8 March 2022
Elena Malysheva reviews From Russia with Blood: Putin’s Ruthless Killing Campaign and Secret War on the West by Heidi Blake, William Collins, Paperback 2020 [Hardback 2019]. pp352. ISBN 978-0-00-830009-8.
From Russia with Blood was published in 2019 and is based upon an extensive investigation into organised and systematic acts of aggression to exterminate Putin’s opposition on the territory of Russia and beyond its borders. It is fair to say that a reader who has been following Russian politics of this century will hardly be shocked. As for a reader who is not familiar with the subject, they should bear in mind the slightly sensationalist undertones of the narrative. However, since the recent conflict in Ukraine has escalated, Blake’s investigation has acquired a new angle: territorial instincts.
The book follows Putin’s rise to power and his elevation to the Kremlin and introduces various seemingly unconnected players (with some familiar names amongst them, such as Boris Berezovsky and Aleksander Litvinenko), each following their own ambition, until their intricate paths come together and change the direction of domestic and international politics forever.
Despite citing the aid of Russian independent media, this is a view from the West. You cannot help but notice how the intriguing narrative comes close to romanticising the mobster culture of the new Russia’s political elite. At the start of Putin’s slow but steady rise to power, he is portrayed as a mysterious grey horse. He doesn’t talk much and looks calm, if not unassumingly dull. When Berezovsky’s business associate meets Putin for the first time, Putin is described as “slight and mousy with a cautious manner to match his sober tie”. Yet later Berezovsky would note that the man has a strangely intense presence, marked mostly not by what he is doing but what he is NOT doing. What makes young Putin remarkably different from all the other politicians, was that he very clearly declines a bribe. This leaves Berezovsky infinitely impressed and slightly anxious.
Blake’s work does not have a singular narrator. Instead, we follow the lives of several participants, which at times makes it seem like Russian politics is formed of a long chain of highly unpleasant people wanting to cause each other harm. Whether it can be called investigative journalism or a good crime thriller, it provides an insight into the criminal world of Berezovsky’s entourage, and the fast-paced observant narrative makes it an absorbing read.
Most of the events described in the book are as terrifying as they are grotesquely real. It is not only the sheer shamelessness of the obscenely rich, but also the way the system allows the oligarchs to be what they are. Blake illustrates this very well in a scene that could have easily been written for a Guy Ritchie movie. Someone who obtains their large wealth by a series of bank heists wants to keep the money in a UK bank and comes to seek expensive advice from a top UK lawyer. We then discover that since this way of ‘obtaining earnings’ (i.e., robbing a bank) is not mentioned in the Income and Corporation Taxes Act of 1988, the client is not liable to pay anything. Protected by the law from being incriminated when declaring tax, he gets away with it.
Once elevated to the Kremlin, Putin promptly starts to stab his aides in the back in a rather theatrical fashion. Explosions in Moscow later transform into poisonings and throwing people out of windows in the west, and all of it seemed to send a very clear message: borders do not protect his opponents. A patriot and a nationalist, someone who dreamt of becoming a spy ever since he was a kid, Putin has always seen the collapse of the USSR as a loss of territory. As Blake’s work suggests, he made it his own personal mission to bring it back. It is one of the reasons why he wanted to make sure his actions abroad are seen, heard, and documented: there are no borders if those who betray him exist.
From Russia with Blood has been criticised for focussing too much on Putin, and, by doing so, obscuring the complicated web of Russian politics. However, lately, as the world observes the rapidly unfolding war, we might wonder: was there ever a ‘web’ at all? Or has it always been him alone? Whether or not the book presents an accurate depiction of a psychopath who managed to single-handedly plot and orchestrate a long chain of murders, the book shows how 22 years of unchallenged autocracy have created a deluded man, who genuinely believes that he is the only player with all the cards.