacons.

My son.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on April 01, 2017:

Thank you for that surf punk musical moment, Eric. That's the first I have heard of that band, but I dig their grove, as we old children of the 60s like to say.

I have a very conservative friend whose truck has a bumper sticker that says "Support your local death squad." Please tell me that is just another surf punk band I haven't heard of, and not a real death squad.

I plan to pay Mona a visit soon. She's a real interesting, articulate, and intelligent lady.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on April 01, 2017:

Mona, I am delighted beyond words that you see the humour in this, and pleased that you understand that the best way to bring tyrants down a notch is to laugh at them. I really appreciate you dropping in with your kind words.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 01, 2017:

News Flash! Mel's article is worth reading and then perusing again. "We here in the democratic west like to feel smug about the inviolability of our institutions, " Well not the Otay Water District or ICE.

I think that the "smart gods" put it in you to write this. Check out Grand Old Lady on the Dutartes in the Philippines.

I have decided that death squads are real today in "developed" nations based upon, in part, this work.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on March 31, 2017:

Dear Mr. Mel, I love your reviews! Putin is scary, and writing about him is serious business, and it can get so heavy, that your comparisons to Star Wars and your puns make a difficult topic digestible. Reading this was like a trip to compelling, laughter, worry, fear, and laughter once again. What a voyage:). Very much appreciate learning while laughing.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 31, 2017:

Who knows what would happen here, Bill, if we didn't have a long tradition of democratic government to fall back on. Would our current POTUS resort to Putinesque methods as well? Yeah, I know our system is not perfect, I've heard it all, but I can still take shots at Trump and not be packed off to the Gulag. Thanks for dropping in.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 31, 2017:

It really does make you wonder about our president, doesn't it? if he admires Putin? I have some serious concerns, my friend, but my main concern is that so many people blindly follow this fool....oh, wait, which fool am I speaking about? I can't tell them apart these days.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 31, 2017:

That's a great question Mills. Does a Skywalker hero a la George Lucas/Joseph Campbell even exist today? Has heroism vanished? Will the Russian leader who supplants Putin eventually start with good intentions and then get stuck in the muck of institutionalized corruption? Russia has to become a modern democracy sooner or later, one would think. Thanks for dropping in.

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on March 30, 2017:

This book seems to make clear that many countries - especially Russia - gravitate toward leaders who are strong, or at least give that appearance. You make an interesting comparison between Putin and Star Wars, and wonder if Putin will ever meet his Luke Skywalker.

ValKaras on March 30, 2017:

Mel---I agree with you; it's only that in my mind politics is so universally full of filth that it doesn't seem like a big discovery to single out any leader and drag his name through mud. Of course, Masha Gessen had something to report as true, and something to speculate about as possible or probable as to spice it up a little.

To each their own---some folks want to know about every injustice ever done; others believe that life goes on, we should move on, and try to give a life a new meaning. I had to, and my own life lessons taught me not to keep poisoning my emotions and my body with events that we can't edit, and over which we had no control.

Which makes me wonder---how many books will it take to change what Putin, or any other leader is? What gets accomplished? But then again---I am not a normative dude, so, to each their own.

For the bottom line, Mel, I certainly have respect for your, or anybody's literary expression--- we all write what we believe is relevant and in accordance with our convictions.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2017:

I welcome your opinion Val, but as a defender of free speech I defend people who oppose tyrants, like Masha Gessen, who has lost friends and fellow freedom fighters to Putin and his supporters. No political system is without sin, but I think we have to expose abuse where we perceive it.

ValKaras on March 30, 2017:

Mel---I was honest enough to say: I "don't know", and I don't expect the same honesty from anyone else. Reading that book wouldn't make me "know", because I don't believe any sources of political information. I am not saying that you shouldn't either, and I certainly won't do it because anybody tells me that I should.

For the very same reason I didn't need to read the entirety of your review, after I realized that you believed all those reports.

And finally, all that you said didn't "fluff my feathers of an Eastern Block sympathizer". Read my comment again---I don't know, and I am a political cynic, which means that I couldn't care less about Putin---one way or another.

I was not "criticizing your hub"---just expressed my own stand about politics anywhere; and I am not in a habit of asking for an approval for saying my opinion anywhere.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2017:

Well Eric, I don't think all are a menace, even a phantom one. Some of them are actually quite cute and cuddly, and should be tolerated for that reason alone. This Gessen chick is a smart cookie, and if people like her want to come here to escape the dark lord I say bring em on.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2017:

Thank you John. I seem to have ruffled the feathers of some of our Eastern Bloc friends, however. Putin has poisoned people all over the world, as the London police will tell you. I don't think I could make this stuff up if I wanted to.

Anyhow, your kind words are greatly appreciated.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2017:

Thank you Larry. I always appreciate your visits and I look forward to your work as well.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2017:

Vladimir, I am simply reviewing a book by a Russian author who was on hand for the events depicted in the book, and interviewed participants and survivors. She seems credible to me. I also held out the possibility of such deeds occurring in the US. I made that clear in the review as well. Perhaps you should read my review, not simply critique it so harshly based on a quick skim. Better yet, read the book.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on March 30, 2017:

After rethinking this I have decided that Trump is right. We need a huge Iron wall -- but not north and south, East and West they may no longer be red but they are a menace to mankind.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on March 30, 2017:

Mel, I was totally absorbed in this review..even though I admit to "not" being a Star Wars fan (there aren't many of us out there). Your easy reading style does it every time. This book would be interesting in so many levels and seems to confirm many of the rumours about Putin's "quiet" ruthlessness and corruption. He probably is the most powerful individual in the world at this time. A great write here.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on March 30, 2017:

This looks like a book I might like to read.

Always enjoy your reviews.

ValKaras on March 30, 2017:

Hey, I only happen to share his first name; and I only happened to be born and raised in a Communist dictatorship---so I don't claim to "know" anything about Putin's politics.

That doesn't make me so much politically ignorant, as it makes me politically honest---since I am ready and willing to admit that I don't know about all those things that others don't know either, but don't know that they don't know.

Sorry to say it, but there are many more than those obvious parallels between the ways things are secretly being handled in so called "free world" and that "not-so-free-world" that everyone is so eager to ambitiously drag through mud.

I certainly like the mention of those parallels, no matter how fictional between George Lukas's make-believe world and Putin's playground. For the simple reason that both are fictional.

In other words---we don't know, we are speculating, and if you would go to Russia, I bet you, you would read a bunch of "highly possible" speculations about the West and its "imperialistic" interests in the Middle East and elsewhere, with CIA performing some "incredibly inhuman" maneuvers around the globe. You see, I am almost as good a speculator as anyone else.

I have no idea about the book you mention; but knowing that little about human nature I am speculating that anyone coming from Russia and publishing such a book could count on its bestselling status in the West, where anything bad about Putin is a welcome story.

So, call me a sceptic who can't prove that those "facts" are false. But don't call me Putin's sympathizer because I am a political cynic, and I couldn't care less for anyone's politics. I am simply trying to offer my humble opinion about all those claims of people who say they "know" something there.

Besides, if you look closely at the political trickery, it's quite popular to do something inhuman and then pin it on your enemies to ruin their popularity. I could easily use the words of that quantum physicist who said: "Reality is much stranger that fiction". In other words, let's not always judge by the "obvious".

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2017:

Eric, as I am sure you are painfully aware, the Sprung Valley is another galaxy far, far away, by our accepted standards of Southern California civilization. Of course, my own Chula Vista is an interstellar black hole, what some people would call a "cesspool," as you say, but I've learned to feel at home here.

I'm glad you stopped by to read my lonely, forgotten rants, floating around abandoned in the far reaches of cyberspace. Your words are always encouraging.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on March 30, 2017:

Aren't we talking about 1200 years of the "Russian" people being lead by such horrors they call leaders? Or just take after the Mongols around 1220. These guys make martyrdom a generational reality like most groups do skin color. "Communism" only lasted about 70 years and the people cried out for another whack job to lead them.

I like to read Russian writers but I get tired of their Russian apologetic s about the bad guys at the top.

As always your writing is like raw pure honey to my reading eyes. I just love this article bobbing and weaving between the stars and the cesspool in St. Petersburg. You would make the great Ali proud.

Now some of my SV residence may not like the "far far away" reference as we like to think we are not that far out there.

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