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Putin's Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia Paperback – April 21, 2009


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this uninspired look at recent Russian politics under Vladimir Putin, author and journalist LeVine (The Oil and the Glory) examines the murders of several key opposition figures, including courageous Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya and long-time dissenter (and London exile) Alexander Litvinenko. LeVine provides ample background on Putin's rise to power, but fails to shed light on the famously authoritarian ruler's mindset; it's the kind of failure that's repeated throughout. More successful is his take on the Nord-Ost catastrophe, in which Chechen rebels held hostage an audience of more than a hundred attending a popular musical; the Kremlin's response was to release a cloud of fentanyl, meant to cause everyone inside to "fall safely asleep." Three survived, and LeVine's interviews make his reconstruction of the events truly chilling. Unfortunately, LeVine tends to insert himself into his accounts often and inappropriately (he begins his profile of Politkovskaya, "I never met the journalist Anna Politkovskaya"), and his prose is marred by cliché, bad humor and stabs of sentimentality. Though an impressive reporter, LeVine is a frustrating writer, too often putting himself in the way of a good story.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Journalist LeVine tracked the Caspian Sea region’s post–Soviet Union oil and gas boom in The Oil and the Glory (2007) and now turns his attention to a different sort of power source, Vladimir Putin. LeVine sets the stage by assessing Russia’s historic tolerance for tyrants and sanctioned “murder and mayhem,” then launches his portrait of Putin as “the archetypal man from nowhere” who proves to be exceedingly shrewd and ruthless. LeVine documents the rise in “state-sponsored assassinations” of Putin’s critics, sharply analyzing the shooting of the courageous journalist Anna Politkovskaya on Putin’s birthday and the nuclear poisoning of the former KGB officer and defector Alexander Litvinenko. Throughout this hot-off-the-presses exposé, LeVine presents vivid and compelling profiles of knowledgeable “intended victims” brave enough to talk about Putin’s immense ambition and “pragmatism, Russian style.” With fresh insights into the Chechen wars and Putin’s postpresidency plans, LeVine’s important take on the all-too-real machinations and bloodthirstiness from which espionage thrillers are made is both unnerving and intriguing. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (April 21, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812978412
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812978414
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #928,650 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I am Washington Correspondent for Quartz, the mobile-first financial website, where my interests are the geopolitics of energy and technology. That takes me generally to the frontiers where energy sets the stage and changes how people and nations behave, including in Russia, the Middle East and Africa. I am also an adjunct professor of energy security at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and a Future Tense Fellow at the New America foundation. For 18 years, I was a foreign correspondent -- in the former Soviet Union, in Pakistan and in Manila. In various years, I wrote for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Financial Times and Newsweek.

These were fantastic years to be abroad, stretching from the People Power revolution in the Philippines, through the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and Benazir Bhutto's first election to power in Pakistan, and on to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the growing pains of these 12 new countries.

The Oil and the Glory is the product of 12 years of observing the world's great geopolitical players -- the U.S., Europe, Russia and China, plus a slew of autocrats, wildcatters and gamblers -- battle for oil, fortune and influence along both sides of the Caspian Sea. In Putin's Labyrinth, I followed a trail of life and death for a profile of Russia, which I tell through the intersecting profiles of six individuals. For The Powerhouse, my latest book, I embedded for two years at Argonne National Laboratory, observing a tight team of battery geniuses attempting to make a big technological leap that, if they were successful, could change the world.

I am married to Nurilda Nurlybayeva and we have two girls.

Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By P.K. Ryan on July 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I found this to be a solid and compelling piece of investigative journalism on the state of affairs in contemporary Russia. Levine sets out to depict the shadowy and violent zeitgeist of the "New Russia" that has unfolded with the ascension and consolidation of power by Vladimir Putin. After the Soviet collapse, and the haphazard, gangster infested transition years of Boris Yeltsin, many Russians longed for another strongman that could replace the corruption and anarchy with the stable and powerful Russia of old. In many ways, Putin has succeeded in doing just this. The problem, says Levine, is that while the reckless and bloody gangsterism of the 90's has been mostly cleaned up, Putin has effectively turned Russia into a quasi-fascist (my word) state. Political murders have replaced criminal murders, and anyone seen as opposing the state is branded as fair game for retribution. Russian nationalism is on the rise and the country's rising stability and prosperity is enough for most Russians to look the other way.

Central to Putin's mindset and thus the general direction of the country is his connection to Russia's intelligence services. This once undistinguished KGB agent, who managed to become director of the FSB (the successor to the KGB) before being anointed President by Yeltsin, has apparently made his former livelihood the backbone of the new Russian state. His ex-FSB cronies occupy many of the top governmental positions and the secretive "us against them" mentality seems to be the mood of the day. To highlight the tragic consequences of Russia's current trajectory, Levine uses the stories of several high profile victims of the current political climate. Most notable are the murders of renowned journalist Anna Politkovskaya and defector Alexander Litvinenko, just to name two.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Justin Doolittle on July 4, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a tremendous read for anybody with a general interest in Putin's Russia, and stories of spies, deception, and assassination. LeVine is a truly gifted writer, and his style makes this book read like a thriller. The two most notorious recent assassinations, of Andrew Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, are covered fairly in-depth. Russia is such an intriguing country, at least to me it is. My only complaint is that LeVine seems to have made a conscious effort to keep this book short (166 pages!). I'm not sure why, maybe his publishers thought a short one would be more likely to sell. He could have gone into much greater detail about Putin himself, and his governing style and connection to the KGB and FSB. But I can't complain. A great quick read, and a real page turner.
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Format: Paperback
If you read Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB by Alex Goldfarb, then this book by Steve LeVine is a good alternative history. Goldfarb is close to Boris Berezovsky who, in turn, employed Litvinenko (and sustained his family in exile) for a number of years. Plus, Goldfarb is lauded here in LeVine's text as a master at PR. So, while 'Death of a Dissident' painted Litvinenko in a somewhat glorious, almost martyr-like light, LeVine is much more circumspect about Litvinenko's background, motives and often questionable assertions. Still, as LeVine concludes at the end of the ominiously entitled chapter, 'Polonium,' "those who scoffed at Litvinenko's paranoia had been proven wrong - the devilish forces he said he was battling turned out to be all too real."

Author LeVine gives the same in-depth treat to two other victims of Russian murder: Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov and crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. In each case - both unsolved - LeVine contends that it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who "is responsible because...he created the climate of impunity in which someone decided [they] could die. Putin's rule protects those who are inside the system or at least accept it. Outsiders cannot expect the same protection."

That passage reflects the main tenet of the book. LeVine sets out his conclusion quite forcefully in the book's introduction. Noting what he has assembled for the reader in the pages that follow, he states that "the shared testimony paints a disturbing picture of assassination and other brutality, and leaves the unmistakable impression that the Russian state under Putin is at least partially responsible."
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By D. S. Samarasinghe on July 26, 2009
Format: Paperback
After reading "Putin and the Rise of Russia" by Michael Stuermer, which was a very measured assessment of Vladimir Putin, I decided to read "Putin's Labyrinth" by Steve LeVine. This book is a passionate anti-Putin book drawn mainly from the views and opinions of people opposed to his rule such as Alexander Litvinenko, the poisoned former FSB agent turned dissident and the assassinated journalist Anna Politkovskaya. LeVine blames Putin for a string of assassinations that took place in Russia mainly targetting media persons.he also endorses the view of some dissidents that the string of bombings that struck Russian appartment blocks were stage managed to bring about Putin's rise to power.
The central theme of the author is that Russia is really "a facade democracy" which has many repressive aspects to it- in fact not so different to the old Soviet Union. In this society, like in the USSR, those who speak against the system are at risk.
At the same time he acknowledges that Vladimir Putin and his government are extremely popular for giving the country again confidence and strength.
What the reader needs to determine whether Russia has gained from the rule of Vladimir Putin who has brought pride and wealth to that importasnt country and whether the costs which leVine has highlighted are worth paying. There is no doubt, given the popularity of Vladimir Putin thta most people in Russai prefer a strong system to an indecisive one. That's the main strength of Putin and his government.
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