Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West, by Catherine Belton
You in the West, you think you’re playing chess with us. But you’re never going to win, because we’re not following any rules.
Vladimir Putin seemingly came out of the shadows to run Russia and he’s managed to stay in them even while running the place ever since. It kind of blows my mind to consider that he’s been in power more than twenty years and will have been for a quarter century by the time he leaves office (assuming he doesn’t conquer mortality along with another tweak of the rules to stay longer) [edit: well would you look at that, he’s already done the latter part] and yet we know comparatively little about him. If ever there was a Bond villain come to life, it’s him.
Reuters correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times Catherine Belton breaks down, in a truly impressive amount of detail, the complicated and often opaque rise of a fairly bland former KGB officer to Russia’s presidency and his massive consolidation of power and money alongside a cadre of cronies (likewise former KGB).
She notes that Putin had a “dizzying” career and this is a dizzying exploration of it. She traces his actions and course from early days, like his destruction of the KGB archives in Dresden, to the amassing of a slush fund of black money used to exert influence on western business and geopolitics. The implications are as shocking as they are far-reaching (including those around Donald Trump) as the Kremlin’s sphere of influence grew wider and much more powerful, especially over the US and Europe. She details the gear change from Yeltsin’s era to the “rise to power of Putin’s KGB cohort, and how they mutated to enrich themselves in the new capitalism. It is the story of the hurried handover of power between Yeltsin and Putin, and of how it enabled the rise of a ‘deep state’ of KGB security men that had always lurked in the background during the Yeltsin years”.
What’s particularly disturbing is how even the less bad figures in this story are still pretty bad. Putin is inarguably a villain, but he’s neither the mastermind he’s sometimes painted as nor is he an anomaly. Rather he’s one of many who profited from privatization after the Soviet Union’s collapse and built a structure on state-sponsored corruption, and who were willing to subvert their own country’s economy and legality for the sake of power and personal enrichment. These are stunningly brazen acts, and very carefully executed, especially for as wild as they are. And, always, they get away with it. Belton follows the money and shows exactly why.
Like in one of the main stories here: the takedown of Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, a billionaire more than a dozen times over and an oligarch who didn’t remain as loyal as he was supposed to. Although the details of Khodorkovsky’s saga from entry into Putin’s crosshairs to imprisonment on trumped-up fraud charges and eventual release are well known, Belton analyzes so well the importance of this incident and others like it, and what they indicate about Russia’s current relationship to the west.
I wish I could better break down, or really in any way write about this book, but it’s pretty complex. Belton’s analysis is deft though, and completely accessible. Which is saying a lot — this is dense material with an enormous cast of players, and although many remain somewhat blurry, the writing is clear, engaging, and understandable. Even if not all of this was new or groundbreaking, and has been covered in similar books and reporting, its strength is in how she forms the narrative timeline and puts it all into context.
As well as her inclusion of those who spoke, sometimes off but often on the record, shedding light on the machinations that occurred. Most interesting were their reflections, like regretting that they had boosted Putin as a candidate for the presidency under the belief that they had to put forth someone specific in order to avoid a return to communism: “you believe the people are stupid, and that if you don’t act they will vote in the Communists, that was a big mistake.” Understatement of the last quarter century.
It’s a long book that reads unbelievably quickly, like a terrifying page-turning thriller (I mean really terrifying, because the implications of all this are just hair-raising) and is an education in and of itself. The Mueller report may not have been the smokiest of smoking guns that many of us had expected, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something very significant there, if not a trail of somethings. Belton not only fills in some of those gaps in relation to Trump’s Russian business dealings, but fleshes out many other connections to western business and governments. As with Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy, this is crucial in understanding Russia’s relationship and attitude towards the west, especially right now.
Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West
by Catherine Belton
published June 23, 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.