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(generated from captions) This Program is Captioned Live. # Theme music I'm Waleed Aly. Hi, and welcome to Big Ideas. This year's Sydney Writers' Festival for political insights, has been a great one

with Russian-born writer Masha Gessen and this conversation is no exception. in the United States, She spent most of her childhood as a writer, journalist, but returned to live in Moscow of the Russian political hierarchy - and tough critic

a job for the faint-hearted and that is not

a number of courageous journalists in a country where for their critical stances. have been murdered the Russian President Vladimir Putin Her book about

The Man Without A Face, bears the brilliant title,

this is the man so titled because whatever they want. onto whom others can project his early life, his childhood, She's done a great job researching and his previous incarnation in East Germany. as a low-level, pen-pushing KGB agent

a dull, useless sort of job, Seemed to be but Putin loved the KGB, was to be a great espionage agent. and his ambition home from his years in East Germany But, it appears that all he brought and a second-hand washing machine. was some cash But it was the post-Soviet era built a substantial personal fortune. where Putin apparently

that Putin embezzled state funds, Gessen alleges was undoubtedly a millionaire. and by the end of the '90s careful myth-building around Putin, Gessen demolishes the not only of his corruption, and details examples and cynical handling of tragedies but also of his callous

of the Russian submarine the Kursk, like the sinking at the bottom of the Bering Sea. with the crew dying into the current Russian leadership. This is a rare insight with the ABC's Jane Hutcheon. Masha Gessen is speaking in the 1990s, So when you moved back to Russia

about the country what do you think it was instantly pulled you back - that just made you feel like you were at home. like I was at home? Oh, what made me feel Those things are intangible, it's the way the light falls. it's the way the dust smells,

that you can really put into words. It's not anything what was so exciting about the place, It's much easier to talk about about the place was the conversation. and what was so exciting the country had opened up I mean, it really felt like the things that were important. and people were talking about

you know, People were really discussing, between the individual and the state? what is the proper relationship

a society construct itself? How should

basically the whole of the 1980s - Because that period you were away - was a period of change,

a completely new phase. the beginning of the 1990s, again, and of course,

going back to a new country? It would almost be like yeah. Um, in some very significant ways, especially in the late '80s, I mean, I think that, uh, the four years between 1987 and 1991, I'd say

and the Soviet Union in general Russia just sort of rocketed forward, Western culture and Western history and played a lot of catch-up with for almost a century. after having been so isolated You said there was a lot of discussion, when you came back

What at that time - a lot of talk going on.

in the early '90s? had anybody heard of Vladimir Putin of Vladimir Putin in the early '90s. Very few people had heard significant to understanding him - He actually - and I think this is he missed the late 1980s.

that heady and exciting time. He missed

as a low-level secret police agent - He was in East Germany working a low-level KGB agent. in those years I think what happened in Russia is still very baffling to him, about all the change that happened. and he feels very resentful (Audience laughter) It's like they forgot to tell him,

that he valued most. and they gave up the things of the Soviet Union, You know, the closed nature of the Soviet Union. the extremely ordered nature to enemy forces It's like they ceded it

trying to protect the Soviet Union while he was out there in Germany by working for the KGB, he's still resentful about that, as a tragedy and a failure. and I think he still perceives that So what kind of things was he doing? Correct. He was based in Dresden, wasn't he?

What kind of things was he doing?

Um, mostly he was pushing paper. of being a high-level spy. He had dreamed One of the things he has said with this idea is that he was he was really taken behind the scenes, of... you make a decision the lives of millions of people, and it affects

he's tried to do that And in a way, you know, but nobody knows who you are.

a highly public politician. while being

he's tried to rule from the shadows I mean, while being President of Russia, what has happened in our country. which explains part of

being posted to the West, obviously. So he had dreamed of That didn't happen for him - his secret agent training, he was - after getting he was sent to East Germany. And he wasn't even sent to Berlin, provincial town called Dresden. he was sent to a backwater was to find potential agents, There, his job

of Latin American university students particularly from the ranks West Germany and East Germany. in both ineffective, inefficient work. And it was extremely time-consuming, He wrote a lot of reports. he got in his four years in Dresden It seems that the biggest score

was an unclassified US Army manual for 800 Deutsche Marks. that was sold to him (Audience laughter) So an inauspicious start. that fascinated me about the story I mean, the other thing was he was married by this time, wasn't he? Right. but he was fairly newly wed,

about how he met his wife, Tell us the story proposal. and the very, very romantic that's one of my favourite stories, Oh, I'm glad you asked. for about three years. So, he'd known his wife She was a flight attendant working in Kaliningrad, and he was a KGB agent in Leningrad. Two different cities. And they'd been dating for three years, which is a very long time for Russia, and they were also, by Russian standards, or by Soviet standards at the time, quite old.

She was in her late 20s and he was 31, um, and statistically that's a complete anomaly. So, uh, this is what we know from her description of the proposal, which he hasn't contested. He says to her, 'By now, you've probably gotten to know me.' And she realises at this point that he's breaking up with her, because that's... what else would he be doing? 'And you've probably made up your mind about me.' And she says, 'Well, yes, I have.' And he says, 'Well, in that case, right, you know that I have trouble expressing my emotions,

and I'm an inconvenient person to be with, and I come home late, and generally it wouldn't be a very good life.' And so, clearly he's breaking up with her. She says, 'Yes, I'm aware of all of that, and I have made up my mind.'

And he says, 'Well, in that case, I suggest we get married in a month.' (Laughter) And she obviously said 'Yes', and they are still married today? They're still married today. She faded from the public eye some years ago. And in fact she was sort of taken out of the moth balls

for the inauguration last week, and before that we hadn't seen her in public in about five years. And why would you suggest that is?

Um, I actually don't like to speculate on that, because, I mean, there are lots of rumours around Moscow about his love life, but what I tried to do is only use material that I could corroborate, and that's plain rumour, it always goes back to one source, so I don't wanna talk about it.

So, we have Vladimir Putin in the posting of a lifetime in Dresden. Is he there when the Wall falls in 1989? He's there, even more importantly, when the people of East Germany begin protesting. There are mass protests. They gather outside the Stasi buildings in Dresden, and the KGB and the Stasi share some buildings, and he feels completely under attack. He goes outside to talk to the people - or at least this is his account - he goes outside, he tells them to go away, they ask him questions about what he is doing there and why he is driving a car with a German license plate, and he feels - and I think he feels this to this day - that those questions were completely unwarranted, and that he had every right to be there, and they had no right to question him. And I think, again, it's important to understand his psychology, that almost 25 years later, he still believes that the Soviet Union had every right to have its secret police agents undercover in East Germany - under bad cover in East Germany. So he goes back into the building and he calls the Soviet military detachment in Berlin, asks if they can send reinforcement, if they can protect the building. They say, 'We can only do that with an order from Moscow, but Moscow is silent.' And I think he has remembered that line - 'Moscow is silent'. He has repeated it on some occasions. And that is a moment of ultimate betrayal.

He realises that the people might storm the building at any point, that he is not going to have any protection, he basically feels like he is being fed to the wolves. He starts feeding all the documents in the building into the furnace that they have there, and keeps at it until four o'clock in the morning when the furnace explodes from excess heat. (Laughter)

And part of the, uh - to me, part of the tragedy of the situation is its absurdity, because we have a fair idea of what the documents were, and they were completely useless paper. There were newspaper clippings, there were endless reports on how the different agents there spent their time - you know, 'From 11 until 12 I was speaking to the policeman who was our agent in Dresden.' That sort of thing. And that was part of what characterised the KGB toward the end of its existence, toward the late '80s.

Masses and masses of paper that nobody analysed, and that could no longer be put to any use. Before I move on to who spotted him, in a way, and his meteoric rise, I was fascinated about the lack of detail about his early life - how he was brought up. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Well, that's actually even given rise to rumour that he was adopted, because - and again, it's rumour, although oddly it has emerged from several places at the same time.

He has a very unusual biography for somebody of his generation. His parents were, again, by Russian standards, older. They were 41 years old when he was born. He was born 1952. Both of his parents had survived the siege of Leningrad - the 900 days when the city was almost completely surrounded by German troops, and over a million people died of starvation. It was a period of extreme hardship and extreme trauma that still resonates very strongly in St Petersburg. And they were extremely unusual in the sense that they had both survived. They hadn't just lasted the siege, but they had lasted the siege as a couple, even though his father was badly wounded and his mother had nearly died of starvation so she was in quite poor health. And they had lost a son in the siege. He had died of hunger. And they had lost another son before the war - he had died in childhood So he was this miracle child. So, you're saying he basically appeared, which is the suggestion that he was adopted after the death of the couple's other two children. Right, he appeared quite a bit later, he appeared seven years after the war ended in 1952, but actually that's not so much - I mean, I think their neighbours doubted

that they possibly could have had a baby at the age of 41,

and being in such poor health, and that's probably part of what gave rise to the rumour. There's also no - no one has been able to find anybody who remembers Putin before he entered school,

and he entered school late at the age of eight, which was late at the time as well.

So there are some claims that he sort of appeared out of nowhere when he was a somewhat older child. I'm not sure that there's any reason to believe those rumours, and more to the point, I don't know that that's really important. I think his family is important, and his background growing up in post-war Leningard is important, 'cause it was a very tragic place. It was still a hungry place, it was a place that was destroyed to a very large extent, it was a place physically scarred by what had happened in the city during the war, and I remember - I quote, actually, in the book, a passage from a brilliant book about the siege that compares living in post-war Leningrad to a soldier still living in the trenches where the most dramatic events of the war occurred. And Putin has portrayed himself as this very scrappy, very angry child, and I think that's sort of part of the ethos of that post-war time in Leningrad. Interesting.

Let's skip now to the part where he's working for the SFB, and then he's spotted by someone who's close in the circle of Boris Yeltsin who's ailing, he's unpopular at the time, there's a lot of dissatisfaction in the country, and an oligarch by the name of Boris Berezovsky, spots him and is impressed by him. Why is he so impressed?

So we've fast-forwarded to 1999. Putin has come back to Leningrad, he has served in the city administration in St Petersburg where he made a name for himself as an extremely corrupt official. (Laughter) And then he ends up in Moscow working for the secret police still, in 1999. And at this point, Yeltsin is casting about for a successor, and it's kind of a desperate search because Boris Yeltsin, who was president of Russia for ten years, and was once a very charismatic and very popular politician, has lost his popularity, he's really lost his touch. He's very isolated, he's alienated everybody who was ever close to him, and he's become erratic. He keeps appointing prime ministers, removing prime ministers, appointing the same prime ministers, and he realises how unpopular he is. And he also realises that if the opposition replaces him after his second term, he is likely to face prosecution. So his inner circle, the very few people who remain loyal to him, who are called 'The Family', start casting about for a successor. And the idea is to find somebody who will be loyal, and who will promise Yeltsin immunity from prosecution, and a less articulated idea but a very clear one is to find somebody who can essentially be a puppet. And they focus in on Putin

who seems so insignificant, and so, sort of, grey, and so lacking in personal ambition, (Laughter) that obviously if they appoint him president, he'll be loyal to them for the rest of their lives. It's - I mean, it's an amazing, huge mistake of arrogance, and one of the things that actually struck me was that, interviewing Boris Berezovsky about this - and he was instrumental in this - about this in London, ten years after he was forced into exile and he still thinks it was a brilliant move. (Laughter) He was then betrayed, you know, everything went wrong, but when he starts describing how he made the decision, he just gets swept up and he thinks it was such a great idea. I think at this point, I really want to hear more about Boris Berezovsky. In London, where I was posted for a time, he was quite a larger-than-life figure. How did he get from being - could I call him a dissident oligarch, or he was certainly an exiled oligarch, from being in Yeltsin's inner circle to being in exile? Well, he certainly isn't the only one. He's one of a chain, isn't he? He's one of a chain. Basically, the oligarchs were the very wealthy men - a few more than a dozen of them - who had done very well with the privatisation of the '90s, and who were very close to power, and had a hand in running the country in the late '90s, and what remains of them has now been divided into two groups - there's the one group that's in exile, and Berezovsky was actually the second oligarch to go into exile, but certainly the most visible, and there's the other group that remains in Russia, retains some of its wealth, and has been quite publicly and repeatedly humiliated by Putin, and sort of beaten into submission in plain view of everybody else.

Are they mostly in jail?

Oh, one is in jail, right. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is in jail. Jail and exile, I think, falls sort of into the same category. Berezovsky - he's a complicated figure. He's brilliant, he's a former mathematician, he's somebody who, when you talk to him, you just realise that his mind is sort of running ahead of his mouth, and he's struggling to catch up with his ideas and express at least a few of them, and I know so many people who have stayed close to him just because they feel like he's a source of endless energy and ideas, and because he also thinks he's so brilliant, you know, he comes up with brilliant ideas like making Putin president of Russia. (Laughter) But by the time he did this, he was effectively running Channel One, the largest television channel in Russia, which was nominally national, but in point of fact was being funded and managed by Berezovsky. So he used the television channel to make Putin. And then - and this is how we get to the Kursk disaster. Do you mind if I - OK, well we'll move on to the Kursk, obviously, because that is an incident that I'm sure all of you would have seen those pictures, it was extremely sad and alarming,

but it also - the whole incident, and the handling of the incident, really showed Putin in a different light, didn't it? Right, um, it showed Putin in a different light, and I think it also showed something to Putin. It was probably his most important lesson after he became president. So, he becomes president in May 2000, and in August 2000 the Kursk submarine - a large nuclear submarine - sinks off the coast of Murmansk. And the majority of the crew dies instantly, but more than 20 people are trapped in a segment of the submarine that's been sealed off, and is apparently safe enough for them to survive, as it turns out later, for about three days.

And the whole country is transfixed by - The whole world is transfixed, really. The whole world is transfixed by the coverage of this. But it's August, it's vacation time. Moscow's almost empty,

Putin is on the Black Sea coast in Tuapse. There's a media management conference in Moscow, and a young consultant who has worked on Putin's image say, you know, 'We have to get him to come back from vacation.' And Putin is resistant to this. And the response he eventually gives is if you have too many bureaucrats around the rescue effort, it will just get in the way. And, um, rescue efforts meanwhile are horribly bungled. Basically, the Norwegians were closer to the site of the disaster, were willing to come and rescue the crew. The Russians aren't letting them into their national waters. This goes on for several days. Russians dive, and they're unable to open the... ..the whatever you call it, the thing - that you have on a part of a submarine. We know now what was going on inside the submarine is unbelievably tragic. They actually have the capacity but they have three fewer suits than they would need to get out. So, they stay in, and they stay in until something in that segment of the submarine catches fire, and they asphyxiate. So -

That was - 23 died like that, didn't they? 28, if I'm not mistaken, but I have the exact figure in the book. And meanwhile, all their relatives, who'd been watching - it was a complete - a national tragedy. It was a national tragedy that unravelled in real time, basically, on television. And finally, his image consultants get Putin to cut short his vacation to travel to Murmansk, and at this point - to meet with the relatives of the men whom at this point he knows to be dead. And the meeting is closed to the media but it goes horribly wrong. They take him to task for having mismanaged the rescue efforts. And he flies off the handle. He starts saying that it's the bad people who have destroyed the Russian military and it's - he sort of goes into this whole pro-Soviet rhetoric of the late '80s as though he remembered 'Moscow being silent' and the whole thing, as though he's still the little guy in opposition who's railing against everything that has gone wrong. But he's president, and it is his responsibility. And somebody audiotaped Putin screaming and this was aired on Channel One, Berezovsky's television channel, a few days later, and I think what happened to Putin at this point was that he realised that television couldn't just make him, it could also unmake him. And he calls Berezovsky to task, he takes over Channel One and Berezovsky has to go into exile. So, Putin has been seen by the country to go off his head, really, he doesn't handle it well.

After the event,

one of the anchormen from Channel One, Sergey Dorenko, criticises his handling of the disaster. Was this pretty much unprecedented at the time?

'Cause that must have been quite a public humiliation. And then how did he go on to handle that? Well, it was unprecedented at all. It was - It because that was an open - It was an open society at the time. Television had treated Yeltsin the same way and Yeltsin, who had a temper and who was erratic,

he had some baseline values that were very clear and freedom of the press was one of them. He never really touched journalists. Sometimes when he was deeply insulted he would make one remark about this. But really, there were things that he held to be sacred, which if you think about it is amazing for somebody to be that solid on after having grown up in the Soviet Union. This wasn't Putin's attitude at all.

Putin felt again betrayed, and he felt like things weren't working as they should,

because as president he should have everything under his control. And this wasn't part of the vertical structure that the country should be. So, he called both Dorenko in and he called Berezovsky in and Dorenko had to go off the air and has been off the air for most of the last 12 years.

And the Kremlin took over all Russian television. So, that was a pretty big impact from one bad performance. He also went on to CNN, didn't he? He went on to CNN, and that - you know - Who advised him to do that? It's a good question.

I mean, at the time, he had an image consultant team, the same team that had created him out of this faceless little grey man, just six months earlier, during the election campaign. He was in the US and I think he was asked to do Larry King

and they felt it was important for him to show some openness. And this is a famous Larry King Live show but this was one of the discoveries that I made while I was researching the book when I watched it again ten years later I realised it wasn't at all what I think we all remember - those of us that remember it - because what had happened right after the Kursk sank and while the rescue efforts were still going on was that the Russian government was puting out various weird signals and for example at one point claiming that there was an American submarine that was in those waters and there was a collision with the American submarine and that was the cause of the disaster. Which it wasn't. And in fact it appears that the cause of the disaster was just horrible mismangement and corruption in the Russian military fleet. That the submarine should never even left the dock In the condition that it was in. So he went on Larry King Live and Larry King asked him what happened to Kursk. And he shrugged and said 'It sank.' (Laughter) And at the time it was taken by the world, I think, and by Russia as well to have been an incredibly cynical and just this very sinister...

Very glib, off-hand remark. Right. Watching it again, I realised that that is not at all what happened. He was actually trying to say, 'OK. I'm not going to push this line about the US submarine. It sank.' It was nobody else's fault. He was trying to make a concession but he was so bad at this. (Laughter) And you know, he warned us, he said he was bad at expressing his emotions when he was prepossing to his wife.

So... There are so many other events. We obviously went through a lot over the years - the Beslan seige, the Moscow Theatre seige. One of the things that fascinated me however - I'm sure you'll remember a few years ago, I was reporting from London at the time and there was a man by the name of Alexander Litvinenko who claimed he'd been poisoned. He was a dissident living in London. And sure enough, shots were shown of him in hospital, his hair had all fallen out - and a few weeks later, I think he went into a coma and a few weeks later he died. I think shortly before his death it was confirmed he had been poisoned by radioactive polonium

and the part that had completely shocked me was he had been dining at a take-away sushi restaurant that was visited by my colleagues and I, called Itsu. And they shut down that sushi place

and they found traces of the polonium there, very small traces.

Now he was someone who said he'd been poisoned beforehand and had been researching a series of bombings that took place in Moscow -

Moscow and around the country in 1999. Unravel that story for us, if you will, because the bombings scared the whole country and no-one had really got to the bottom of who had planted the bombs and what the purpose of them had been. OK. Unravel this in five minutes or less. You have a little bit more time. Right. So we have this, again, this secret police agent who is plucked out of obscurity, appointed Prime Minister, and at this point Yeltsin give every indication that this is his successor. This is August, 1999. And just about a week later, the first explosion occurs in the south of Russia, it's an apartment building. Many people die. But it doesn't quite shock the country because this is five years into the on again/ off again war in Chechnya. Terrorism has become a part of life and anything that happens in the south of Russia is chalked up to that. Then in September there's an explosion in Moscow, in one of the suburbs. It's a highrise building that is blown up in the wee hours of the morning. So when everybody's home and asleep. So everybody in the building dies. And less than a week later, I believe, there's another explosion in another suburb of Moscow. Same pattern - wee hours of the morning, hundreds of people die. So at this point. The body count is over 300 and more than 1,000 injured. Is the blame put on the Chechnyans? The blame is clearly put on the Chechnyans. And Putin goes on television after the second explosion and says his famous line about hunting down the terrorists and wiping them out in the outhouse.

And this is a significant change of political rhetortic for Russia. Because if had been Boris Yeltsin who had gone on television - this was whom we would have expected who would go on television - he would have talked about bringing these terrorists to justice. Now we have somebody who goes on television and says we are just going to hunt them down and wipe them out. And his popularity soars. His name recognition soars. This is the ticket, as it turns out. The country's in a panic because the psychological effect of these explosions is unbelievable. People completely identify with these people who live in a building just like theirs,

who are killed in their sleep, who were completely helpless. And so Russian cities take to the streets, not in demonstrations but in patroling themselves. They create nightwatches. They inspect one another. I have a friend who is quite swarthy who keeps being stopped and his bag is inspected

to see if he is not carrying explosives. And at some point in the city of Ryazan - which is about three hours outside of Moscow - some people spot a group of men and women carrying bags of something into another apartment building. By this point we know this was an explosive called hexogen and it was in large sacks that looked like sugar sacks. So these people are spotted carrying sacks into an apartment building. The people who spot them call the police, the police come, evacuate the building, inspect the sacks and the sacks do turn out to contain hexogen. So they've foiled a plot, basically? They've foiled the plot. So there's all-out search on and it looks like the terrorists are all going to get caught.

At which point the secret police comes out with a statement saying 'That was an exercise.' And 'never mind' and 'don't you try to catch anybody.' And it is all quite haphazard

because about five minutes apart, literally, you have the head of Ministry of the Interior saying 'we foiled a plot.' And then the head of the FSB coming on television and saying 'never mind.' So what did they say those three big bags of hexogen were? They said they were sugar. And they said that the testing equipment that they were using to identify the hexogen had previously been used on real explosives and had been contaminated and therefore had mistaken sugar for hexogen. and various other details I won't go into.

Did people buy the explanation? People didn't really buy the explanation but I think it's an important psychological shift that didn't happen all at once. Because it was so hard to wrap your mind around the possibility that it could be your own secret police that were blowing up your own people. To what end? To make this guy popular? So I think that even though people didn't buy the explanation, it took months to sink in. Some people kept investigating it, there was an important television show that brought a lot of the evidence to the public eye. That was the television station that was raided

on Putin's first day in office and that was the first oligarch to go into exile was Vladimir Grodinsky, the owner of that television station. JOINS PART 2.5 So that's the story of the explosions. So let's fast forward to Litvinenko. Right, let's just stall for a second. OK. I'm trying to sort of get a whole example here in a short time. Litvinenko's this odd guy. He's an FSB agent - a secret police agent, who's actually a whistleblower within the FSB. Right. And he happens to know Berezovsky again. Because there was a murder attempt on Berezovsky in the mid '90s and Litvinenko investigated it. So he was a kind of whistleblower against the FSB. He was a whistleblower within the FSB - against corruption and illegal practices. OK. So he wouldn't have been popular. He was not very popular. He was considered a threat. He had high hopes for Putin when Putin came in because Putin was a friend of Berezovsky.

So when Putin briefly became head of the secret police, Litvinenko went to him and presented all the information he had collected on illegal practices within the secret police. He was basically kicked out of Putin's office

and was jailed soon after. But because this was before Putin had really brought the courts fully under executive branch control, Litvinenko was sort of in and out of jail over the next year and at one point he manages to escape. He leaves the country, he's eventually joined by his wife, and they settle in London. And they're living on Berezovsky's dime at this point,

because Berezovsky's also in London - like a lot of other Russians. And Litvinenko continues investigating illegal practices on the part of the FSB, including the apartment building explosions. And then we fast forward to 2006 when he meets with some people from Moscow.

It's supposed to be some sort of business proposition. He comes home and starts throwing up violently. It's clearly some sort of food poisoning.

After about a day of this he's taken to hospital and his insides just turn into mush. And the amazing thing about this was that he actually lived for three weeks. And he didn't slip into a coma until the last day and a half of his life. So it was because he lived for three weeks that they were finally able to identify the agent that killed him, which was polonium. So what him such a danger all those years later that he had to be literally knocked off on foreign soil? I'm not sure it was the fact that he was such a danger. I think it was perhaps punishment. And it was perhaps meant to show other people that it was time to stop meddling

in affairs of the Russian secret police and the Russian state. But he was just a very dogged critic and a very skilled investigator. And when he was looking into illegal practices on the part of the FSB, he really knew what to look for and he really knew what he was talking about. And who killed him? And tell us a bit about the substance, because it's not an everyday thing that you can find or purchase. Right, well, that's the thing. There's certainly a lot of murders to talk about that have occured in the last 12 years. The murder of Litvinenko is the only one where there's a real true smoking gun. Polonium - radioactive polonium -

is an extremely rare and an extremely highly controlled substance that is manufactured in tiny quantities for industrial needs. And the release of a capsule of polonium would have required a top-level executive decision in Russia. And that kind of polonium is not manufactured anywhere else. So we know we can trace it back to Russia, and we know that it requires such intra-agency coordination that without Putin's interference it could not have been released. But it was taken out of the country by two men who travelled, for some reason, through Germany, and then on to Great Britain where they put it in Litvinenko's tea while supposedly discussing a business proposition with him.

Polonium is particular in the sense that it leaves traces. So it's very easy to trace on the one hand. But on the other hand it is only dangerous if it's ingested. So it's the kind of radiation that doesn't affect those who transport it. And those who handle it are those who are touched by traces of it. But Litvinenko ingested it. And the amazing thing is he survived for three weeks. There are just so many incredible stories in the book and I hope you'll have time to read all about them after you go up for your signing after this session.

And in a few minutes I'm going to open the floor to some questions. But, and again, we could go through all the examples but I'd like to bring the discussion off to a close with the present. I mean, the book ends, in a sense, on a hopeful note if you like with mass protests breaking out in Moscow and around the country. That was the end of last year, what is the future for Vladimir Putin in your view? Oh, I don't think it's very good.

Um, I think that something important has shifted in Russia and it shifted just as I was finishing the book and I was incredibly lucky to have been able to... ..include it. get the epilogue in on time. The epilogue is really the first week of the protest movement, just day by day sort of describing how the country suddenly opened up and people poured into the streets and the amazing thing is they haven't left. It's been six months and the protests are still continuing. There's a crackdown going on in the streets of Moscow right now as we speak. People are being arrested right this minute. And they're being arrested and more people are coming out. And I think that there was a lot of guesswork going on this spring after Putin claimed to be re-elected. There was this idea, especially circulating in the West, that perhaps he would institute some reforms to try to defuse the protest movement and I was convinced that he wouldn't, that he's actually been so consistent, so set in his ways, that his only reaction to the protest movement can be to crack down, which is exactly what has happened. It's not pleasant but I think it has the net effect of radicalising the protest movement and getting more people to be active and to be outraged. That means that even though we don't have any of the mechanisms anymore for getting somebody out of office, he's not going to be able to stay in for much longer because the system that he's built rests on a balance of fear, money and personal connections and the fear has been taken out of the equation and that means the whole thing is going to collapse. So, if it collapses, and you're suggesting that it might be sooner rather than later, is it going to be a bloody and violent end? It's possible. I'm hoping that's not what happens. But is it likely, given everything you've said about his character in the book, he's going to literally say, 'OK, I got it wrong. I'll go.' It depends on what the final trigger is. I've wracked my brain about this and I've only come up with two scenarios. One is that at some point the interior troops, which is the federal police force, disobey his orders to break up the protests.

And there... we've seen examples of that, they're small scale, they're a couple of interior - special forces officers actually, which are elite troops - who are in jail right now

for having refused orders to arrest peaceful protesters. If that goes up high enough... ..and we have a general who says 'no' to Putin, that maybe enough to push him to negotiate for a peaceful exit. So that's one possibility. The other possibility has to do with his inner circle. He has surrounded himself by people whom he has humiliated. They hate him. I mean, the Russian political elite hates the President. And if they get the idea that he is weak enough to be entertaining the idea of negotiating a peaceful exit, and that means THEY are sold down the river, because they will be prosecuted, they may try to get rid of him first. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to open up the floor to questions and I'm going to start off with the first question. You've written an extremely brave book. Do you fear for your life? I hate that question. (Laughter) I'm sorry... I was so happy that you hadn't asked it. ..someone would've asked it if I hadn't. Um, I don't have a good answer to that question

because I always feel ridiculous talking about fearing for my life when obviously I'm alive and well and sitting here. And I do in fact have friends who have been attacked and some who have been killed and I haven't been and I'm very lucky. I think, and I hope, that the wide publicity that the book has received all over the world except Russia offers me some protection. Thank you. Right. Do we have any questions? I would like to ask how you interpret the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church in political life in Russia now?

Right. It's a good question. It's disturbing. I think that it's a natural alliance for a repressive regime and a repressive church to try to get together. The Russian Orthodox Church has had a longstanding relationship with the state and Russian patriarchs have served at the pleasure of the czar for much of the Church's history. So it's not unprecedented.

They're both extremely conservative forces, both the political regime and the Church, within Russian society, and as there's greater push toward opening up to the West again and becoming more contemporary in every way, they have railed very similarly against what the Church calls, ah, 'militant liberalism'. So... they're in it together. There's a lady up here at this microphone. I just wanted to thank you for your courage in speaking out about this very, um... (Applause) A few years ago I was here listening to Anna Politkovskaya and she spoke about Putin. She was asked at the time whether she feared for her safety and she said, 'Look, if they're out to get you, a security guard is not going to make the difference.'

She then went back to Russia and was killed by a professional assassin. My only thought is that I now feel I need to warn you. Is it possible for you to... (Laughter) You're very brave obviously but we need people like you alive to share the truth.

OK, thank you very much. I promise to make a good faith effort. Stay in Australia. Thank you. I think there's a lady here. I'd be interested in your views on some of the rather bizarre photo shoots we've seen of Putin with his shirt off on horses, and what's that all about? The bizarre photo shoots and staged appearances of Vladimir Putin. Right, well, for those of you who've missed shirtless Putin... (Audience laughter) ..he likes to be photographed with his shirt off, fishing, shooting or doing all sorts of manly things. It's a very much a window into his psychology, I mean, he has portrayed himself as a thug. That's really his image of himself and that's how he wants to be perceived. I think that as time has gone on,

those photo shoots have become more bizarre

and I think the growing degree of bizarreness is actually a good indication of how isolated he's become. It's a weird indicator to use, but, you know, that's what happens to dictators, they become more and more isolated and less and less aware of how they're being perceived. And I think we can sort of track it by looking at the way he's posed. My question is - presumably your book is available in Russian, but has it been banned in Russia? It is not available in Russian, it was written in English and it's been translated into all European languages and Chinese but not Russian. There's a publisher whom I like who has it in Moscow, they've been quite open about the fact that they feel that if they publish the book, which they like, the business would be shut down. So, the book is on sale in one Moscow bookstore in English. There you go. This gentleman here. I wonder if you could explain if we're looking at the world through Putin's eyes

does he see Russia now as a integral part of Western Europe? Or some sort of stepping stone between East and West? And how do the Russian people as a whole see that question? That's a huge area of discussion - And we're really near the end and we've got two more people, so briefly, if possible. Briefly, I think that Putin's idea of effective foreign policy is quite primitive. Russia needs to be feared. So in that sense, that's how he measures his success - it's not how much integrated Russia is or how accepted it is in the West, it is how much it is perceived as a force to contend with. And that means it's drifting closer and closer to countries like Iran and Syria and away from Western Europe. This gentleman up here. Thank you very much. Could I also add my congratulations on your bravery. I think it's people like you that are a great help to the rest of the world with your information. Thank you. I have two quick questions, if I can - You need to be very, very quick, I'm sorry. Alright. Is there any significance, I think I heard this morning on the news that Putin had not turned up for discussions today. Is there any significance to his lack of appearance? He did not turn up for what, I'm sorry? For, I think it was the G8 conference. Right, he cancelled his participation in the G8 conference right after the inauguration. And I think it's significant, I think he's actually fearful of leaving Russia lest something go wrong while he's gone. There are other interpretations. One thing we can say for sure is that to him, being part of the G8 is no longer a priority. Alright, I'm sorry, I'm going to have to go to this other lady but thank you very much. Very quickly. Yes, thank you, Masha, can you leave us perhaps with a note of optimism and tell us a little bit about viable opposition and who's orchestrating it? Right, actually, I don't think that's a great question and I'll explain to you why. We live in a country where democratic mechanisms and electoral mechanisms and public conversation in general have been destroyed for 12 years. So, this argument that, look, there's no viable opposition leader is a little bit specious. There are lots of people in the opposition who have great leadership potential. The best people in the country are out on the streets protesting. So, once we rebuild institutions, once we have a way of voting for the people that we really like and respect

we will get them in office, but right now it's too early to say who they are. (Applause) That was Russian journalist Masha Gessen

speaking with Jane Hutcheon at this years Sydney Writers' Festival. Her book, The Man without a Face about Vladimir Putin is a great book, so read it if you get a chance. That's all in this edition of Big Ideas remember you can find us on Facebook and also follow us on Twitter. I'm Waleed Aly, see you next time. Closed Captions by CSI * Yeah, g'day.

Can I have a number 17 please? Massaman Curry? Yeah, make it hot, thanks. Can I have a bit of chilli on the side, too. That's be great. Lovely. Don't you love a good curry? You get a sweat up, your nose is running, your mouth is burning. Well, Audrey Wiley wants to know exactly why all that happens, and I'm going to find out. The essential element in chilli is a chemical called capsinoids. There is no heat sensation being applied to you tongue. In fact, it is the chemical that binds the receptors tricking the brain into thinking there is a heat stimulus. To explain a bit more about what happens, I'm going to be monitored while I eat my curry. This is a temperature pill. I'm going to swallow this, apparently. Seems quite large, but I'll give it a crack. Once this pill hits my stomach, there's a transmitter inside it that sends signals to this box, and I'll be able to read my core temperature. Here we go. I would expect that there would be no rise in temperature, because, essentially, there is no heat mechanism, the body is not overheating as a response to the chemical. 'We're also setting up this thermal camera. Normally it's used to detect fires, or to find hot spots on machinery. Today, though, it will gauge the heat in my face.' The blue end's the cold end, it gradually goes purple as it warms up, yellow, and if it goes really hot, we'll be looking at white, at about 39 degrees. 'Well, so far, Kit tells me that I look pretty cool. And on the inside?' 36.8. 'So, in theory, the chillies shouldn't make my temperature get any hotter. The curry is cold, so if I do sweat, it won't be caused by the heat of the food.' Thank you, Dr Chris. # Feeling hot, hot, hot. # It's really burning a lot. My nose is starting to run a little bit. Looking around your eyes is showing up a bit more yellow 'Now I am starting to sweat, but according to my core temperature,

my body actually isn't any warmer.' The brain perceives there is a temperature stimulus, the body's natural mechanism is to produce sweat, in order to cool the core temperature of your body down. It's called gustatory sweating. Your neck was looking particularly in the purple range of colour. It is now almost all heading towards that yellow range. The chemical in the chilli is causing the irritation and the increase in blood flow, and it's an indirect effect we're picking up on the camera.

'And it hurts. So I'm reacting to the pain, as well.' On the upside, the antidote is milk or beer. So, I'm off to cool down. Beer. Closed Captions by CSI

This Program is Captioned

Live. On the world stage -

Brisbane named as host of a G20

summit. This is a city that I

think can show a great spirit

of goodwill towards the world

through the G20. Worst in years

- the winter flu season takes a

toll. It looks like it is a

severe epidemic year and the

epidemic still hasn't peaked.

On home soil - Black Caviar

returns from a triumphant

British trip. And four straight

losses - Australia's one-day

cricketers enter the Hall of