Monique van Ravenstein reviews Catherine Belton’s ‘Putin’s People. How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West’

29 October 2020

By Monique van Ravenstein

Monique van Ravenstein reviews Putin’s People. How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West by Catherine Belton, William Collins, 2020, pp. 640, Glasgow & London, Hardback £25, ISBN: 9780007578795

In her dazzling book Putin’s People. How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West, British journalist Catherine Belton paints a shocking picture of the way ‘Putin’s people’ siphoned off billions to enrich themselves and to destabilize the West. The book reads as an extremely timely wake-up call – not least for Western leaders. 

Putin’s People recounts how the ones with power (and money) refused to abandon their privileges when the Soviet Union fell apart. The whole KGB-arsenal of kompromat, kickbacks, blackmail, threats and worse are deployed to survive. Even before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the KGB had put into place an ingenious system to ensure their access to funds and influence, and except for a brief intermezzo in the nineties – in which a new elite of oligarchs threatened to take over these privileges – the circle around ex-KGB-officer Putin has continued to refine and expand this system. Besides the fact that ‘Putin’s people’ enriched themselves immensely in the process, they used that money to make Russia a superpower again by systematically undermining Western democracies and institutions. 

Belton shows how Putin’s power still relies on this system, built-up when he served as a young KGB officer in the East German city of Dresden. It is an extremely timely book as it touches on a range of very topical geopolitical, technological and human rights-related issues. Relying on a range of very interesting and mostly very credible sources, she uncovers parts of complex influence operations – which sometimes took years of preparation – and the financial mechanisms behind them. She shows what ‘the West’ chose not to see: just how deep corruption has dug in, and into what unexpected capillaries of power Russian influence has landed. 

To give some examples: with the help of billions they funneled out of Russia, the Kremlin gained influence over the British Tories (courtesy of football club owner Roman Abramovich), the US Congress, and large banks, corporations and populist political parties in Europe. (For more examples, see recent news about mirror trading and the billions of dollars of a cousin of Putin’s that were illegally funneled from Russia to tax havens through the Polish arm of ING.) Last but not least: via their deals with businessman Donald Trump, whose businesses were always in need of financial injections, Putin’s men obtained useful leverage over the current president of the United States.

These reconstructions, based on countless interviews with insiders, take us as far back as the 1970s and 1980s, long before Putin came to power. Geographically, Belton shoots us like a pinball from East German Dresden via the mafia-riddled St. Petersburg of the nineties to Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic city, and from the backstreets of Brighton Beach to the most powerful political and financial circles of Londongrad and – of course – the Kremlin. Hence, Belton shows just how far the Russian sphere of influence extends.

In order to consolidate the power regained from the oligarchs, Putin’s men (and the occasional woman) also had to deal with domestic opposition. Belton weaves examples of some of the most notorious attacks on human rights in Putin’s Russia throughout her book. There was the suspicious killing of human rights activist Galina Starovoitova in St. Petersburg in the 1990s – four months after Putin became FSB chief. After he took office as president, journalists like Anna Politkovskaya and whistleblowers within his apparatus, working to uncover the truth about the dirty war Putin started in Chechnya, faced violence and, in Politkovskaya’s case, the same fate as Starovoitova. Press freedom was another victim. In 2015 one of Putin’s main political opponents, Boris Nemtsov, was murdered just a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. 

Belton also adds new snippets of shocking evidence of the sordid and opportunistic role Russia’s leaders played in their handling of the terrorist hostage crises at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre and a school in the southern Russian city of Beslan – sacrificing truth for the greater honour and glory of Putin’s regime.

One of the most crucial victims of this relentless campaign by the Kremlin was the rule of law. Belton pinpoints very precisely when it ceased to exist. The trial against oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2004, overseen by Putin’s trustee Igor Sechin and chair of Moscow City Court Olga Yegorova (nicknamed ‘iron lady’), changed everything in Putin’s Russia. It was intended to set an example and make sure all oligarchs would get back in line.

‘This was the beginning of what was to become widely known as ruchnoye upravleniye, or the manual regime, in which the mechanics of every process were to be tightly controlled by the Kremlin’s men. (…) If, previously, the judges’ pitifully low wages had left them open to bribery by powerful oligarchs, now the Kremlin was taking over. Yegorova established a rigorous hold over the courts, threatening judges with loss of their jobs and housing if they failed to toe the line. The pressure on the judges, the speed of the appeal process and the lack of substance to the charges, had brought the court system irrevocably under the siloviki.’

In Chapter 14, Belton describes another very topical (and often neglected) phenomenon, one that has become one of the biggest threats for human rights in Russia and an inspiration to many other authoritarian leaders. It is the Kremlin’s growing political project to expand Russian influence while countering foreign (mainly US-) funded non-government organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House and – despised most of all by Putin and his cronies – George Soros’s Open Society. As Belton writes: ‘In the Kremlin’s eyes, their focus on human rights, civil liberties and supporting democracy has been no more than a cynical pretext to pull the former Soviet states that Moscow always considered its own backyard into the West’s orbit.’

Belton describes how, soon after Ukraine’s pro-Western turn in the Orange Revolution, the Kremlin started creating a network of Russian non-governmental organisations and state proxy groups that first set up shop in Ukraine and then expanded into the West. Key player in this network was a man called Konstantin Malofeyev – the anti-thesis of George Soros, operating in the shadows and advancing a new ideology that preached almost the opposite of Western liberal values of tolerance. 

Leaning on the philosophies of political thinker and Putin’s guru Alexander Dugin, Putin and his people chose, in Belton’s words ‘a new ideological rationale for the drive to restore Russian empire that resonated with those who felt left-out in the tumult of globalisation, as well as with base innate prejudice’. Russian Orthodoxy was the one true faith, everything else a heresy. The state and tradition have precedence over individual rights, homosexuality is a sin. Support was created or bought. Russian Cossack groups ran paramilitary youth camps, the paramilitary biker group the Night Wolves received a large grant of 18m roubles from the Kremlin in 2014 for ‘the patriotic education of youth’. Money was no obstacle though as the Kremlin and in particular the FSB can easily find any businessman or illegal slush fund for support.

The grand finale of the book, especially with the upcoming US presidential elections in mind, is the last chapter on Donald Trump, illustrating how Putin’s Russia is a growing threat for the Western liberal democracies. It is far from reassuring: ‘Putin understands that Russia can spend any amount of money it wants [on sowing chaos in the West]. The obschak, the black-cash box, has become the size of the budget, and they can give orders to the oligarchs as well. It is a mafia that has seized power, and the state is acting as the mafia.’

With her book, Belton places a mirror in front of us, showing how we’ve been soothed about Russia’s real intentions after the Soviet Union fell apart. The insight she provides into Putin’s ruthless methods is a disturbing wake-up call. Let us hope that Belton’s book will be read and studied by those with the power and resources to deal with these large-scale financial malpractices and mafia constructions. If it’s not too late already.

British journalist Catherine Belton worked in Moscow between 2003 to 2013, first for The Moscow Times and Business Insider, after 2007 as a correspondent for The Financial Times. 

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