(Riverhead, $28)

“Who exactly is Vladimir Putin—and just where has he taken Russia?” asked Paul Starobin in The Wall Street Journal. With Moscow street demonstrators protesting the strongman’s fresh re-election as Russia’s president, Russian journalist Masha Gessen offers answers to both questions with a scathing new biography. Putin presents himself, of course, as “a bare-chested, horseback-riding national superhero.” But behind that façade, Gessen sees an utterly malevolent figure who doles out Russia’s wealth to cronies and orders his opponents murdered. Strip away the thuggishness and Gessen’s Putin is a mere mediocrity—a “small, vengeful man” propped up by the Kremlin’s fearsome propaganda machine. Though Gessen’s portrait may be “excessively prosecutorial,” it offers vivid insight into the sources of the protesters’ anger.

Give Gessen points for courage, said James Meek in the London Observer. This “brave book” culminates a mission that the Moscow mother of two has pursued since 1998, when a dissident friend was murdered in St. Petersburg on the eve of Putin’s initial election as president. She charts Putin’s unlikely rise from KGB paper-pusher to the Kremlin’s top dog, and traces his rough-and-tumble self-image back to his boyhood days as a Leningrad street tough. But Gessen shreds Putin’s posture as an honest broker in a corrupt culture by laying numerous crimes at his door. Nearly a billion dollars in public money disappeared from a program he managed as a mere underling in the Leningrad mayor’s office, she says. She also works to erase any doubt that he ordered the 2006 radiation poisoning of critic Alexander Litvinenko.

Unfortunately, Gessen rarely proves her most damning insinuations about Putin, said John Lloyd in the Financial Times. “She presents evidence that she thinks leads to his door—and leaves it there.” But readers in the West will be inclined to give this author their trust. By her final page, “we are in no doubt that Putin is a hard, ruthless man” whose autocratic stranglehold has crippled Russia in untold ways. For most of us, “that is all we need to know.”