THE REVOLUTIONARY RUSSIAN
Women, as the recent Pussy Riot trial shows, may well turn out to be the bravehearts who trigger a new Russian revolution.
But while the three female rockstars may become the global face of the anti-Putin protests that have started to build up across Russia since December 2011, it is another woman – arguably one of the most brilliant writers you’ve never heard of – who in her own way is leading the movement from the front: by unmasking the man who came from nowhere to rule the largest country in the world.
In one fundamental way, Masha Gessen, journalist and author, is like her most celebrated subject, Vladimir Putin: she arrives out of nowhere and makes an impact you’re not likely to forget in a hurry. Ironic, given that she is vehemently against everything he stands for.
Gessen, author of six previous books about Russia, shot into the limelight earlier this year when she released The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, unarguably the most definitive, well-researched biography of Russia’s ambitious President. Her investigative journalism antecedents are evident in the tapping of previously inaccessible sources to document how Putin “seized control of media, sent political rivals and critics into exile or to the grave and smashed the country’s fragile electoral system, concentrating power in the hands of his cronies.”
That sentence alone also speaks volumes about Gessen’s courage in documenting previously unknown data about the ruthless leader – famously known to stamp out dissent by whatever means it takes.
But then courage is the backbone of Masha’s life story – her parents emigrated to the US when she was an adolescent but she returned to Russia 10 years later to make a career in journalism; she failed her first year as a high school student in the US because her spoken English was so poor yet went on to be a Nieman Fellow of Journalism at Harvard University; she came out as lesbian and became an open campaigner for lesbian and gay rights, later marrying her partner in the US; in 2006 she discovered she had an 87% genetic predisposition to breast cancer and 40-50% to ovarian cancer and faced the harrowing choice of a preventative double mastectomy and ovariectomy, a process documented in Blood Matters: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene.
Today Masha writes for Russian media, as well as the biggest names in international journalism, from the New York Times to The Guardian, the International Herald Tribune, Vanity Fair, Granta and Slate, among others. Her work is sweepingly wide yet consistently brilliant; in 2009, she wrote a surprise bestseller in Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century, a biography of Grigori Perelman, the brilliant and eccentric young Russian mathematician who solved the famous Poincare Conjecture in 2006. The book called on yet another aspect of Masha’s genius – her prodigious understanding and knowledge of mathematics to create what a New York Times review called ‘something rare: an accessible book about an unreachable man’.
That could well be the title of a book on her own life.