Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Political Change-Makers

Mar 6, 2012
Originally published on May 8, 2012 12:27 pm

Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, tells us what she's been reading in a feature that Morning Edition likes to call "Word of Mouth." This month, Brown selects two pieces of writing profiling individuals at the center of political change in their respective countries.

A Penetrating New Profile Of Russia's Putin

Brown's first recommendation is The Man Without a Face, a biography of Vladimir Putin, recently re-elected president of Russia. Brown says Putin's intelligence services targeted the book's author, Masha Gessen, employing tactics designed to make the journalist feel that she was never safe.

"She was blacklisted as soon as [Putin] became president," Brown says, "but she did continue, undaunted, to dig into Putin's ruthless origins."

Brown singles out Gessen's account of Putin's past because she believes it examines the president-elect's psyche and what formed the man in a way that other biographers haven't.

"What she has revealed is, here was this kid, Putin, who came from a very humble family, raised in the kind of mean streets of Leningrad," Brown says. "His parents, though, had some perks that other kids didn't have."

As Gessen dug deeper, she realized Putin's father had been a member of the Russian secret police.

"Where other kids wanted to be cosmonauts, Putin wanted to be a KGB spy," Brown explains.

After graduating from college, Putin joined the KGB, and his first posting in 1985 was in East Germany. He considered the posting "a backwater," Brown says, and was further disappointed by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"He felt furious ... because he felt that all the things that he'd grown up [with] and [been] trained to do were suddenly washed away by perestroika, which he despised," Brown says.

Thinking about Russia's present political climate, Brown suggests that the direction Putin is moving Russia in now resembles the repressive system he was familiar with in his youth.

"As he rose in power, he's really always carried in his mind his ideal world of the closed-in Soviet world that he was raised in ... that was the world he understood and liked," Brown says.

Myanmar's Struggle For Democracy And Suu Kyi's Personal Sacrifice

Brown's second recommended read is a DailyBeast article about Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader in Myanmar, the country also known as Burma.

"Aung San Suu Kyi is really one of the great human-rights activists of our time," says Brown, who ranks Suu Kyi alongside Nelson Mandela and even Gandhi. "She has braved so much on behalf of her country. It's absolutely extraordinary."

Suu Kyi's life looked very different before she became the leader she is today: The daughter of a prominent Burmese general, she went to Oxford University and later married Michael Aris, an academic studying Tibetan culture. After raising two boys and living in London for 16 years, Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 when her mother fell ill.

"She goes back to see her mother, who's had a stroke, and happens to arrive right at this incredible moment in history where there's a revolution happening in the streets of Burma," Brown says. "She gets caught up and really appointed to be the moral leader of her country. At that moment her life changed irrevocably."

Suu Kyi sees her family once more when they visit Burma, but when their visas run out and they return to England, Suu Kyi is placed under house arrest by the government.

"She's told she can only see them if she never returns to Burma," Brown says. "And she chooses to stay and face down the generals" — the junta that rules Myanmar to this day. "She chooses her country. It was an extraordinary personal sacrifice."

Rebecca Frayn, the Beast article's author, is also the screenwriter of The Lady, a film directed by Luc Besson about Suu Kyi.

"Rebecca Frayn researched for many years into this heroine of hers, really, and decided that her focus would be the love story between Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband, Michael Aris," Brown says, "because it was the love and commitment of this husband who tried again and again to rally the world to her cause, who focused attention on what was happening in Burma, who was key in helping her get the attention to get the Nobel prize, which has been so helpful in the world stage."

Brown notes both the heroism and heartbreak in the couple's relationship — qualities she says Frayn captures in her piece.

"It's tragic that ... [in 1999 Aris] has cancer, and he wants to say goodbye to her," Brown says, "and she's not able to say goodbye to him. So she goes to the British Embassy where she's allowed to record a goodbye message to him, but it takes two days to get that message smuggled into Oxford, where he's dying. He dies without ever seeing the message."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tina Brown of Newsweek and the Daily Beast is with us once again. She comes by regularly for a feature we call Word of Mouth. She tells us what she's been reading, gives us some recommendations. Tina's been thinking of remarkable women, including a woman who wrote "The Man Without a Face," a new biography of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

TINA BROWN: Masha Gessen, who wrote the book, was the target of classic KGB tactics all the time she was reporting it, that were intending to make her feel that she was never safe or alone. You know, she was blacklisted as soon as he became president, but she did continue undaunted to dig into Putin's ruthless origins of his power.

And it's a fascinating book, because what she really does - which I think no one has really been able to do - is look at his psyche, what formed this man. And what she has revealed is that here was this kid Putin who came from a very humble family, raised in the kind of mean streets of Leningrad. His parents, though, had some perks that other kids didn't have. And as she dug deeper, she began to realize that his father was always a member, secretly, of the Russian secret police, which got them perks that other families didn't have, and that Putin, as a kid, always wanted to be a spy. He grew up, and where other kids wanted to be cosmonauts, Putin wanted to be a KGB spy.

INSKEEP: But he's ended up being the most powerful man in Russia by far for a dozen years.

BROWN: Well, he has. And, you know, again, what she sort of really describes is in that period, he felt furious when the Berlin Wall fell down, because he felt that all the things he'd grown up and trained to do were suddenly washed away by perestroika, which he despised. So, as he rose in power, he's really always carried in his mind his ideal world of the closed-in Soviet world that he was raised. And he liked that world. That was the world that he understood and liked. And he's gradually been moving Russia more and more back into this repressive despotism, which what he's really moving into now with this new phase of his election.

INSKEEP: You have also sent us a reading about Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader in the country that's known as Burma, or Myanmar.

BROWN: Yeah. Aung San Suu Kyi is really one of the great human rights activists of our time. I mean, she's getting up there, anyway, with Nelson Mandela and even Gandhi, because she has braved so much on behalf of her country. It is absolutely extraordinary. She was under house arrest for 15 years. She was this mother, this academic living in Oxford, Oxford-educated, exiled from Burma. Her father was a legendary general in Burma, and she went into exile to live in Oxford with her academic husband, Michael Aris, raised two boys. There was 16 years living as a housewife.

Then, you know, she gets a call that her mother is dying in Burma in 1988. She goes back to see her mother, who's had a stroke, and happens to arrive right at this incredible moment in history where there's a revolution happening in the streets of Burma. And she gets caught up and really appointed to be the kind of moral leader of her country. And from that moment, her life changed irrevocably.

And she sees her family only one more time when they come to visit her, then their visas run out. And when they return to England, she never sees them again. She's put under house arrest. She's told she can only see them if she never returns to Burma. And she chooses to stay and face down the generals, the junta who are so brutal and so repressive, that she chooses her country. And she's - it was an extraordinary personal sacrifice.

INSKEEP: And who's Rebecca Frayn, who's written about Aung San Suu Kyi for you?

BROWN: Rebecca Frayn is actually the screenwriter of the new movie about Aung San Suu Kyi, which is coming very soon, called "The Lady." And Rebecca, many years, researched into this heroine of hers, really, and decided that her focus would be the love story between Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband Michael Aris, because it was the love and commitment of this husband who tried, you know, again and again, to rally the world her cause, who focused attention on what was happening in Burma, who was a key in helping her get the attention to get the Nobel Prize, which has been so helpful to her on the world stage, and he was a great hero.

And it's tragic in the piece that she writes about how finally, he has cancer and he wants to say goodbye to her and she's not able to say goodbye to him. So she goes to the embassy, British embassy, where she's allowed to record a goodbye message to him. But it takes two days to get that message smuggled into Oxford, where he's dying, and he dies without ever seeing the message.

INSKEEP: Readings by or about women of note from Tina Brown of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, who's hosting her annual Women in the World summit this week in New York. Renee is among those moderating panel discussions there. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.