Saturday, July 19, 2008

book reviews


Doom, gloom and boom

Jul 17th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Crooks and spooks run amok in Russia

The Age of Assassins: The Rise and Rise of Vladimir Putin
By Yuri Felshtinsky and Vladimir Pribylovsky

Gibson Square Books; 320 pages; £16.99

Buy it at

Putin's Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia
By Steve LeVine

Random House; 194 pages; $26

Buy it at

From Soviet to Putin and Back: The Dominance of Energy in Today’s Russia
By Michael J Economides and Donna Marie D'Aleo

Energy Tribune Publishing; 464 pages; $29.99

Buy it at

Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia
By Marshall I. Goldman

Oxford University Press; 256 pages; $27.95

Buy it at

THE comforting conventional wisdom is that after Russia’s chaos and humiliation in the 1990s, eight years of tough rule by Vladimir Putin has brought prosperity and stability. Russia is now on course to become free and law-abiding. These four books suggest that mild panic might be the better part of wisdom.

The most alarming (or alarmist) of the books is “The Age of Assassins”. It stitches together the most lurid scandals in post-Soviet history in a narrative of infamy and camouflage, arguing that Russia is run by a gang of murderous ex-KGB men. Though Yuri Felshtinsky and Vladimir Pribylovsky present “evidence” to support their case, what they really do is raise questions of varying likelihood. Did Russia’s secret services kill hundreds of people in 1999 in staged “terrorist” bombings to help Mr Putin’s tough image (not as mad as it sounds)? Does the lack of evidence about Mr Putin’s early childhood point to a hidden family in Georgia (not really)? What is the extent of his personal fortune (probably huge) and how exactly did he spend his years in the St Petersburg bureaucracy (murkily)?

As the authors point out, witnesses and those who investigate these mysteries tend to end up dead. That is sinister, but not proof. Idiosyncratic structure, layout and syntax also blunt the book’s appeal, as does its gentle treatment of Boris Berezovsky, a prominent tycoon in the 1990s who now lives in exile in London. Any discussion of Mr Putin’s rise to power is incomplete without mention of his sponsorship by, and revenge on, Russia’s arch-intriguer.

The same ground is covered more professionally by Steve LeVine in “Putin’s Labyrinth”. His material also includes mysterious murders, but he follows the fact-based conventions of American journalism, an art at which he excelled during a decade of reporting from the ex-Soviet area. His reconstruction of a savagely botched anti-terrorist operation at a Moscow theatre is particularly effective.

The search for balance does sometimes lead him to give undue weight to shadowy hangers-on: splitting the difference between liars and madmen does not necessarily produce the truth. But his thoughts about the casual lethality of power and wealth in Russia are all the more convincing for being cautious.

“From Soviet to Putin and Back” is an encyclopedic history of Russia’s oil industry, peppered with acerbic remarks about its politics. Some of the ground was covered more readably in a 2007 book by Mr LeVine: “The Oil and the Glory” (Random House). But Michael Economides and Donna Marie D’Aleo offer an invaluable first-hand account of the way in which Soviet state planners abused their country’s natural riches and Kremlin kleptocrats drove out foreign investors. Disappointingly, the book tails off before fully answering the big question: where is Russia headed now? Will the ex-KGB men now running the country’s biggest hydrocarbon firms put profit first or geopolitics or simply self-enrichment?

No such doubts cloud Marshall Goldman’s mind. One of America’s most seasoned Kremlin-watchers, his snappily written “Petrostate” argues boldly that Russia has become an energy superpower with a strong political agenda. Readers will wince in disbelief at the way in which Russia has outmanoeuvred the European Union in tussles over pipelines. And his description of the way that Russian money has influenced politics in both Germany and America is worrying.

Trying to find a single coherent account of events in a country as diverse as Russia is risky. Mr Putin’s rise to power—and his recent move out of the Kremlin to be prime minister—cannot be explained solely as part of a putsch by the old KGB (indeed Mr LeVine thinks that thesis to be “vastly exaggerated”). Economic reformers in high office may be marginalised at times but they are not there just as decoration. Russia can be a bully but also yearns for international respect. Even so, murder is murder.

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