Vladimir Putin has been at the helm of the Russian state for two decades — and a trail of murders and suspicious deaths of his opponents may eventually come to define his legacy as a leader.
This is a valid subject for investigations, academic research and books, like this new one — written by Buzzfeed's Global Investigations Editor Heidi Blake — with its bold title: From Russia With Blood: The Kremlin's Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin's Secret War on the West.
For many years, the Western reaction to this growing pile of dead bodies was subdued, even after Kremlin agents used a radioactive weapon to kill their ex-colleague Aleksander Litvinenko on British soil in 2006. But that changed after Russia's intervention in Ukraine and the shooting down of a Malaysian plane over the war-torn Donbas region. And when a fresh assassination attempt happened in Britain, London and Washington pushed back strongly: The failed attack on Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, which resulted in the death of an innocent British bystander, led to a new batch of sanctions and a significant change in rhetoric.
Much of what we know about the Salisbury incident and the Malaysian plane attack derives from the brilliant online forensic experts at Bellingcat, who have partnered with the Russian investigative outfit The Insider. If you are used to their meticulous style, dispassionate voice, methodological transparency and groundbreaking conclusions, From Russian With Blood might come as a disappointment.
Still, the book is worth reading for its recap of more than a dozen murder and suspicious death stories that happened over two decades. It also provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of Russia's most illustrious oligarch-turned-anti-Putin-rebel and his ragtag band of business associates, shady fixers, Chechen fighters, former security agents and spin doctors.
Self-professed kingmaker Boris Berezovsky, of the President Boris Yeltsin-era, claimed responsibility for elevating a little-known security agent by the name of Vladimir Putin to the top of the Russian state. And he spent the last decade of his turbulent life, he died in 2013, trying to unmake what he thought to be his own creation.
Blake's book appears to be largely based on accounts provided by people who found themselves within Berezovsky's gravitational field at various points in time, as well as on intelligence sources in Britain and the U.S.
Sadly, these sources bring their own individual spin and narratives that warrant a much greater deal of scepticism — especially since the author herself pictures Berezovsky's circle as a bunch of extremely dodgy characters or outright crooks. In the words of a British judge, cited in the book, Berezovsky is "an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be molded to suit his current purposes." So are his associates.
And yet, Blake goes on to build her entire argument about all those deaths being somehow interconnected on the foundations of Berezovsky's conspiracy theory about Putin ordering to blow up apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999 in a false flag operation aimed at fomenting war in Chechnya and mobilizing voters. Yes, there are a number of suspicious signs around those events. But Blake makes no attempt to go beyond Berezovsky's extremely dubious argument, which leaves that theory where it has been all those years — the Russian version of "the CIA staged 9/11."
In terms of sources, book has more than a passing resemblance to the toxic discourse churned out by some former U.S. and British intelligence officers against Donald Trump — an unhinged Russia-bashing exercise that helps their self-promotion, but greatly damages their cause.
The author's personal lack of expertise in post-Soviet matters shows in a bombastic analysis of recent ex-Soviet history. She proposes, for example, that Berezovsky staged the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and that a U.S.-backed Georgian government may have wanted to murder an oligarch in Britain.
And it's not just politics. The story opens with a scene set outside Berezovsky's mansion in Moscow, which the author places in "an exclusive enclave of central Moscow close to the Bolshoy Ustinsky Bridge, over the frozen Moskva River, from which the Kremlin's domes could be seen blooming brightly against the iron sky."
Reality check: The house sits diagonally across from a perpetually crowded entrance of a metro station in a chaotic square, which at the time of the events was ridden with dishevelled homeless people and kiosks selling poor-quality food. The bridge in question is a good 2 km. (1 1/4 miles) or four tram stops away across the densely built Zamoskvorechye district.
There are plenty of such examples, including a rather carefully worded Putin quote about oligarchs paraphrased beyond recognition to picture him as a bloodthirsty madman. And a point where Blake writes of Berezovsky's Chechen sidekick Akhmed Zakayev entering the scene as "none other than Chechen rebel leader," even though he was deputy prime minister of self-ruled Chechnya.
The book's greatest weakness, though, is that the attempt to explain this entire chain of deaths as a part of a single murderous plan just fails both in political and investigative terms. There is no breakthrough whatsoever in explaining the political motives and operational logic behind all of these real and suspected crimes. It doesn't help that in such cases as the murder of journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin, the author chooses to single out a version that fits her Berezovsky-influenced narrative while ignoring other, infinitely more plausible versions (it was Shchekochikhin's journalistic investigation, unrelated to the 1999 Moscow apartment building bombings, that led to resignations of top security officers and a turf war between security agencies). Running throughout the book, the thesis that the British government is so existentially dependent on looted Russian cash that it would turn a blind eye on whatever Putin is doing, even on its own soil, sounds even less plausible.
There is an old police practice, common in Russia: Detectives catch a murderer red-handed and then charge him with, say, 20 murders that happened in the vicinity of this one in the past decade. It does help them on the career ladder, but fails to bring either justice or security to the neighborhood. In a very similar way, this book fails to capture the messy nature of Russian politics in an attempt to paint a grotesque picture of Putin as the maniac responsible for all the evil that exists.
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Latvia. He previously worked for the BBC for a dozen years, was a foreign correspondent for the Russian Newsweek, and is an author for Lonely Planet.