Vladimir Putin’s unsavory side commands more attention with each passing year. For Gessen, however, it is not merely a side of the man but his essence. She breathes her contempt for him into every paragraph of this book. Gessen was born in the Soviet Union, raised in the United States, and reintegrated into Russia as a skilled investigative reporter. She shines a piercing light into every dark corner of Putin’s story: his self-described thuggish youth; the unsolved murders of some of his prominent critics, such as Anna Politkovskaya and Aleksandr Litvinenko; the expropriation of privately held business empires; his bumbling and insensitive response to the death of Russian sailors aboard the sunken Kursk submarine in 2000; and so on. Gessen has traveled to the far corners of the country and spoken with everyone who has an inside take on what happened. This makes for fascinating, hard-hitting reading but scarcely inspires a sense of scrupulous objectivity -- not when in nearly every ambiguous circumstance, Gessen opts for a sinister explanation that leads back to Putin.
Lynch’s account is more complete and, in the end, more convincing, partly because it focuses more on the things Putin has done skillfully, creating powerful sponsors along the way. Without giving short shrift to Putin’s narrow-minded, even malicious qualities, it conveys better than any previous books about Putin the characteristics that have propelled him forward: loyalty, self-control, hard work, and insight into other people. Two observations are central to Lynch’s analysis. The first is that Putin’s personality and proclivities are driven by an intellectual commitment to Russia’s revitalization but are also fueled by an emotional dread of disorder. The other is the yawning gap between the grim perception of him in the West and the support he enjoys at home -- a gap that might be narrowing now, as a nascent opposition movement takes shape in Russia’s big cities.