Russian journalist Masha Gessen lost her job last week as editor of a nature magazine for refusing to cover President Vladimr Putin’s hang-glider flight with endangered Siberian cranes.
This week, Putin invited Gessen for a chat at the Kremlin.
Masha Gessen tells anchor Marco Werman about her unusual encounter and candid talk with Russia’s leader.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, co production of the BBC, World Service, PRI, and WJBH Boston. Russian president Vladimir Putin invited one of his critics to the Kremlin this week. Putin asked journalist Marsha Gessin to come over for a chat. Gessin is the author of a very critical book about Putin called “The Man Without a Face.” She also just lost her job as editor and chief of a Russian nature magazine. Her publisher fired her for refusing to cover Putin’s latest animal related stunt, a hang glider flight to supposedly help endangered Siberian Cranes, but Gessin knew that in the past such events had been staged for Putins benefit, even risking the animal’s safety.
Marsha Gessin: What I feared was if one of our journalists went along on the trip, he or she would see something that usually happens when Putin goes on one of these little nature preservation adventures, which is that an animal suffers.
Gessin: And then we would be forced to describe that instead of actually writing the story, and then we’d be in trouble.
Werman: So you got fired for this, not covering Putin’s re enactment of Fly Away Home, and a few days later, you are invited to meet with the president. How did you receive this surprising invitation?
Gessin: I was actually in a cab in Prague, quite exhausted after celebrating my firing and flying in in the morning, and I got a phone call on my cell phone, and somebody asked me to hold on. And I held on for a couple of minutes and became furious, and then when somebody else came on the line and said, “Hold on, I’m going to connect you,” I became even more furious and started shouting at this person. And I said, “Would you like to introduce yourself?” And the person on the other end of the line said that Putin was [??] So the first thing I-
Werman: Did you think it was a joke?
Gessin: Of course I thought it was a joke, but he asked me for a meeting. So I stereotypically said, “Well, I’m willing to meet with you, but how do I know this is not a prank?”
Gessin: And he said, “Well, when we hang up, you are going to get a call from my administration. They will schedule a meeting. I will show up for the meeting, and that way you will know it was not a prank.”
Werman: Wow, is this the way Vladimir Putin usually does business with people he wants to meet?
Werman: How does it usually work? I don’t know if there is a usual.
Gessin: I’m not sure there’s a usual. I mean, part of the reason there has been so much interest to this really rather trivial meeting is that so little is publicly available about Putin, about the workings of his administration, about his behavior in informal situations and anything that’s not televised. But its a page out of an odd playbook, and a lot of the Russian media have been talking about how Stalin used to call culturally significant people to chat and try to ingratiate himself to them. He used to call [Speaking Russian] and I’m not comparing myself to [speaking Russian], but there’s something from that sort of genre of addressing the intelligences’ concerns through trying to employ personal charm.
Werman: Right. You’re talking about the [??]So let’s cut to the meeting now. What was Vadimir Putin’s demeanor when you met him in person?
Gessin: It was quite informal. I had to wait for a mere two and a half hours, which for a person is very low. It was a 20 minute meeting. I think he did try to be appealing. He used a lot of algorithms. He used basically words that Russian law wouldn’t allow to be printed. And he had two messages. He had a message for me, and he had a message for my publisher. The message for me was that I was wrong to have refused to cover his flight with the cranes because his nature preservation of protection’s here, not part of an election or PR strategy. In fact, he pointed out that there’s no election campaign going on. I refrained from pointing out that there are no elections in Russia at all. So he basically told me I was wrong, and then he went to the publisher and he told the publisher that he was wrong to have fired me over such a trivial incident, although he believes that there should be discipline at a magazine just as there should be discipline in the army. Those were his words. He listened attentively while I explained to him why I found his nature preservation efforts objectionable. I said, “You probably know that when you put a satellite collar on that Siberian tiger a couple years ago, that tiger was actually taken from the [speaking Russian] zoo. You probably know that when you put the satellite collar on that polar bear a couple years ago, that polar bear was captured several days ahead of time and heavily sedated while waiting for you.
Werman: Right, so a frank discussion. How did he respond?
Gessin: He said, “Of course I knew that leopard was captured ahead of time.” Confusing the polar bear and the leopard. But he said, “I’ve told people that this should not be done like this, but still drawing attention to the problem is more important than the little excesses that happen.” He used the word excesses twice. So clearly he remains convinced that this GR strategy is right and is beneficial for the cause.
Werman: I’m curious to know from you, Marsha, I mean as a kind of media charmer, he does seem to have a few tricks in his bag, but does he seem sophisticated to you?
Gessin: No, he does not. And you know, those tricks have really gotten old. I think he’s using things that played really well in the first couple years of his administration. Twelve years into Russian leadership,they’ve become ridiculous. And he really hasn’t pulled anything new out of his hat. Everything from these photo ops to his use of algorithms. All of this is very familiar and very hat.
Werman: And speaking of ridiculous, did he really say, ” I like birdies, kitties, and little creatures”?
Gessin: He definitely did. This was his opening statement-
Werman: to you.
Gessin: Yes, to me. You know, I can only suppose that he thought that I would find this charming.
Werman: Now Marsha, we should point out that you wrote this national best seller, “The Man Without A Face” a biography of Putin,and you actually hadn’t met him when you wrote the book. I assume you had made request to interview him.
Gessin:I had made requests. I believe I was the first journalist to be blacklisted by criminal press service in Russia back in 2000, so the last place I expected to find myself this month was in Vladimir Putin’s working office. But yeah, I mean I was incredibly curious to meet him, and to be honest, I was hoping to be charmed at least a little bit.
Werman: But no?
Werman: I doubt you brought him an autographed copy of your book.
Gessin: I wanted to, and I wanted to ask him to autograph one for me. My family told me I would be chained to the radiator if I attempted to take the book with me.
Werman: Journalist Marsha Gessin in Moscow. Thanks very much for telling us about your meeting with Putin.
Gessin: Thank you for asking.
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