… “How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West”, by Catherine Belton
I didn’t buy this book, “Putin’s People” when it was first published in April 2021. At 504 detailed pages about various individuals not on my horizon, I thought I could give it a miss. But its subtitle “How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West” scratched away in the back of my awareness. Then Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. It became more urgent to understand the causes of this, the values and motivation of the invaders.
Imperialism and money-making
There seem to be two main causes: a desire to make Russia great again (call this the imperialist motive) and the self-serving ambitions of the moneymaking oligarchs who support Putin. I was horrified by what I read of the fascist origins of the justifications for current Russian imperialism, but will leave discussion of that to a review of Timothy Snyder’s “The Road to Unfreedom”. Of the two causes of Putin’s autocracy, it is interesting to note that Christopher Steele, the former MI6 officer in Moscow and author of a dossier on Trump’s Russia connections, states that money seems the stronger motivation.
As Catherine Belton’s book follows the money, it is worth detailed attention. She got her MA in East Slavonic studies at University College London before being stationed in Moscow as a journalist for the Financial Times, 2007-2013. Both during that time in Moscow, and afterwards making contacts with dissidents such as Khodorkovsky, and exiles in London such as Puganov, she has been able to extract amazing testimony from some of the main players who brought Putin to power. The book also contains photos of most of them (see main image).
Putin’s inner circle of security men
Before the first chapter, it gives a list of the Dramatis Personae, divided into categories of
- Putin’s inner circle, the siloviki
- The custodians, the KGB-connected businessmen
- The “Family” or the Yeltsin côterie
- Yeltsin-era oligarch who crossed Putin: Khodorkovsky
- The mobsters ie criminal mafia from St Petersburg and Moscow
However, for readers fairly new to Russian history, it would have been helpful also to have a time-line of important events both in Russia and of Putin’s own life.
|Russian leaders||Putin’s life||Russian politics|
|1982–4 Andropov||KGB 1975–1991|
from 1985 Dresden
|1991–1999 Yeltsin||Putin in mayoral office|
(FSB And Yeltsin admin)
|1st Chechen War|
|1999–2000 Putin||Prime Minister of Russia||Moscow Apartment bombings|
2nd Chechen War
|1999–2009||…and Acting President|
|2002||Dubrovka theatre siege|
Beslan school atrocity
|2008–2012||Prime Minister||Georgia War|
War in Donbas begins
A thoroughly researched book
I would have liked also some basic maps of how the territory changed from USSR to Russian Federation. So that we can gauge the wealth prospects of the various sectors of the economy, I would also have liked some economic tables showing the value–ranking of various resource sectors (oil, gas, aluminium, steel, grain, fertiliser etc). But maybe I am asking for a different kind of book, a primer on the economics of Russia (has it yet been written?). What we have in Catherine Belton’s book is a thoroughly researched book about the individuals who have steered Russia towards the corrupt autocracy it is today.
Next article about the history discussed in this book is due in Kent Bylines next week
This book is available in Kent libraries
This article is part of a series that Kent Bylines is commissioning about dirty money flowing through the City and British institutions. The first was a review of “Moneyland” by Oliver Bullough (internal link), a journalist who continues to actively campaign for financial transparency.
See also https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oliver-bullough-oligarchs-libel-journalism-slapp/ on how journalists like Catherine Belton, author of Putin’s people, and Tom Burgis, author of Kleptopia and Carole Cadwalladr, who exposed Russian links to the Leave campaign, have been challenged by rich oligarchs with SLAPPS orders in British law-courts. Oliver Bullough also sends out a regular news letter on these issues called Coda Oligarchy.