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Masha Gessen: Putin Rules by Humiliation

The Russian journalist decried the newly re-elected president’s phony victory, saying, ‘The people know when they’re fooled.’

Russian journalist Masha Gessen railed against Vladimir Putin during a Friday afternoon panel with Chrystia Freeland, editor of Thompson Reuters Digital.

“There is no way to consider him a legitimate president,” she said in regard to the Russian leader’s recent re-election, explaining that Putin has a “monopoly” on both public dialog and the media.

Gessen, whose latest book is The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (an excerpt of which recently ran in Newsweek), explained that she doesn’t consider him to be a democratically elected president, and she thinks the rest of the country “understands” this, too. “The people know when they’re fooled.”

Now, she says, the big question is whether the protests in Russia will grow or fade. “It’s still really upsetting to have the vote stolen from you,” she added.

Beyond that, she spoke about a broader culture of humiliation in Russia. “It’s just humiliating to be a Russian citizen right now,” she said, explaining that any time a citizen needs to do any business with the government—to get a driver’s license, for example—he or she doesn’t know what to expect. “It’s unpredictable and it’s humiliating ... you always have to jump through hoops and usually bribe people.”

That culture, she said, is part of Putin’s tactic, citing the story of a businessman who Putin bullied into reopening a factory. Putin gets his “legitimacy from fear, money, and personal connections,” she said.

Gessen also addressed issues of sexism in Russia, noting that “Russia is a strange place, actually. It’s not so black and white.” Russia boasts a relatively large number of women in leadership positions, she said, and explained that when they encounter sexism, the common response is not to use the “traditional feminist rhetoric,” but to take the higher road.

Freeland also asked Gessen about a new anti-gay law brewing in Russia, which could make it a crime to provide minors with gay “propaganda.”

“I may have to leave the country over this archaic law being passed,” responded Gessen, who is gay and lives with her children and her partner.