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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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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Unfortunately what follows is remarkably thin. We go over several well-known cases -- the 2002 takeover of a Moscow theater by Chechen fighters and its brutal "liberation" by the army, the murders of Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov and of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the poisoning of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko.
The problem is that most of the information presented could have been picked up from reading the newspapers. A book has to get beyond that -- to add insights or history or context or unknown facts -- to justify itself. There are a couple of interviews, not always relevant and remarkably unrevealing -- but little sign of real investigative journalism or deep research.
I'm sorry to be negative about this book. I think we need to know more about present-day Russia -- how the government enforces its will, how the oil and gas industry works, how much wealth is trickling down, how the infrastructure is holding up. We need to know more about the way the Russian people live and whether the current oil-based economic expansion is sustainable. We need to know more about the Russian mafia and its ties to the regime and about the FSB (successor to the KGB). We need to know about the state of the armed forces.
Unfortunately, you'll read nothing about that in this book.
The primary subject is the pathetic Alexander Litvinenko, mistakenly identified by LeVine as a former KGB officer. LeVine quotes Litvinenko's former boss, "He joined the FSB from the Interior Ministry. He is not an intelligence officer." Yet dozens of times the book refers to Litvinenko as KGB and KGB-trained. In fact Litvinenko was trained at the Interior Ministry's Vladikavkaz academy in the Caucasus, graduating in 1985. When he transferred into the FSB, he was in the organized crime division. In the 1990's he spent time assigned to Dagestan in the Caucasus. After a couple of imprisonments for beating a witness, he left Russia in 2000 and ended up in London as one of Boris Berezovsky's hangers-on. He smeared Berezovsky's business enemies and produced anti-Putin propaganda, claiming that Putin blew up apartment buildings, was behind the Beslan School massacre, and that his KGB career was cut short because he is a pedophile.
When Litvinenko ran out of Putin fantasies, Berezovsky avoided him. After six years living in London as a dependent of Berezovsky, he threatened to stop accepting Berezovsky's money and was hurt and resentful when his offer was accepted. "Litvinenko had hoped to hear some mention of regret from the billionaire, even a suggestion that he reconsider. ... But Berezovsky expressed no misgivings. It was a good idea and he was free to go, the billionaire said." LeVine paints a compelling portrait of the desperate situation of Litvinenko in the final months before his death. He tried to entice a graduate student at the London School of Economics to join him in a scheme to blackmail Russian oligarchs. "[Berezovsky's] retainers clung to the largely unsupported belief that anyone working for him inevitably would become rich, even super-rich." For a few months he hooked up with Mario Scaramello, a "dubious figure" to help smear Italian political opponents of Berlusconi. A Berlusconi-owned Television station filmed Litvinenko claiming Romano Prodi (Italian Prime Minister, President of the EU) was a KGB agent.
With no other prospects, Litvinenko managed to create a genuine propaganda bonanza by dying of polonium-210 poisoning. Berezovsky dispatched his propaganda manager, Alex Goldfarb, with a photographer to the hospital bedside for a dramatic photo sent around the world. For several weeks Goldfarb was stationed at the London hospital to inform the press and obtain and distribute Litvinenko's deathbed statement asserting Putin was responsible. At last Litvinenko was an important person and Berezovsky had turned the poisoning into a major PR disaster for Russia. Unintentionally, this book creates the impression that Litvinenko poisoned himself. "A grimly determined Litvinenko said it was necessary that he endure the suffering. `This is what I have to do to prove I am right.'"
The intended culprits, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun, were charged by the UK but not extradited because London had refused all Russian extradition requests and did not provide evidence (no autopsy, no polonium lab report, no report of poison sites) to justify the extradition request. Berezovsky had thrown a 60th birthday gala for himself at Blenheim Palace in January and invited Lugovoi, his 1990's security chief in Moscow. That was the beginning of a high-priced consultancy involving more trips to London and the addition of Kovtun. The pair from Moscow also had meetings with Litvinenko, the final one in a London bar only hours before he fell ill and after his sushi lunch with Scaramello at Itsu. Scotland Yard found the polonium trail in all these places and more including Berezovsky's office and most intensely in the Berezovsky-provided homes of Litvinenko and his Chechen friend. Omitted by Levine is the polonium-210 trail everywhere Kovtun went in Hamburg, Germany en route from London back to Moscow, including the apartment occupied by his children and ex-wife as well as his former mother-in-law's car and suburban home. In the many interviews Logovoi gave on television, he always appeared perfectly well. Kovtun, who was interviewed several times by the British (as was Lugovoi) in Moscow, was hospitalized, lost all his hair and said he had been diagnosed with radiation poisoning.
Only a few weeks before Litvinenko fell ill, the widely admired journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in her Moscow apartment building. In her passionate and emotional commitment, she made no pretense of objectivity, heaping abuse on many powerful and dangerous figures in Novaya Gazeta, (underwritten by owner Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB officer). Hyperbole was her style so her writing made many enemies. While the Kremlin ignored her criticism, never seized her passport or interfered with her many international travels, Chechnya's Ramzan Kadyrov reacted with outrage and threats to her articles criticizing him. When asked for a comment on his 30th birthday, she called him an "imbecile," "psychopathic," "extremely stupid," "deranged." and predicted a revenge killing against him. Two days later she was murdered.
How does Putin figure in the story? Everything is his fault while fraudulently elected, unpopular Yeltsin bears no responsibility for the chaos, attacks on Chechnya or the higher murder rate under his government. "But if Yeltsin, the nation's first popularly elected president, appeared to tolerate the bloodbath, it wasn't his creation." Both Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya imagined that Putin feared them and wanted them killed. Whereas, each had very real and threatening enemies who lacked the high profile of Russia's President, they preferred to portray themselves as pursued by him. Perhaps fear that is transferred from a little known enemy to a world figure is megalomanic-paranoia?
The third major figure in the book is Paul Klebnikov, the idealistic founding editor of Forbes Russia magazine. He had no paranoia but perhaps should have since he had been the first to publish incriminating evidence against a Chechen leader in "Conversation with a Barbarian" and Berezovsky in "Godfather of the Kremlin." (All three of the murder victims whose stories form the bulk of the book had difficult relationships with Berezovsky and Chechens.) Though LeVine relies heavily on Klebnikov's book, which depicts Berezovsky as a gangster and murderer, Berezovsky is portrayed more respectfully in this book than any book not underwritten by him.
LeVine did not interview or meet Putin, Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko or Paul Klebnikov. Instead he relies heavily on Anna Politkovskaya's articles and books, Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko's "Death of a Dissident," Paul Klebnikov's articles and books and other secondary sources. The author draws conclusions without evidence and makes assertions with no personal knowledge that sound as though he observed them. Nevertheless, it's an entertaining read almost more fictional than Martin Cruz Smith's thoroughly researched Russian thrillers.
The author insinuates that murder and mayhem may be in the "Russian DNA" itself due to their prior history of invasion, tyranny, and dictatorships. I believe there is some truth (symbolically, psychologically, and litterally), in this statement.
In addition, the author seems to focus more on the "Labyrinth" portion than on Vladimir himself. Mr. Putin is of course, former KGB (FSB), and his entire formative years were spent in the Soviet Intelligence community where he, constantly learned to search and weed out any dissenters, be it against himself, or...the "Apparatchik." Alexander Litviinenko (former KGB agent) and Anna Politkovskaya (Russian journalist), are sad and unfortunate reminders of this truth.
The author quotes an old KGB defector who points to a very important difference in Putin's Russia compared to the prior Soviet Union. Oleg Gordievsky told the author: "The KGB without the Communist Party is a gang of gangsters." That is not to say that, the KGB was not always "a gang", but without the "Central Point" the participants need answer to no one, or no thing.
The author seems to rightly insinuate that Vladimir Putin has taken on a "symbiotic relationship" between the State (himself), and that of numerous criminal elements that work well together in maintaining the present status quo. The State controls the political arena, oil shipments, natural resources, and...the military. The criminal elements...the social needs and demands.
In reading this book, I could not help but see many growing parallels to the on-going events in the country of Mexico, but without a prresent day "Putin" or..."Central Point."
This is agood book, and goes into a great detail regarding many of the tragic events surrounding those people who tried to stand up for change. Realistically however, it appears "that type of change" is many years away.
The Oprichniki is still very much alive and well in Russia. The perpetrators no longer need carry around dog's heads and brooms upon their horse sadles to symbolize total devotion to "sweeping away sedition." They now ride in Mercedes and make no mistake, their rabid devotion to gaining money, economic wealth, and acknowledgement as a world power is no less important!
What ever he may be...Putin is witty, intelligent, frightning, dangerous, impatient, and above all...Russian.
Most recent customer reviews
Nothing in the book you won't find in better sources.