4 September 2020
By Sarah Hurst
Sarah Hurst reviews: Putin’s Killers by Amy Knight, Biteback Publishing, Hull, UK, 2019. ISBN: 9781785905155
Sadly a book on Kremlin assassinations can never be complete, and the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny is a reminder of that. Putin’s Killers was first published in 2017 and updated in 2019 with a short postscript about the Novichok attack on the Skripals. As Amy Knight points out in the first chapter, political murder is a far from recent phenomenon in Russia and a book called The Russian Syndrome: One Thousand Years of Political Murder came out back in 1993. But under Vladimir Putin assassination attempts on critics have reached a new tempo. We find ourselves discussing the latest case while the previous ones are still being disentangled.
Knight does a good job of summing up the information that is out there about a large number of likely Kremlin crimes, from the shooting of liberal politician Galina Starovoitova to the Boston Marathon bombing, and supplementing it with her own interviews with Akhmed Zakaev, Tanya Lokshina, Alex Goldfarb and others. She also provides an overview of the various security services Putin has developed to intimidate and kill his opponents at home and abroad. It’s murder on an industrial scale, with many willing perpetrators – often linked to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his private army that stands ready to do Putin’s bidding.
Many of the details that those who haven’t been paying close attention to each case may have missed are very interesting. Starovoitova’s aide Ruslan Linkov was injured in the shooting that took place in St. Petersburg in November 1998, but only he would have known her travel route and he somehow managed to make calls before asking for help. He claimed to have a good relationship with Putin, the head of the FSB at the time, who saw him after the murder and discussed it with him. Since there was no reason for Putin to be friendly with Linkov, an oddly effeminate young man, it is possible that Putin was grooming Linkov as an accomplice, or threatening him.
Aleksandr Litvinenko’s relationship with his assumed killer Andrei Lugovoi is also surprising. Lugovoi met Litvinenko several times and won his trust before poisoning him with polonium in the Millennium Hotel in London together with his unreliable accomplice Dmitry Kovtun. Rather than sending competent assassins to kill Litvinenko, Putin hired someone who had easy access to him. Lugovoi and Kovtun left a trail of polonium everywhere they went and even poisoned themselves, but they got the job done. The “professionals” who came for the Skripals were less successful.
The chapter about the Boston Marathon bombing is the least convincing. While Knight makes a strong case that Putin had good reason to fake an Islamist terrorist attack in the United States to illustrate the Chechen threat, and Tamerlan Tsernaev did make a suspicious trip to Russia before making a bomb with his brother Dzhokhar, more evidence of Kremlin involvement is needed. The chapter also skips over the details of the bombing itself and the brothers’ actions on the day it occurred in April 2013, leaving a rather dry and dispassionate account of Tsernaev’s previous movements.
It’s also a little odd that the mysterious death of Putin’s former boss, St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, is not mentioned, and that there is no chapter on Sergei Magnitsky. The book is not strictly about political assassinations because it includes the Moscow apartment bombings and the Boston bombing. By that measure, Knight could also have written about the security services’ involvement in the Moscow theatre siege or the shooting down of MH17. She does well, though, to give space to some lesser-known murders such as that of Novaya gazeta reporter Igor Domnikov in 2000 and liberal MP Sergei Yushenkov in 2003. It is remarkable how the lives and careers of many of the assumed murder victims were intertwined, including, for example, the relationships between Aleksandr Litvinenko (killed in 2006), Boris Berezovsky (possible suicide in 2013) and Nikolai Glushkov (strangled in London in 2018).
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is obviously worthy of many separate books but Knight barely touches on it, except to say jarringly that it might be a good idea for the West to recognise Crimea as part of Russia to extract concessions from the Kremlin on other issues – as if capitulating would ever cause Putin to make concessions. Knight also mistakenly says that Navalny was under house arrest at the time of the murder of Boris Nemtsov in February 2015: in fact he was serving a 15-day jail sentence.
Poignantly the last words of the original edition of the book were about Aleksei Navalny: “When asked recently by a British journalist how he could be doing what he is doing and still be alive, Navalny said this: ‘Why haven’t they killed you, why haven’t they locked you up? People are always asking me this. Look, I have no answer to that question. I suppose the most likely is that they didn’t manage to lock me up when they could have done easily, and then after a certain point it became more difficult.’ The tragic fate of other Kremlin opponents cannot be far from Navalny’s mind, but he apparently chooses to focus on one goal – the downfall of the Putin regime.”