In forensically unravelling it, journalist Catherine Belton, former Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times, has done a great service, producing a book that western experts on modern Russia acknowledge as vital to our understanding of the Putin phenomenon. Her thesis is chilling indeed. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 and communism gave way to a makeshift form of democracy, the KGB, Moscow’s underground army of spies, crooks and secret policemen, disappeared from the radar.
In America, Vladimir Putin has his dream President, whose one-time Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City was a favourite haunt of Russian mobsters. Around the world, Russian billions are used to disrupt the political and military balance. Putin’s view, writes Belton, is that anyone can be bought. So far he has been proved right. Do not miss this book. At the end you just hope that Ms Belton keeps an eye out for anything suspicious under her car. After all, remember the Salisbury poisonings?
A groundbreaking and meticulously researched anatomy of the Putin regime, Belton’s book shines a light on the pernicious threats Russian money and influence now pose to the west. Deepening social inequality and the rise of populist movements in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis have “left the west wide open to Russia’s aggressive new tactics of fuelling the far right and the far left”. Kremlin largesse has funded political parties across the continent, from the National Front in France to Jobbik in Hungary and the Five Star movement in Italy, which are united in their hostility to both the EU and Nato. The Kremlin’s “black cash”, former Kremlin insider Sergei Pugachev laments, “is like a dirty atomic bomb. In some ways it’s there, in some ways it’s not. Nowadays it’s much harder to trace.” Putin’s People lays bare the scale of the challenge if the west is to decontaminate its politics.
So Putin’s People is a serious, absolutely timely warning. No book has documented the Russian president’s leadership so indefatigably and compellingly. If you want to grasp in full how Russia has become the nation it has in the last 20 years, this is the book you’ve been waiting for. I just hope Catherine Belton has a cheerful, highly intelligent fox terrier looking out for her.
This is the best kind of journalist’s book, written with an eye for a well-turned story and compelling characters, and steering mercifully clear of academic theorising. And what tales Belton has to tell. The most fascinating part covers the early part of Putin’s rise in the 1980s, when the security institutions of both the Soviet Union and East Germany were already thoroughly corrupted. The Kommerzielle Koordinierung of the East German foreign trade ministry, for instance, known as the KoKo, was established, says Belton, primarily to ‘earn illicit hard currency through smuggling, to bankroll the Stasi acquisition of embargoed technology’:
Belton does not explain how to engage with Russia or how to stop making the same mistakes when doing so. But this riveting, immaculately researched book is arguably the best single volume written about Putin, the people around him and perhaps even about contemporary Russia itself in the past three decades. It also brims with surprises, vivid details and anecdotes. My favourite is when Putin attends a service on Forgiveness Sunday, the last Sunday before Orthodox Lent, and is asked to prostrate himself to beg for forgiveness. “Why should I?” he asks in astonishment. “I am the president of the Russian Federation. Why should I ask for forgiveness?” The manager has, after all, just been doing his job.
How these “operatives” got into power and what they did with it is the subject of this long-awaited, must-read book by Catherine Belton, a former Moscow reporter for the Financial Times who spent years investigating the most sensitive subject in Russia — the business dealings of Putin and his circle of cronies (or siloviki). By following the money and diving deep into the squalor, she has pieced together a disturbing picture of a criminalised regime whose methods are more like the mafia than a state.
There are admirable on-the-record interviews with major players from Putin’s court, including KGB officer turned railways minister Vladimir Yakunin. Yakunin and other secret service figures rejoice at the way the world is going: Brexit, Donald Trump, and the decline of the liberal order. This has been possible, Belton says, because of the west’s readiness to put business above morality. Putin believes anyone can be bought and so far he’s been proved right.
Books about modern Russia abound, delving into aspects such as corruption, spookdom, geopolitics, propaganda or the personalities who bestride the Kremlin’s corridors, notably Vladimir Putin. ... Belton has surpassed them all. Her much-awaited book is the best and most important on modern Russia. It benefits from a meticulous compilation of open sources, but also from the accounts of disillusioned Kremlin insiders, former business cronies and some remarkably candid people still high up in the system. The result is hair-raising.