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February 5, 2010

Putin's Labyrinth

Spies, Murder and the Dark Heart of the New Russia
Steve LeVine - ISBN - 9780812978414

This is a gripping though bone-chilling little book which exposes "New Russia" as more corrupt than we might have hoped or expected. The author is a journalist who has lived in, and reported on Russia for more than a decade, and is thus clearly "in the know." It is a very readable account of his subject. Were it not true, one might conclude it is just one of those thrillers written by the likes of Berenson, Thor or Forsyth. It's not, which is why it is so frightening. The man and his cronies are every bit as vicious as Stalin, Beria and Yezov or Dzerzhinsky, promulgating murder and mayhem indistinguishable from the bad old days, except that on the modern stage they have to be a little more clever. More people are paying attention now, and there are few apologists like Walter Duranty, the NY Times reporter who won the Pulitzer in 1932 for his glorious reportage on Stalin's utopia (now thoroughly discredited before all but the most ardent believers, and everyone with an I.Q. above room temperature.)

The "dark side" of Russians is exposed as tolerant of these crimes, having been taught by history "to be indifferent toward the suffering of others at their death." They are used to it; it's a psychological defense toward death. After a brief respite in the early 90's, when democracy was tried (and abused), the old Russia is back with a new aspirant to Czardom. The Kremlin is again in full control. Resistance is punished by imprisonment or death, as reflected by the Gazprom billionaire, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now stripped of his wealth and serving a drummed up sentence, ostensibly for corruption. Actually, he financed opposition to Putin.

In recent years there have been many murders, most notably Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and human rights activist well known for her opposition to the Chechen conflict, and Alexander Litvinenko, whom you will recall was poisoned with polonium-120, and died a miserable and well publicized demise. This was a complicated and faultless assassination and P-120 is a rare agent virtually impossible to obtain without a deep governmental source. As well, recall the poisoning of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko with PCB in a failed assassination attempt.

The governmental collusion in these and myriad other attacks have been confirmed by Oleg Gordievsky, a colonel in the KGB, and Boris Berezovsky, a well connected expat business man (both of whom are themselves at risk)

Under Putin the apparatchiks have accumulated fortunes at the expense of the economy, stealing vast sums from Russian coffers; especially so with oil and gas now spinning off enormous profits at $80-150 per barrel. Putin himself--the richest man in Europe--is said to be worth 40 billion dollars.

Chechnya was/is a holocaust covered up by Putin. The Beslan school massacre was in response to Russia's invasion of Chechnya, as was the terrorist destruction at the Moscow opera--both of which we have heard much about, though what we hear is about these events as terror, not their cause, which is their response to Russian terror.

Putin has, by chance, gotten hold of enormous power and has used it to catastrophic effect. The new president, Dmitri Medvedev is but his lackey. Crime is rampant and goes unpunished. Twenty-six reporters were murdered in the former USSR in 2006 alone, and while these murders are not necessarily ordered by Putin, they result from the climate of impunity which he has created. He protects those inside the system, and at least accepts these acts. "Without the sanction of Putin, no one would touch someone of Politkovskaya's stature. She was their political enemy, and that's why they killed her." Politkovskaya once observed that "You could be shot because of a thousand-dollar debt. Think about it." Practically everyone is for sale in Russia, and everything has a price.

Putin has signed a law granting the Kremlin's intelligence the right, indeed the responsibility--with his approval--to assassinate Russia's enemies within or without the nation's borders. In 2009 jury trials for crimes against the state have been eliminated, as the definitions of treason have been loosened. The president's term has been advanced from 4 to 6 years, the better to keep Putin in power for decades.

The ways of power in Russia have always been invisible, but Putin would not be in power without the acquiescence of the Kremlin, the military and security services. It is clearly in their mutual interest, professionally and financially. Medvedev may claim otherwise, but 'taint so.

Putin claims his policies have rejuvenated Russia, but in fact it is oil prices. Russia is reverting to its past. Oil prices have again recovered and refill Russia's coffers, but the economic slump revealed the essential hollowness of Putin's economic boom. A sustainable economy does not exist outside of oil, and to some extent gold. Don't look for things to improve!

Posted by Curmudgeon at February 5, 2010 1:15 PM