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Putin's Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia
Synopses & Reviews
The new Russia is marching in an alarming direction. Emboldened by escalating oil wealth and newfound prominence as a world power, Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, has veered back toward the authoritarian roots planted in Imperial/Czarist times and firmly established during the Soviet era. Though Russia has a new president, Dmitri Medvedev, Putin remains in control, rendering the democratic reforms of the post-Soviet order irrelevant. Now, in Putins Labyrinth, acclaimed journalist Steve LeVine, who lived in and reported from the former Soviet Union for more than a decade, provides a penetrating account of modern Russia under the repressive rule of an all-powerful autocrat. LeVine portrays the growth of a “culture of death”–from targeted assassinations of the states enemies to the Kremlins indifference when innocent hostages are slaughtered.
Drawing on new interviews with eyewitnesses and the families of victims, LeVine documents the bloodshed that has stained Putins two terms as president. Among the incidents chronicled in these pages: The 2002 terrorist takeover of a crowded Moscow theater–which led to the government gassing the building, and the deaths of more than a hundred terrified hostages–seen here from new angles, through the riveting words of those who survived; and the murder of courageous investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, shot in the elevator of her apartment building on Putins birthday, purportedly as a malicious “gift” for the president from supporters. Finally, a shocking story that made international headlines–the 2006 death of defector Alexander Litvinenko in London–is dramatized as never before. LeVine traces the steps of this KGB-spy-turned-dissident on his way to being poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope. And in doing so, LeVine is granted a rare series of interviews with a KGB defector who was nearly killed in strangely similar circumstances fifty years earlier. Through LeVines exhaustive research, we come to know the victims as real people, not just names in brief news accounts of how they died.
Putins Labyrinth is more than an immensely readable exposé. It is highly personal, with the flavor of a memoir. It is a thoughtful book that examines the perplexing question of how Russians manage to negotiate their way around the ever-present danger of violence. It calculates the emotional toll that this lethal maze is exacting on ordinary people, even as they enjoy a dramatically heightened standard of living. Most ominously, it assesses the reopening of hostilities with the West, and the forces that are driving this major new confrontation.
"In this uninspired look at recent Russian politics under Vladimir Putin, author and journalist LeVine (The Oil and the Glory) examines the murders of several key opposition figures, including courageous Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya and long-time dissenter (and London exile) Alexander Litvinenko. LeVine provides ample background on Putin's rise to power, but fails to shed light on the famously authoritarian ruler's mindset; it's the kind of failure that's repeated throughout. More successful is his take on the Nord-Ost catastrophe, in which Chechen rebels held hostage an audience of more than a hundred attending a popular musical; the Kremlin's response was to release a cloud of fentanyl, meant to cause everyone inside to 'fall safely asleep.' Three survived, and LeVine's interviews make his reconstruction of the events truly chilling. Unfortunately, LeVine tends to insert himself into his accounts often and inappropriately (he begins his profile of Politkovskaya, 'I never met the journalist Anna Politkovskaya'), and his prose is marred by cliché, bad humor and stabs of sentimentality. Though an impressive reporter, LeVine is a frustrating writer, too often putting himself in the way of a good story." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Ever since Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia on Aug. 8, I find myself wondering several times a day: What would Anna say? By Anna, I mean Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian war correspondent who unflinchingly reported the Russian authorities' abuses in Chechnya and was shot to death on Oct. 7, 2006, in the hallway of her apartment building in Moscow. She would have turned 50 last week. Undoubtedly,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) were she alive, she would have spent her birthday reporting from South Ossetia. Politkovskaya's murder is one of several killings that Steve LeVine, who spent more than a decade covering the former Soviet Union for the Wall Street Journal and other publications, presents as examples of nasty, brutish and artificially shortened life in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Readers inclined to view Russia in those Hobbesian terms will find "Putin's Labyrinth" persuasive. Those who are sympathetic toward Putin may consider this book Exhibit A of Western media bias. To my surprise, given that my own research often has focused on human rights abuses in Russia, I found myself reeling back and forth between these polarized positions as I read LeVine's case studies of killing, from the attempted poisoning of a KGB defector with radioactive thallium in 1957 to the mass gassing of Chechen terrorists and their hostages in a Moscow theater in 2002. I was a passing acquaintance of two victims in the book. I had met Politkovskaya in Washington six years ago. Paul Klebnikov, an American of Russian dissent, was the editor of the Russian edition of Forbes. We took classes together in the mid-1980s in London and then in New York. Nearly 20 years later, he was gunned down on a Moscow street and bled to death. As LeVine notes, an ambulance was delayed in reaching him, the gates of the hospital were locked when the ambulance finally arrived, and the elevator carrying him to the operating room failed. Were these more than coincidences? Had Klebnikov angered Russian mobsters, their political protectors or both? As in Politkovskaya's slaying, official investigations have led to charges against the alleged triggermen, but we still don't know who ordered the murder or why. Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB officer who came under the wing of exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, is the victim in "Putin's Labyrinth" who captured the most international attention, not because of his work but because of his gruesome demise: He was poisoned by ingesting polonium-210 in a posh London hotel. Scotland Yard claims the rare isotope came from a Russian who now sits in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, as a member of the Kremlin's party. "Putin's Labyrinth" is not the first book on the centrality of death in Russia's political culture. Catherine Merridale's "Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia," published in 2000, is a more cerebral, nuanced study of the impact of a century of staggering losses from war, revolution, famine and the gulag. LeVine covers some of the same ground, briefly recounting Russia's history with particular attention to repression and cruelty, such as Ivan the Terrible's penchant for poisoning suspected rivals, Peter the Great's execution of his own son and Stalin's dispatching of an assassin to kill Leon Trotsky in Mexico. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he writes, should have been an opportunity for the nation to break the cycle and "demonstrate that murder and mayhem were not embedded in the Russian DNA." But with chapter headings like "Once Again, Mother Russia Fails Her People," he suggests that just the opposite has happened: "There does seem to be a straight line to the present from Ivan the Terrible and the Russian tradition of fear-based rule." Do unsolved killings tell us an important story about Russia today? Yes and no. Journalists, human rights activists and scholars struggle every day with how to present injustices, crimes and human rights abuses in ways that are compelling but accurate. When events are framed in purely emotional terms — "Ossetia genocide!" screamed Russian television; "Ethnic cleansing!" countered the Georgian president — the competing claims may cancel each other out and be dismissed by faraway observers. But if the same events are presented in an overly dry and empirical manner, all sense of moral outrage may be lost. Using murder as a lens on Russia is both revealing and distorting, much as it would be if a Russian author used Hurricane Katrina as the sole window on the United States. Though some of the stories in "Putin's Labyrinth" are riveting, the book is marred by derogatory, meaningless and self-contradictory generalizations about obedience ("that quality so rare in Russia"), passivity ("Russians had reverted to what they had always been, which was generally passive") and backwardness ("Russians in a sense have chosen to live in the tradition of their medieval ancestors.") LeVine succeeds in demonstrating that mob hits and political assassinations take place at a troubling rate in Russia today, but he fails to make a compelling case that this reflects Russia's national character. I can only imagine some Russian nationalist claiming that "there does seem to be a straight line" between the U.S. invasion of Iraq and how the first settlers treated the native population after they landed at Jamestown. Reviewed by Sarah E. Mendelson, who is director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea. He is the chief foreign affairs writer for BusinessWeek and is based in Washington, D.C. He was a foreign correspondent for eighteen years, posted in the Soviet Union, Pakistan, and the Philippines, reporting for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Newsweek, Financial Times, and other publications.
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