Cover Image: Putin's People

Putin's People

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Member Reviews

One of the most brilliant books about Russia after the year 2000 that I have read. Comparable only to the works of Anne Applebaum and even more, Masha Gessen. Catherine Belton has done meticulous research on her subject and uncovers the group of oligarchs and helpers of Russian president Vladimir Putin with  the preciseness of a surgeon. 
I enjoyed this work and would wish it to find more readers even outside the usual  circles of people whoi are interested in East European or Russian affairs.  
Parts of this read like a thriller. A true crime thriller.
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Scary book.  Russia can tell us all day long that there's no KGB and Putin is a standup man.   I wonder if his  know that they are all expendable.   Putin has no friends,  he has henchmen.  Cross him,  and watch out for those windows.
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Very interesting, and also equally terrifying. This administration's willingness to allow Russian chicanery to encroach on the American government makes me sick.
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This is a very timely book. It is expertly researched, as might be expected of a journalist writing about her specialist area, and a great read.

What hit me was the fact that, although Putin is the all-important figure head, he is managing (and, I wonder, perhaps being manipulated by) a strong team of fellow ex-KGB officers all of them keen on restoring Russia to the USSR's position as one of the world's two great powers. The book describes how they have been managing this at home, in bordering areas (Crimea) overtly on the international scene (Syria) and, of greatest importance, covertly worldwide, but especially in the USA, Great Britain and the rest of Western Europe. It appears that this has been facilitated by global financial institutions (especially in the UK and Switzerland, hopefully unwittingly), as well as sections of the right-wing media in the UK and USA, and by seeding "fake news" and using fake personae on social media. I was surprised that relatively little of the book concerned Russian activities in relation to the People's Republic of China, another contender for one of the world's two great powers.

History tells us that there's nothing most Russians like more than a strong leader. Putin has already played the system to return to the Presidency. Who's to say now that he won't last out until he's older than the oldest of old-stagers of the former Soviet regime?

With many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for giving me a copy of a very important book in exchange for this honest review.
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"You in the West, you think you’re playing chess with us. But you’re never going to win, because we’re not following any rules."

Vladimir Putin seemingly came out of the shadows to run Russia and he's managed to stay in them even while running the place ever since. It kind of blows my mind to consider that he's been in power more than twenty years and will have been for a quarter century by the time he leaves office (assuming he doesn't conquer mortality along with another tweak of the rules to stay longer) and yet we know comparatively little about him. If ever there was a Bond villain come to life, it's him.

Reuters correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times Catherine Belton breaks down, in a truly impressive amount of detail, the complicated and often opaque rise of a fairly bland former KGB officer to Russia's presidency and his massive consolidation of power and money alongside a cadre of cronies (likewise former KGB).

She notes that Putin had a "dizzying" career and this is a dizzying exploration of it. She traces his actions and course from early days, like his destruction of the KGB archives in Dresden, to the amassing of a slush fund of black money used to exert influence on western business and geopolitics. The implications are as shocking as they are far-reaching (including those around Donald Trump) as the Kremlin's sphere of influence grew wider and much more powerful, especially over the US and Europe. She details the gear change from Yeltsin's era to the "rise to power of Putin’s KGB cohort, and how they mutated to enrich themselves in the new capitalism. It is the story of the hurried handover of power between Yeltsin and Putin, and of how it enabled the rise of a ‘deep state’ of KGB security men that had always lurked in the background during the Yeltsin years".

What's particularly disturbing is how even the less bad figures in this story are still pretty bad. Putin is inarguably a villain, but he's neither the mastermind he's sometimes painted as nor is he an anomaly. Rather he's one of many who profited from privatization after the Soviet Union's collapse and built a structure on state-sponsored corruption, and who were willing to subvert their own country's economy and legality for the sake of power and personal enrichment. These are stunningly brazen acts, and very carefully executed, especially for as wild as they are. And, always, they get away with it. Belton follows the money and shows exactly why.

Like in one of the main stories here: the takedown of Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, a billionaire more than a dozen times over and an oligarch who didn't remain as loyal as he was supposed to. Although the details of Khodorkovsky's saga from entry into Putin's crosshairs to imprisonment on trumped-up fraud charges and eventual release are well known, Belton analyzes so well the importance of this incident and others like it, and what they indicate about Russia's current relationship to the west.

I wish I could better break down, or really in any way write about this book, but it's pretty complex. Belton's analysis is deft though, and completely accessible. Which is saying a lot -- this is dense material with an enormous cast of players, and although many remain somewhat blurry, the writing is clear, engaging, and understandable. Even if not all of this was new or groundbreaking, and has been covered in similar books and reporting, its strength is in how she forms the narrative timeline and puts it all into context.

As well as her inclusion of those who spoke, sometimes off but often on the record, shedding light on the machinations that occurred. Most interesting were their reflections, like regretting that they had boosted Putin as a candidate for the presidency under the belief that they had to put forth someone specific in order to avoid a return to communism: "you believe the people are stupid, and that if you don’t act they will vote in the Communists, that was a big mistake." Understatement of the last quarter century.

It's a long book that reads unbelievably quickly, like a terrifying page-turning thriller (I mean really terrifying, because the implications of all this are just hair-raising) and is an education in and of itself. The Mueller report may not have been the smokiest of smoking guns that many of us had expected, but that didn't mean there wasn't something very significant there, if not a trail of somethings. Belton not only fills in some of those gaps in relation to Trump's Russian business dealings, but fleshes out many other connections to western business and governments. As with Masha Gessen's Surviving Autocracy, this is crucial in understanding Russia's relationship and attitude towards the west, especially right now.
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An excellent and thorough new addition to a Kremlin watcher's bookshelf. Belton's exploration of the system of "KGB capitalism" that has come to dominate Russia under Putin is both fascinating and illuminating.
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Belton, former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, did TONS of research for this book, and she was able to put together a rather cohesive picture of how modern-day Russia has been shaped by "KGB capitalism". In the book, Putin's rise to power, his tactics to cement his position and his influence on American politics under Trump are shown as the consequence of a whole web of players and events: The members of the KGB, their ability to funnel money out of the collapsing SU, to control oligarchs who became rich off their backs and to bring the whole political system under their authoritarian control. But Belton has one major blind spot: She sees Russia more or less as a closed system, and this approach is rooted in the assumption that Putin and his people are bad. While this might be a valid conclusion for a non-fiction book, it's a terrible starting point, as it results in the whole book being overshadowed by confirmation bias: Let me show you how bad these people actually are! But what about the outside forces that (willingly and unwillingly) helped create this situation, i.e., the West, which means: Wjat about our own responsibility?

Granted, Belton does sometimes mention that Western powers have enabled some of Putin's tactics or even profited from them, but this is not enough: The loss of the Soviet Empire had far-reaching consequences that have shaped real-life politics, as The Light that Failed: A Reckoning proves. These dynamics between West and East, and, consequently, how the West has also failed the East, is a sideshow in Belton's book, when indeed it is still a core factor in current events (as a German, I can re-assure you that more than 30 years after re-unification, the wounds in the East have not healed, and that there is a whole world of experience that I as a West German cannot access - how must it feel for Russian citizens who lost "their" empire?).

This is not about trying to argue that Putin is a good leader or that Russian foreign politics are morally defendable - IMHO, this is a terrible, cynic, self-serving regime that couldn't care less about the well-being of the Russian people - but the fact that the West tends to isolate the problem, portraying it as being solely "Russian" is just way to easy if you really intend to build a better future. The West has to face its own mistakes regarding its behavior towards Russia in order to not repeat them (btw, what Trump does in the US imitates what happened in Russia). It's a little complacent to write a book that simply concludes: "Putin = bad".

Still, this book is filled to the brim with meticulously researched information and does a great job putting together a very difficult puzzle, because the KGB has put in quite some effort to hide core pieces. So as a basis for further discussion, this is a great book, but it needs some extra reflection about the greater scheme of things.
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Written by a former Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times this is a superb work of investigative journalism – detailed, clearly written, accessible and a treasure trove of information about the emergence of the Putin regime and his rise to power. I stand in awe of the amount of research the author has done and impressed by the way she has managed to make the information easy to understand for a less well informed readership. Based on testimony from Kremlin insiders, diplomats, intelligence officers and oligarchs plus independent research, the book is endlessly fascinating and often horrifying. There are revelations on almost every page, and I learnt an enormous amount. Essential reading for anyone interested in Putin, Russia and its role in international affairs.
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Not being at all knowledgeable about Russian history but being very curious I cannot speak to how this book measures up to other books on the subject. However, I was riveted by this book. Though the book is about Putin and the people who facilitated/were involved in his rise to power it put in perspective a lot of more recent Russian history that I only had a peripheral perspective of.
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4.5 stars. Thank you to Netgalley and Farrar, Strous, & Giroux for a free copy in exchange for an honest review. 

“Putin and his KGB men, it seemed, could jail whoever they wanted, as long as the emerging class could afford an annual holiday in the likes of Turkey.”

This is the newest edition of Belton’s in-depth analysis of Putin’s rise to power and the rise and fall of other individuals as a consequence. Belton tracks the KGB black-cash routes that are still in existence today, with slight modifications. She illustrates how the KGB managed to maintain its position of power in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, work that began many years before the collapse itself. This new edition covers up to the constitutional amendments proposed in January of this year, which served to both increase Putin’s current power and allow him to hold onto power longer. Trump’s dealings with Moscow are given much attention, as well. Trump proves to be a great foil to Putin, who is described as extremely manipulative and calculating.

“According to Shvets, the KBG at least believed it had recruited Trump [in 1987]. Whether Trump was aware of any of this is another question.”

I was a bit worried at the beginning of this book, as it appeared that Belton was blaming Chechens for the apartment bombings and other terrorist attacks at the beginning of Putin’s rule. However, this was later cleared up. The majority of this book was riveting and engaging, but I felt that this fell off in the last few chapters. The amount of research that has gone into this book is incredible. One topic that I thought might have deserved more attention was the federal structure in Russia and the inequalities between the regions. While this book included an amazing section on natural-resource politics, it was lacking details on the regional inequalities connected to this topic, in my opinion. Overall, this is an important read for anyone who is interested in Russian politics and the demise of liberal democracy.
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After reading this book it will be harder to dismiss any conspiracy theory, however outlandish, because Vladimir’s Putin path to power is hard to believe. There are spies, deep state, mobsters, corruption and lavish residences, there are intrigues, fake terrorist’s plots and poisons. Yet, it’s true, as proofs delivered by Catherine Belton leave no doubt.

It was a fascinating read. As a news aficionado, I was aware of most of the events that happened in Russia during last 30 years, but only now I grasped real meaning of many od them, and what was cause and effect of this actions. Sometimes I was a little lost in details regarding financial issues, but after all it isn’t possible to show very murky operations in more simple way. And the level of detail is one of the greatest virtues of this book, which is excellently researched and almost every sentence has a footnote with a source of information. You can also see that Ms Belton is well acquainted with many of main characters - she is a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times. 

On one hand, the scale of her work means that events from every chapter deserve for separate book and sometimes it leaves the reader hungry for more. On the other, only in this way it is possible to see through the whole 'operation Putin'. And you should, because Russia has its tentacles everywhere in the West and won't hesitate to use them in the most nefarious ways.  

Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the advance copy of this book.
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You know you’re reading about a frightening individual when the thought crosses your mind, “Is there any chance I could be assassinated just for posting a review of this book?” 

It is a pretty ludicrous thought, but the fate of so many in “Putin’s People” allows it to creep in. A lot of what is presented in this book is not entirely proven. It is rumor, supported by evidence, and that’s all it really can be, given the opaque nature of the Putin regime. Some of the allegations are not hard to fathom at all, like the various moves to consolidate power and replace a corrupt and greedy Yeltsin government with an even more unsavory KGB faction.  Other allegations are so disturbing that you can only hope they aren’t true, such as apartment bombing Russian citizens to enhance electoral prospects, or staging a terrorist attack on real Russian hostages. 

In terms of the writing itself, this book is incredibly thorough, to the point of being almost exhaustive in detail, and unrelenting in the case it builds against Putin. The book starts with a list of 24 people that will be featured in the book and who they are. This is a valuable resource, since there are so many people to keep track of, and very few are described in ways that make them easy to distinguish from others. 

This is a book for readers that are very interested in the process and events that happened, more than for readers wanting to unpeel the layers about the characters behind those events.  Don’t expect a lot of psychological analysis of how Putin thinks, how he grew up, what drove him to the decisions he makes, or whether he’s conflicted about anything. Him and his associates are essentially portrayed as unfeeling automatons, motivated only by power and wealth. Maybe that’s all there is to them, or maybe there’s more to explore there.  

I found the book very informative, and thought the author made a compelling argument that the KGB’s interest in destabilizing the West started decades prior to Putin taking power, and that the West’s prioritization of unfettered capitalism and taking money from whoever can pay helped allow Putin’s consolidation of power. 

Note: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from Net Galley.
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