KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky reviews The Age of Assassins: the Rise and Rise of Vladimir Putin by Yuri Felshtinsky and Vladimir Pribylovsky in the Times of London:
THE LATEST RUSSIAN voting operation (to call it an election would be misleading) has just ended, and Vladimir Putin’s grey, appointed successor will be inaugurated in two months’ time. The Russian rough equivalent of GCHQ duly produced the fraudulent numbers and percentages as instructed by the Kremlin, because, even after refusing to register some far more charismatic, intelligent and capable candidates, the authorities still couldn’t leave anything to chance.
The future of Russia now looks even gloomier, and The Age of Assassins provides an admirable background to what we should expect in the years ahead. Despite its lurid title, it is, in effect, a history of Russia over the past 17 years. Indeed, the final chapter in particular contains fascinating information about some of the assassins who have been working so hard inside and outside Russia since the implosion of the Soviet Union.
The authors are respected Russian scholars: Yuri Felshtinsky has written about the secret service in Blowing Up Russia (co-authored with Alexander Litvinenko), and Vladimir Pribylovsky runs several Russian human-rights organisations. They write convincingly about Putin’s life and activities since 1975 and about the people who have been close to him. They follow him from being a minor and insignificant figure in Dresden through well-deserved obscurity in the KGB/FSB in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and on to Moscow as deputy head of the presidential property management department – a job that opened the way to a number of useful contacts. He then became head of a commission preparing agreements on dividing up power between the central government and the regions.
Nothing much came of this at the time, but it did no harm to Putin’s career, and he was soon appointed director of Russia’s secret service, a promotion that was a cause for derision in the elitist corridors of that institution – his professional expertise and competence were minimal.
At that time Boris Berezovsky (the oligarch and politician) was a figure of influence, a member of President Yeltsin’s extended “family”. An election campaign was in progress, and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov hated Berezovsky and was trying to undermine him. During a birthday party for Berezovsky’s wife, Putin unexpectedly turned up with a bunch of flowers. “You’re crazy,” said the astonished Berezovsky. “Primakov will find out …” “He can go to hell,” Putin supposedly replied. “I’m not afraid of him.” Berezovsky was very impressed (but he did not know then that Putin had also visited Primakov with another bunch of flowers), and their short-lived friendship began.
Yeltsin, fearful of retribution for the armed attack on the Russian Parliament as well as unleashing the war against Chechnya in 1994, felt his best option was to be succeeded by Putin, the “modest”, “neutral” KGB nonentity, provided Putin undertook to guarantee the safety and security of Yeltsin and his family. This is why and how the KGB has assumed greater autonomy today than it had as a tool of the Communist Party.
The KGB has by now obtained absolute control over Russia and its resources, including enormous amounts of state funds. Gradually Putin has turned into a dictator, and dictatorships always kill. The killings increased in number and spread abroad. Putin made the Duma (Parliament) impotent and completely controllable.
He appointed people with secret service affiliations to virtually every post of major significance. Now Putin is bragging that he has restored “order” and at least relative prosperity – a shameless lie. The KGB can, of course, control, subjugate, destroy and murder – but can it do anything creative?
The new President, in effect appointed by Putin, is Putin’s clone. When Putin was head of the KGB (officially called the FSB) he deployed some 2,000 of its officers and cronies to plum jobs.
We read that Putin wanted to get rid of the Procurator General, Yury Skuratov, and dispatched agents who drugged him, videoed him in a compromising situation then showed the film on TV. The authors also discuss how the bombings in 1999 of blocks of flats supposedly by Chechens were organised to make it easier for Putin to gain support and resume the war against Chechnya.
Almost immediately after becoming President, Putin began to clamp down on the media, in effect misappropriating successful TV companies. This was not an attack on the wealthy owners as such, because those who played along became wealthier. The most decent and intelligent of the oligarchs, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who favours a genuinely open society, was deprived of his billions and sentenced to eight years in Siberian camps and jails. By now most of the media is controlled by the KGB and spews forth a torrent of libellous propaganda against the West.
In 2004 a leading politician, Ivan Rybkin, was poisoned and then compromised during a visit to Ukraine and had to leave politics. A very progressive and liberal journalist and politician, Yury Shchekochikhin, was fatally poisoned in 2003, and his family has still not been allowed access to the crucial medical data on the case.
Two other outstanding journalists, Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov, were shot dead rather than poisoned. Then, in 2006, there was the fatal poisoning of a British citizen, Alexander Litvinenko, a genuinely “former” KGB officer who was sharply critical of Putin, his regime and the KGB.
The authors state that it should have become obvious by now that Russia’s Government “would henceforth be run and be controlled by people who hated America and Western Europe, who had no experience in building anything, who acted in secrecy while belonging to an organisation of which – as with the Gestapo in Nazi Germany – not a single good word can be said in its defence”. It is difficult to disagree with this judgment.
The Age of Assassins: the Rise and Rise of Vladimir Putin by Yuri Felshtinsky and Vladimir Pribylovsky
Gibson Square, £16.99; 384pp
On October 7, 2006, Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in her apartment building in Moscow. Those who killed Politkovskaya, whoever they are, had a choice. They could have murdered her on any day in October, or in any month for that matter. Instead they chose a day with a special significance for Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation. She was silenced forever on his birthday.
Politkovskaya was a well-known Russian journalist who had published books in many languages. She was an uncompromising critic of the Russian government, of Russian policies in Chechnya, of the Russian army in Chechnya, and of President Putin as the head of a government that allowed crimes to be committed in Chechnya. It was natural to suspect that Politkovskaya’s murder had been carried out on instructions from some pro-Kremlin Chechen leader, such as the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was only then negotiating with Putin about the possibility of becoming president in circumvention of the constitution of the Chechen Republic (Ramzan Kadyrov, born in 1976, was too young for this post). On March 2, 2007, Ramzan Kadyrov got what he wanted and became the president of the Chechen Republic, despite his age, and with the blessing of the Russian President.
It is the tale of this book. How, in eight short years, did the Kremlin move from Yeltsin’s chaos to a situation where it no longer needs to issue orders for a problem to be cleaned up.
The 20th century has entered history as an age of tyrants. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao Zedong … Great and small, extreme and moderate, communist and nationalist, they brought unspeakable evil to their victims and created rich materials for historians. Our inclination is to draw parallels between new phenomena and familiar, old ones. We want to know: is Putin a despot or not? Will the world see a new cold – or perhaps even nuclear – war?